(Down to Earth: Governance)
Feb 10: Consolidate clearances: 4 steps for effective green governance – https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/forests/consolidate-clearances-4-steps-for-effective-green-governance-81476
- GS-3: Climate Change & Conservation, Environmental impact assessment
Consolidate clearances: 4 steps for effective green governance
Context: The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has announced that it will rank the state environmental impact assessment authorities based on seven different criteria, which would exhibit their efficiency/on the speed at which environmental approvals are given. This received criticisms from all sides, leading the Ministry to state some clarifications –
- The move is aimed at encouraging the efficiency, transparency and accountability in the functioning of SEIAAs without diluting any regulatory safeguards.
- No SEIAA will be penalised for taking more time in granting permission. The SEIAAs are responsible for providing permissions and environmental clearance for more than 90 per cent infrastructure, developmental and industrial projects in the country, once they assess that these projects have little environmental impact.
- The ministry has taken several initiatives for streamlining the EC (environmental clearance) process and reduce the undue time taken in grant of clearances. As a step further new rating of SEIAAs has been introduced for encouraging the efficiency, transparency and accountability in the functioning of SEIAAs.
Why did it face backlash?
- Undermines the role of regulatory oversight in environmental protection — recognised in several Supreme Court verdicts as one of the key instruments to ensure the right to life.
- The ranking exercise will compromise the SEIAAs’ mandate to assess the impact of industrial, real estate and mining schemes on the environment and lead to an unhealthy competition amongst these agencies to swiftly clear projects without due diligence.
Urgent need for an effective system
There is a need for a robust, credible system of environmental scrutiny, to find the balance between environment and development, and to mitigate harm. An effective system, working for environmental integrity, would ensure these happen, both in design and in implementation.
- First, we need to accept that the system has become unnecessarily convoluted and must be streamlined.
- There is a need to consolidate all clearances — environment, forests, wildlife and coastal — so that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) is comprehensive.
- In the Union Budget 2022-23, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a single-window clearance system. But because it is aimed solely towards the ease of doing business, it will further dilute this broken system. Therefore, the clearance system needs to be part of a package that simultaneously strengthens systems of public participation and monitoring.
- Second, the process of public assessment must be deepened.
- The task of listening to the community and its objections to the project can become as corrupt and compromised as the other parts of the system.
- Today, public hearings are held, not heard. We need to see this as a critical process; risks from projects get mitigated when community concerns are heeded and efforts are made to remediate and mitigate fallouts. So, going forward, the mandatory videography of the public hearing should be livestreamed.
- The committee assessing the project must be held to account that it has taken these concerns on board. To enable this, the monitoring and compliance conditions must be put in the public domain, and relayed back to the community.
- Third, it is necessary to review the role of the environmental assessment committees — at the Centre and at the state.
- These committees are the weakest link in this process, as they are faceless and are not responsible for the compliance or monitoring of the project.
- It is a farce to say that the experts are independent. In fact, these committees make the government less accountable for the decisions that are taken during the scrutiny of the project.
- It is time these committees were disbanded and the process of assessment and monitoring be done by the central and state environment departments, which in turn needs to be strengthened in terms of expertise. But with this, the list of projects cleared or rejected and their conditions should be made public.
- The fourth and most critical agenda is to greatly strengthen the process of monitoring the project, post clearance.
- For this, there is a need to integrate the functioning of all agencies — from state pollution control boards to the coastal- and forest-related institutions. Currently, there are many agencies and yet enforcement is weak.
- The focus must be on monitoring for compliance. Otherwise, there is no point in this entire effort of assessing the impacts of projects.
- But all this will not work unless baseline data about the project is credible and, again, publicly available. For this, the process of collecting updated information on different environmental parameters and on the ecological importance of the project site must be strengthened.
- This data needs to be publicly accessible so that when it is used in the EIA report, its credibility and scientific rigour can be gauged.
This is only possible, if we believe that the process of project scrutiny has a value. Otherwise, these clearances will remain an exercise in futility, and government after government will take it down bit by bit to maintain the charade of environmental protection.
Environment Impact Assessment (EIA)
- UNEP defines EIA as 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.
- By using EIA both environmental and economic benefits can be achieved, such as reduced cost and time of project implementation and design, avoided treatment/clean-up costs and impacts of laws and regulations.
- EIA in India is statutorily backed by the Environment Protection Act, 1986 which contains various provisions on EIA methodology and process
- The assessment is carried out by an Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), which consists of scientists and project management experts.
What is the philosophy behind EIA?
- The basis in global environmental law for the EIA is the “precautionary principle”. Environmental harm is often irreparable — one cannot reverse an oil spill.
- It is cheaper to avoid damage to the environment than to remedy it.
- Also, we are legally bound to the precautionary principle under international treaties and obligations, as well as by Supreme Court judgments.
History of EIA in India
- The Indian experience with EIA began in 1976-77 when the Planning Commission asked the Department of Science and Technology to examine the river-valley projects from an environmental angle.
- Till 1994, environmental clearance from the Central Government was an administrative decision and lacked legislative support.
- In 1994, the Union Environment ministry under the Environmental (Protection) Act 1986, promulgated an EIA notification making Environmental Clearance (EC) mandatory for activity listed in Schedule 1 of the notification
- Since then there have been 12 amendments made in the EIA notification of 1994 the latest one being in 2006 which has put the onus of clearing projects on the state government depending on the size/capacity of the project.
- Additionally, donor agencies operating in India like the World Bank and the ADB have a different set of requirements for giving environmental clearance to projects that are funded by them
Can you answer the following questions?
- Are we witnessing more and more cases of environment versus development, or just wilfully bad development? Critically examine.