Updated: Jun 15
Are EIAs in India in the Earth's best interest?
Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) sprung into the mainstream Indian news cycle when the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change released the Draft EIA Notification 2020 to propose reforms to existing EIA norms. This draft drew flak for allegedly diluting a crucial assessment and hamstringing the environmental permitting process. To contextualise an issue that has drawn a lot of attention, it is important to understand the EIA’s role in maintaining a balance between economic growth and environmental and social protection, and how these reforms might affect this balance.
This article provides a simplified introduction to the EIA process, its limitations, challenges with the EIA in India, and finally a summary of the issues with the 2020 Draft Notification. Although the 2020 Draft indeed reduces the role of EIAs, it is important to note that the process was broken even before these changes. A flawed EIA process can be a barrier to both sustainability and growth. But the solution is to strengthen execution and compliance to ensure that the theoretical goals of EIAs are achieved in practice, not strip the process of its power.
What is an EIA?
Environmental Impact Assessments are used for decision-making on development projects. Rather than a fixed technique, they are frameworks with this basic structure: once a developer is selected to carry out a development project, they carry out an EIA with input from the concerned public and field experts which they submit to the relevant authorities. The authorities use this analysis as a decision-making guide for the project and use it to review the project’s execution.
An ideal EIA would accurately recognize all project consequences within the study area, incorporating public opinion. Using this information would identify the lowest-impact project version and also prescribe mitigation, safety, and disaster management measures. EIAs also must include monitoring of the project's execution and a post-completion review to ensure compliance.
Assorted methods and techniques can be employed within the EIA framework to measure impact. Experts choose specific tools and methods depending on regional legal requirements and the particular ecosystem. But EIAs of varying content can be broken down into a simplified, skeletal, eight-point structure:
Screening: Decides whether the proposed project needs a full EIA. This is usually based on legal requirements.
Scoping: Defines the key areas of focus for the investigation based on project details.
Impact Analysis: The study predicts the impacts of the project, and evaluates their importance. Typically carried out by experts appointed by project developers.
Mitigation: Recommends efforts to reduce or offset negative effects. Also includes safety and disaster management plans.
Reporting: Presentation of the analysis to authorities and other stakeholders
Review: Evaluation of the quality of the report. Carried out in India by the Impact Assessment Agency
Decision-Making: Relevant authorities either accept, reject, or suggest changes to the proposal
Post-Monitoring: After approval, ensures compliance of the project to the EIA and legal standards
Due to the technical and field expertise required in impact analysis and mitigation, project developers often employ environmental consultancies for EIAs. But as can be seen above, the entire process involves many more steps and parties. Successful execution hinges on participation from all of the experts, developers, concerned public, and review and permitting authorities. This is crucial to ensure that the exercise actually achieves its goal of environmental stewardship and social balance.
What an EIA is Not
While EIAs are a highly useful tool and have achieved worldwide adoption, it is important to remember that they are superficial analyses done for permitting. EIAs must be detailed but not prohibitively long and expensive. Hence, they often overlook the long-term and second-order effects of projects. Unlike a comprehensive life-cycle analysis (LCA), EIAs don’t usually consider the impact of resource extraction for project raw material; the study may not cover the entire supply chain. Depth of analysis tends to be a discretionary decision, and since project proponents organise EIAs, they could have the ability to choose shallow analysis. As a result, these studies have less validity outside the permitting process.
EIAs are often criticized for taking place too late in the project planning process. They are conducted after plans are fleshed out or even after starting construction. Incorporating significant change or redesign at this point can be time-consuming, costly, and can require renewed permitting. As a result, EIAs are often designed to be a justification for the current project design rather than a genuine evaluation of its impact and merits.
Another criticism of EIAs is that the narrow focus and time-bound nature of the process prevent it from adequately incorporating sustainability concerns beyond ecological impact. Truly sustainable development would follow an informed, holistic approach to the progress of a region. Simply permitting projects through individual EIAs does not achieve this, and this has inspired other tools such as the Strategic Environmental Assessment. The SEA is a proactive, broad-scope tool that is not bound to one project. Rather, it uses analyses to guide decision-making on long-term plans and policies for the development of a region. SEAs and EIAs can be used in conjunction for well-supported planning and execution of development.
