Environmental Impact Assessment

What is Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)?

As per United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP),

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a tool used to identify the environmental, social and economic impacts of a project prior to decision-making. It aims to predict environmental impacts at an early stage in project planning and design, find ways and means to reduce adverse impacts, shape projects to suit the local environment and present the predictions and options to decision-makers.

Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) defines it as,

a formal process to predict the environmental consequences of human development activities and to plan appropriate measures to eliminate or reduce adverse effects and to augment positive effects.

  • Thus, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is an integral part of Environmental Management. It investigates likely impacts, both positive and negative, of development projects on the surrounding environment.
  • Simply put, EIA is a detailed study regarding the impacts of any project on the environment. It serves as a decision-making tool which helps policy makers approve, reject or find an alternative to a project

EIA

In India, Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) is notified under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986.

Evolution of EIA 

  • The origin of EIA lies in the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act(NEPA) in the year 1969 in the USA. It not only introduced the concept of environmental impact assessment but also made it necessary for federal agencies to evaluate impact of environmental decisions.
  • Environment Impact Assessment gained popularity after the introduction of the concept of sustainable developmentvia World Commission on Environment 1987 & United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio Summit) in 1992. It led to adoption of EIA in many countries as well. Principle 17 of the Rio Summit states that,
  • Environmental impact assessment (EIA), as a national instrument, shall be undertaken for proposed activities that are likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment and are subject to a decision of a competent national authority[Given just for your info. No need to remember this type of complex language.Instead, you can mention that EIA is mentioned explicitly under Principle 17 of the Rio declaration of 1992].
  • In 1976-77, EIA was started in India, when the Department of Science and Technology was asked by Planning Commission to examine the river-valley projects from the environmental angle.
  • Eventually n 1994, EIA was made mandatory in India under the Environmental (Protection) Act, 1986. Until then, environmental clearance from the Central Government was an administrative decision and had no legislative backing.
  • Since then, EIA has been amended several times. The most significant amendment was made in 2006

EIA Process

Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process can vary depending on a country’s policy and requirement. However, EIA process in most countries, including India, have the following steps:

  1. Screening
  2. Scoping
  3. Collection of baseline data
  4. Impact Prediction
  5. Assessment of alternatives, mitigation measures & Environmental, Impact Assessment Report
  6. Public Hearing
  7. Decision Making
  8. Monitoring the clearance conditions

Screening: This is the first step in the EIA process. At this stage it is decided whether the proposed project needs an EIA and if so to what detail. Screening criteria are based upon:

  • Scales of investment
  • Type of development
  • Location of development

Scoping: It is the most significant step in the entire EIA process as key environmental issues involved are identified at this stage.

  • Scoping has to be done by consultants in consultation with the project proponent and guidance, if needed, from Impact Assessment Agency
  • The Ministry of Environment and Forests has published sector-wise guidelines which outline the significant issues which have to be addressed while conducting the EIA studies.
  • At the end of scoping, detailed terms of reference (TOR) are prepared of EIA.
  • TOR is a written document containing written requirements governing EIA implementation, consultations to be held, data to be gathered, methodology to be used etc

Involved in Environmental Impact Assessment

Collection of baseline data: It describes the existing environmental status of the identified study area. The site-specific primary data is monitored and supplemented with secondary data

Impact prediction: Under this, possible effects on the physical, biological, social and economic conditions are taken into consideration and measures are suggested to prevent, reduce or compensate for the impacts.

For example:

  • Impact of biological diversity in an area ex. EIA done by Gadgil panel on the western ghats regions.
  • Impact on habitat because of deforestation and pollution- Impact on Himalayan ecosystem when hydropower projects are opened.
  • Impact on endangered animals and migratory paths. For ex Great India hornbill’s trail in India is evaluated so as to see that such developmental project is not affecting its pathway.
  • The predictions of impact can never be absolute and certain and thus there is a need to comprehensively consider all factors and take all possible precautions for reducing the degree of uncertainty.

Assessment of alternatives, mitigation measures & Environmental Impact Assessment Report: Identification of alternatives and their comparison: For every project, possible alternatives are to be identified and environmental impacts and benefits to be compared.

  • Alternatives should then be ranked for selection of the best environmental option for optimum economic benefits to the community at large.
  • Environment Management Plan (EMP): Once alternatives have been reviewed, an impact mitigation plan is drawn up for the selected option and is supplemented with an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) to guide the proponent towards environmental improvements. EMP is a crucial input to monitoring the clearance conditions and therefore details of monitoring should be included in it.
  • EMP is a site-specific plan developed to ensure that the project is implemented in an environmentally sustainable manner where all contractors and subcontractors, including consultants understand the potential environmental risks arising from the project and take appropriate actions to properly manage that risk.
  • An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report prepared at this stage should provide clear information to the decision maker on the different environmental scenarios without the project, with the project and with project alternatives.

Public Hearing: Public must be informed and consulted on a proposed development after the completion of EIA report

  • Gram Sabha must be consulted before the project starts. Gram Sabha means the electorate (people eligible to vote) of the region

Decision-making: It involves consultations between the project proponent (assisted by a consultant) and the impact assessment authority (assisted by an expert group if necessary). Final decision regarding the project is taken, keeping in mind EIA and EMP (Environment Management Plan).

