Environmental Impact Assessment and the Star Rating System – Explained, pointwise

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Recently, the Union Ministry of Environment proposed a plan to implement a ‘star-rating system’ in the Environmental Impact Assessment Process (EIA). The plan is a follow-up of the Union Cabinet meeting that occurred earlier this month, that focused on facilitating the Government’s broader commitment to ‘Ease of Doing Business’.  Under this scheme, State-level environment committees that appraise industrial projects on their potential environmental risk would be incentivised with points for “transparency, efficiency and accountability”.

The proposal focused on how quickly the State Environmental Impact Assessment Agencies give environmental clearances to proposed infrastructure projects. This faces stark criticism from environmentalists on the grounds that it contravenes basic principles of environmental regulation. The Environment Ministry, on the other hand, has said that the intention is not to hasten clearances but accelerate the pace of decision-making.

What is Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)?
Must read: Environmental Impact Assessment
How Infrastructure projects are approved by Environmental Impact Assessment Agencies?

Prospective projects above a certain size and with a potential to significantly alter the natural environment must be first approved by the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) comprising State officers and independent experts. Projects that are even bigger or involve forest land — category A — must be cleared by an expert committee formed by the Centre.

Note: The SEIAAs are responsible for providing environmental clearance for the bulk of the infrastructure, developmental and industrial projects. They are set up under the Environment Protection Act 1986. Their main purpose is to assess the impact of the proposed project on the environment and people, and to try and minimise this impact.

SEIAA projects are category B and relatively smaller though they make up the bulk of projects(over 90% clearances) that are presented for approval. ‘B’ category projects include the bulk of building and construction, small mining, and small industry projects and are considered to be ‘less polluting.’

ForumIAS is now in Hyderabad. Click here to know more
About the Star Rating System scheme

The star rating system proposed is to “rank” and “incentivise” States on how “quickly” and “efficiently” they can accord environmental clearances.

It spells out seven criteria to rate SEIAAs on “transparency, efficiency and accountability”. On a scale of 7, an SEIAA will get more points (two marks) for granting a clearance in less than 80 days. Similarly, an SEIAA will get low points (one mark) for granting clearance within 105 days and no marks will be awarded for more than 105 days.

If less than 10% of the projects for scrutiny prompted a site visit by committee members, to examine ground conditions, an SEIAA would get one mark. More than 20%, on the other hand, would be a demerit or zero marks.

SEIAA with a score of seven or more would be rated ‘five star.’ The government said that if an SEIAA demands clarification, the time taken to respond won’t be deducted.

Read more: Centre to rank states on faster green nods, fewer details sought
How does the Star rating system scheme hamper the Environmental Impact Assessment?

First, State committees are currently hampered by having too few independent environmental experts and decision-making is being left to bureaucrats. Bureaucrats might have a tendency to neglect the environmental concerns of the projects due to the associated economic benefits of the projects.

Second, The Legal Initiative for Forest on Environment (LIFE), a prominent environment organisation, described the proposal as “violative” of the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act.

Third, The task of the SEIAA is to undertake a ‘detailed scrutiny’ whereas this notification makes them rubber stamp authorities.

Fourth, It undermines the role of regulatory oversight in environmental protection, which is recognised in several Supreme Court verdicts as one of the key instruments to ensure the right to life.

Fifth, The scheme might lead to unhealthy competition amongst states to clear the projects as early as possible.

Read more: Centre’s move to rank states on pace of green clearances will spark unhealthy competition, dilute regulation
What are the other recent steps that undermine Environmental Regulation? 

Several steps by the government have come under scrutiny. For instance,

First, the extension of the deadline for compliance with emission norms for most thermal power plants. 

Second, dilution of the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification: This new regulation not only had an effect on how common areas used by fisherfolk are managed but also bifurcate coastal zones along rural areas based on population density.

Third, proposed amendment to the Forest Conservation Act: According to the proposal, it would become easier to divert forest land and certain categories of development projects would be exempted from getting clearance from the Ministry.

Fourth, the Environment ministry last year pointed out that the average time taken to issue environmental clearances had reduced by a significant margin in the past two years. However, it has not clarified if this reduction in time has improved the level of scrutiny of projects on critical environmental yardsticks.

There has been fear that these steps may reduce the environmental protection regime in the country. 

Read more: EAC Recommends the Great Nicobar Development Plan for EIA Study
What are the other challenges faced in Environmental Impact Assessment?

Quality of EIA report: One of the biggest concerns with the environmental clearance process is related to the quality of EIA reports that are being carried out.

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

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.

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.

Challenges to the EIA

Read more: Year End Review: Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change
How can the EIA process be improved?

Independent Agency: Entire EIA process right from screening to monitoring should be done by independent agencies and the government must establish a National Accreditation Body for agencies carrying out EIA. Further, a centralized baseline data bank should also be created

Capacity building: The centre should take steps to increase trust in the system and ensure that all States have competent experts who can conduct appraisals without fear or favour.

Promote strategic Environment Assessment (SEA): SEA is a systematic process for evaluating the environmental implications of a proposed policy, plan or programme. It helps in choosing a project and not just evaluating it. It offers alternatives and guides project financing. Similarly, Nepal also carries out SEA’s. Hence, India should also work to implement it.

Robust and Inclusive public hearing: The EIA process should provide key role for local people, especially tribals, through Panchayats and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) at every stage. The traditional knowledge of locals needs to be incorporated.

The government has to understand EoDB rankings are not the sole determinants of actual investment flows. For instance, Tamil Nadu ranks lower than both UP and Bengal in EoDB rankings. But the state attracts some very big projects like the recent Ola’s e-scooter plant in Krishnagiri.

The recent India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2021 highlighted concerns such as a decline in forest cover in the Northeast, degradation of natural forests, etc. So, the government must take steps to protect the environment in all feasible ways, especially by curbing the diversion of forest land for non-forest use.

Source: The Hindu

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