EIAs in India
The Draft EIA Notification 2020 is not remotely the first time that EIAs have been a topic of news discussion; the assessment has had a chequered history in India. While the EIA has often served its purpose, there are many stories of its being totally circumvented or revelations that developments lack sufficient clearance. On the other hand, it has also been portrayed as an emblem of India’s tortuous bureaucracy, blamed for causing project delays.
It is not an uncommon experience to see projects proceed in India without requisite environmental clearances, taking advantage of regulatory loopholes and poor monitoring. The large-scale Char Dham highway project in Uttarakhand has avoided an EIA as the total 900-km road stretch sought clearance as segments shorter than 100km- the qualification for an EIA. This was enabled by the fact that screening for an EIA in India consists of a prescribed list of project types, with little room for nuance.
A different example comes from the deadly gas leak that occurred at a Visakhapatnam LG Chem plant in 2020. Expansions on the old plant should have warranted new EIAs that were not carried out, owing to poor monitoring and regulatory confusion. Such disasters underscore the need for informed planning with detailed safety measures, which EIAs would account for.
Also frequently challenged is the quality and effectiveness of important public consultations. Consultations in India occur through a public hearing and seeking written comments. Both steps only take place once the EIA draft has been prepared. Typically, little effort is made to explain this technical draft to affected persons or publish it in regional languages. Consequently, these public hearings are relegated to mere formalities with little impact on the project design and final EIA. Many countries have adopted exhaustive and proactive public consultation procedures; India must follow suit to foster inclusive development.
Draft Notification 2020
The EIA Notification 2006 sets the norms and regulations for the EIA process in India, such as the list of prescribed projects that require an EIA. This most recent notification has been amended many times, and the MoEFCC published the Draft EIA Notification 2020 with the supposed rationale of updating the policy, increasing transparency, and eradicating bureaucratic delays. Objections to this draft focused on its further relaxation of EIA norms. The public and political response were widely covered, and these examples from the Hindu and the Indian Express are useful reviews of the points against it.
In summary, the draft changes current EIA screening protocols, dilutes the impact analysis, and further hinders the public consultation process. As per these changes, several damaging activities will be exempt from an EIA, as well as most partial project expansions. Even qualifying activities may not go through an EIA if they are located near national borders or deemed ‘strategically important’. The requirements for the quality of data and size of the study area under the EIA have both been relaxed. The reforms also complicate access to EIA drafts and cut the notice period for public hearings. Troublingly, the draft also allows violating projects to seek belated clearance.
These reforms fail to address some of the key problem areas with EIAs today such as monitoring review, which changed little beyond further relaxations for submitting compliance reports. The intent to weaken public consultations is another telling change. This was only highlighted during the public comment process for the 2020 draft when the youth climate group Fridays for Future India was charged under stringent criminal acts for its public engagement campaign to register comments.
The overall relaxation of clearance requirements indicates the government’s view of the EIA process as an obstacle rather than a safeguard. Given recent trends of denotifying protected areas and diluting coastal protection regulations, the EIA process can serve as an important check that can still recognise the ecological value of vulnerable regions. Moving to reduce its application reflects a swing in the balance towards development at the cost of the environment and society.
The EIA process in India currently projects a facade of responsible permitting with no real protection, due to hampered execution and limited monitoring and compliance. Along with positive policy reforms, equal attention needs to be paid to the governance structures that execute the assessment. EIAs must be interdisciplinary, cognisant of human and social impact, and include consideration of climate and long-term change rather than simply immediate effects. To work toward this, efforts should be made to facilitate rather than discourage public consultation, and quality unbiased expertise and data must facilitate impact analysis. For a country that is highly vulnerable to climate change and attempting to project itself as a climate leader, strong sustainability norms for EIAs and beyond are a necessity, not a hindrance.
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