Monitoring: Monitoring should be done during both construction and operation phases of a project. This is not only to ensure that the commitments made are complied with but also to observe whether the predictions made in the EIA reports were correct or not.

  • Where the impacts exceed the predicted levels, corrective action should be taken.
  • Monitoring enables the regulatory agency to review the validity of predictions and the conditions of implementation of the Environmental Management Plan (EMP).

Objective of EIA

  • To bring out a national policy to encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and environment.
  • To promote efforts to prevent or eliminate damage to the environment.
  • To increase understanding of ecological systems and natural resources important to the nation

Why we need Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)? / Significance of EIA / Benefits of EIA

  • Facilitates sustainable development: In present times anthropogenic activities like rapid industrialization, mass production and clearing of forests have created immense pressure on the natural environment. Tools like EIA help in balancing the need for economic growth with equally important concept of sustainability.
  • Mitigating negative impacts & informed decision-making– Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) helps in minimizing the negative impact of various development projects. It enables monitoring programmes to be established to assess future impacts and provide data on which managers can take informed decisions to avoid environmental damage.
  • Aids cost-effectiveness– EIA helps in selection and design of projects, programmes or plans with long term viability and therefore improves cost effectiveness.
  • Advance assessments also helps avoid future losses that may be incurred if the project is found environmentally unacceptable at a later stage. Cost of adaptation when a project is already running is usually more.

Thus, EIA as a tool aims to minimize the environmental impacts emanating out of any economic activity that have the potential to cause environmental degradation.

Environmental Components

Rapid EIA vs Comprehensive EIA

The difference is in the time scale of the data supplied. But both types require complete coverage of all EIA procedures

  • Rapid EIA: Under Rapid EIA data supplied is of only one season(other than monsoon) to reduce the time required. Rapid EIA is for speedier appraisal process.
  • Comprehensive EIA: It collects data from all four seasons.Rapid EIA is acceptable if it does not compromise upon the quality of decision making. The review of Rapid EIA submissions will show whether a comprehensive EIA is warranted or not. Therefore, submission of comprehensive EIA in the first stance would generally be more efficient approach. Comprehensive EIA includes appraisal of those projects whose analysis in not to be done soon, here time is not the essential factor but the quality of the appraisal is.

EIA notifications

Central govt has the power to issue EIA notifications under Section 3 of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, wherein it can impose restrictions on setting up new projects or expansion or modernisation of existing projects. The section stipulates that such measures must benefit the environment.

Under the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986, first EIA notification was issued in 1994. Later, it was replaced by a modified draft in 2006

Salient Features of EIA rules Amendment done in 2006 

  • Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2006 decentralized the environmental clearance projects by categorizing the developmental projects in two categories i.e., Category Aand Category B

Salient features of EIA

After 2006 Amendment, EIA comprises of four cycles:

  • Screening
  • Scoping
  • Public Hearing
  • Appraisal
  • State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) and State Level Expert Appraisal Committee (SEAC) are constituted to provide clearance to category B projects.
  • Category A Projects require mandatory environmental clearance. Screening process is not required.
  • Category B projects undergo screening process. They are classified in two types:
  • Category B1 Projects: Mandatorily require EIA
  • Category B2 Projects: Do not require EIA

Thus,

  • Category Aprojects and category B1 projects undergo the complete EIA process
  • Category B2projects are excluded from complete EIA process

This 2006 EIA notification has undergone several amendments over last 14 years. A new draft EIA Notification 2020 has been floated by the govt. It is meant to incorporate the amendments and court orders issued since 2006.

Major Provisions of draft EIA notification 2020

  • Public Consultation 
  • Period of public consultation hearings is proposed to be reduced to a maximum of 40 days.
  • Time provided for the public to submit their responses is proposed to be reduced from present 30 to 20 days.
  • Rationale by the govt: the shorter window was “in tune with the times”, given the growth of internet and mobile telephony.
  • Concern: Several environmental activists and organisations have instead argued that even the 30-day timeframe was inadequate as information failed to reach the stakeholders residing in remote and inaccessible terrains
  • More discretionary powers to government
  • Central government can declare “economically sensitive areas” without public hearing or environmental clearance
  • Government also gets to decide which projects are to be considered “strategic”.
  • Post-facto clearance: Legalisation of projects that have commenced operations without obtaining necessary clearances; subject to a payment of penalty.

