Our broken system of environmental clearance

  • IASbaba
  • February 4, 2022
  • 0
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(Down to Earth: Climate Change)

Jan 27: Our broken system of environmental clearance – https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/pollution/our-broken-system-of-environmental-clearance-81279 


  • GS-3: Environmental impact assessment

Our broken system of environmental clearance

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.

Instances where the Ministry has chipped away at key environmental regulation

  • Extended the deadline for compliance with emission norms for most thermal power plants from 2022 to 2025 and planned to reduce the ecological protection accorded to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. 
  • Diluted the Coastal Zone Notification and proposed to amend the Forest Conservation Act to allow the use of forests for infrastructural projects in areas of “strategic importance”.
  • Granted relaxations include thermal power plants, manufacturing and mining of coal, minerals and ordinary earth for linear projects. 

Other Challenges

  • Inadequate capabilities: Lack of trained EIA professionals often leads to the preparation of inadequate and irrelevant EIA reports.
  • Public Consultation: Public comments are not considered at an early stage, which often leads to conflict at a later stage of project clearance.
  • Neglect of indigenous knowledge: The data collectors do not pay respect to the indigenous knowledge of local people.
  • Communication issues: Most reports in English and not in the local language. Hence, local people do not understand the intricacies of the report.
  • Poor review or monitoring:  EIA review is not up to the mark. The review agency called Impact Assessment Agency (IAA) lacks inter-disciplinary capacity.
  • Corruption: There are so many cases of fraudulent EIA studies where erroneous data has been used, same facts used for two totally different places etc.
  • Distorted Focus: The focus of EIA needs to shift from utilization and exploitation of natural resources to conservation of natural resources.
  • Exempt Categories: For defence and national security installations, the EMP (Environment Management Plan) are often kept confidential for political and administrative reasons.
  • Considered as impediment to the ease of doing business: Industries and business interests have long regarded EIA as a thorn in their side increasing their transaction cost and complicating the business process.


At a time when climate change is driving home the ecological fragility of large parts of India and pollution and water scarcity are taking a serious toll on the well-being of people in cities, towns, and villages, regulatory bodies require enabling policies to perform their tasks with rigour. The grading exercise, instead, reduces them to clearing houses. The Centre must rethink its move.


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?

  1. What are the main principles of environmental impact assessment (EIA)? Is EIA central to various infrastructure projects in India? Examine.

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