History of EIA in India
The Indian experience with Environmental Impact Assessment began over 20 years back. It started 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.
On 27 January 1994, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MEF), Government of India, under the Environmental (Protection) Act 1986, promulgated an EIA notification making Environmental Clearance (EC) mandatory for expansion or modernization of any activity or for setting up new projects listed in Schedule 1 of the notification.
Since then there have been 12 amendments made in the EIA notification of 1994.
Certain activities permissible under the Coastal Regulation Zone Act, 1991 also require similar clearance. 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.
The Supreme Court in Vellore Citizens’ Welfare Forum (1996) read the idea of sustainable development as intrinsic to India’s constitutional structure.
The traditional concept that development and ecology are opposed to each other is no longer acceptable.
The EIA process
The environment impact assessment consists of eight steps with each step equally important in determining the overall performance of the project.
Typically, the EIA process begins with screening to ensure time and resources are directed at the proposals that matter environmentally and ends with some form of follow up on the implementation of the decisions and actions taken as a result of an EIA report.
The eight steps of the EIA process are presented in brief below:
Assessment of the EIA System in India:
Apart from the flaws in the EIA provisions and process, the screening criterion exempts a major segment of activities from the requirement of EIA such as Small scale sector if investment is less than artificial limit.
Case Study: Sethusamudram Ship Channel
India does not have a continuous navigable route around the peninsula running within her own territorial waters due to presence of a shallow patch called “Adam’s Bridge” at Pamban where the navigable depth is only about 3m.
Hence all the ships from west to east and from Tuticorin Port to the east have to go round Sri Lanka entailing an additional distance of more than 254-424 nautical miles and 21-36 hours of additional sailing time.
The Ministry of Shipping in 1997, identified the Tuticorin Port Trust (TPT) as the nodal agency for the implementation of the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP).
The Tuticorin Port Trust retained National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, India to conduct the EIA study for the project.
Public Concerns regarding the project:
It is evident from the above partial list of concerns raised by the public and by the PMO that the EIA report by NEERI failed to take into or allay the concerns of the public.
Isn’t EIA about sustainable development after all?
Simply put EIA process can be viewed as an endeavour to answer a basic question: whether the identified impact will be positive, negative or uncertain?
The term Sustainability has become a dreaded concept in the developing world.
The main argument put forth by the advocates of high economic growth is that the task of elevating the majority of the public who are currently languishing in poverty should not be compromised under the excuse of sustainability.
The argument of high economic growth by itself can no longer be considered a cure all and when it has the potential to affect existing life supporting systems it becomes untenable.
Relevance of Precautionary Principle
When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, pre-cautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.
In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.
The second question that is to be tackled in a developing society like India is how to ensure that we consider the values and preferences of the affected public and involve them in the decision making process.
Conclusions: The Way Ahead
To Sum up:
EIA has been identified as an important instrument for facilitating sustainability. However, to do so requires the integration of sustainability into EIA Theory and practice. The sustainability concept is a valid and important Environmental management perspective.
However, many issues and obstacles need to be addressed further if the concept is to be translated into practical strategies.
Sustainability can potentially infuse EIA with a clearer sense of direction, an ethical foundation, a mechanism for establishing priorities and assessing choices, and a means of linking EIA to other environmental management instruments.
Conceptually, EIA and sustainability can be integrated, but frameworks should be refined, adapted to context, and linked to related initiatives. Sustainability should be explicitly incorporated into EIA legislation, guidelines, and institutional arrangements.
Looking at all the changes made by the current government, it appears that the environmental clearance process is becoming a formality. The quality of assessment, compliance of clearance conditions and the involvement of local community through public hearings are being further weakened to ease the clearance process. Is this a sustainable EIA methodology? Critically evaluate the situation.
Verifying, please be patient.