Supreme court’s view on postfacto clearance –

  • In a judgment in early 2020, in the case of Alembic Pharmaceuticals Ltd vs Rohit Prajapati,the Supreme Court by also referring to Common Cause vs. Union of India judgment, struck down and condemned ex-post facto environmental clearance (a concept which the new draft EIA proposes to regularise).
  • In 2013, the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of Association for Environmental Protection vs State of Kerala, held that commencement of projects without obtaining prior EC (environmental clearance) is a violation of the fundamental right to lifeguaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution

 

  • Post-clearance compliance: Post-clearance compliance implies that once a project gets approved by the concerned authority, the proponent projects are required to adhere to certain rules laid down in the EIA report in order to ensure that no further environmental damages take place.
  • The new draft EIA, contrary to the 2006 notification — which required submission of the compliance report every six months, proposes annual reports. 
  • Concern: Environmental experts are of the view that allowing a longer period for filling the compliance report will give an opportunity to project proponents to hide disastrous consequences, which could go unnoticed

 

  • Exemption clause: It identifies a long list of projects like roads and pipelines in border areas which have been exempted from public consultation and prior clearance.
  • Concern: Analysts note that by this provision, the government shall have discretion to designate any project as being of strategic importance. Activists in states with crucial resources like uranium, as in Meghalaya, have also opposed this provision

 

  • Baseline Data: Does away with the need to carry out studies covering all seasons in a year

In the 2019 ‘Ease of Doing Business’ report by the World Bank, India rose steadily from 142nd ranking in 2014 to 63rd ranking in 2019. India, however, has steadily declined on Environment Performance Index, from 141st rank in 2016 to 168th rank out of 180 countries in 2020.

The government has assured that it will strive to strike a balance between the environmental and developmental concerns. As and when the EIA is finalised, it is expected to incorporate the perspectives of multiple stakeholders in a balanced manner.

Critical analysis: –

Shortcomings of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process

Applicability: There are several projects with environmental impacts that are exempted from the notifications. Ex. Low scale sand mining

Inadequate capacity of EIA approval authorities: Lack of technical and environmental experts, anthropologists and social scientists among the members and involvement of crony capitalism and nexus between corporates and politicians leads to faulty decision making, where projects which severe harm the environment may also get approved.

Deficiencies in screening, scoping and impact analysis: There are no independent bodies and no standardized formats for project evaluation.

  • Absence of standardized baseline data brings arbitrariness in impact prediction.
  • It is allegedly done by those people which are on the payroll of company which creates a conflict of interest. They intentionally exclude negative impact on forests/ environment and impact on tribes during the scoping process

Poor quality EIA reports: EIA is presently used as a project justification tool rather than as a project planning tool to contribute to achieving sustainable development. Involvement of planning for future activities should also be focused upon along with the justification of the project itself.

  • EIA is not just a tool to describe YES or NO regarding a project but also about how the harm, if any, to the environment can be minimized, so as to be pollution-neutral and environmentally sustainable.

Initiated at a later stage: Another flaw in the EIA process in India is that it is undertaken at a much later stage, especially after the project has been designed, approved and almost ready for construction. Thus, by the time EIA starts huge costs are incurred and the project becomes too big to fall.

Inadequate public participation: In many countries like Nepal, Argentina and Australia, public involvement is mandatory at various stages of the EIA process (i.e., screening, scoping, report preparation and decision making), but in India public consultation occurs only once during the entire process. According to the EIA notification 2006, this public consultation is performed in two ways.

  • First, written comments are sought on draft EIA report from stakeholders
  • Second, public hearing is conducted at or near the proposed project site.

Drawbacks of this system:

  • Public consultation is done after the preparation of draft EIA reportand when it is ready for final submission to the expert committee.
  • Also, the notification issued for public hearing are not published in local vernacular languagesthus keeping it out of the scope of understanding of locals.

Weak monitoring: Monitoring is not done through an independent agency. Environment management plans of strategic industries like nuclear energy are not put into the public domain.

How can we strengthen the EIA process?

Independent Agency: Entire EIA process right from screening to monitoring should be done by independent agencies and establishing a National Accreditation Body for agencies carrying out EIA.

  • Creation of centralized baseline data bank

Applying Precautionary Principle: This principle states that if there is a threat of serious damage (in this case, to the environment) from a particular action then a lack of scientific certainty should not be used to avoid taking steps to prevent that damage. Hence, the list of concerns raised by the public should be studied in detail to arrive at any conclusion. Ex. GM crops.

  • Clearances given to project that is not clearly justified becomes questionable as happened in Sethusamudram Project

Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA): It helps in choosing a project and not just evaluate it. It offers alternatives and guides project financing. The directives of SEA are reflected in the National Environment Policy 2006. Similarly, Nepal also carries out SEA’s.

  • A Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is a systematic process for evaluating the environmental implications of a proposed policyplanor programme

Robust and Inclusive public hearing: A key role for local people through Panchayats and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) at every stage. Special focus on forests and tribal. The traditional knowledge of locals needs to be incorporated.

Transparency: Greater transparency in the clearance process and dissemination of all documents for public scrutiny.

Capacity Building: NGO’s, civil society groups and local communities need to build their capacities to use the EIA notification towards better decision-making on projects that can impact their local environments and livelihoods. Capacities can be built to proactively and effectively use the notification rather than respond in a manner that is seen as negative or unproductive.

Way forward

In a world that is challenged by environmental degradation and social conflicts, scholars have upheld public and local participation to be a “threshold condition” for development. EIA provides this necessary element in the economic development process. Therefore, EIA-based approvals for most projects should mandatorily and necessarily involve the process of conducting public hearings so that the views and opinions of people who are likely to be affected can be taken on board before a decision to approve the project is made so as to reduce future scope of resentment.

 

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