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Role of EIA in Sustainable Development

Published: 25th Jun, 2019

  • The Chennai-Salem highway case has tested the judiciary’s assessment of environmental and economic interests.
  • The intended highway between Chennai and Salem will cover more than 250 km, and, once constructed, will cut its way through a slew of agricultural and reserve forest lands.



  • The Chennai-Salem highway case has tested the judiciary’s assessment of environmental and economic interests.
  • The intended highway between Chennai and Salem will cover more than 250 km, and, once constructed, will cut its way through a slew of agricultural and reserve forest lands.
  • The state failed to obtain an environmental clearance for the project before acquiring land.


  • The eight-lane highway is part of the “Bharatmala Pariyojana”, a centrally sponsored highways programme, aimed chiefly as a corridor for more efficient freight movement.
  • The project would have a deleterious impact on the forests, the surrounding water bodies and the wildlife of the region.
  • The underlying issue, which is left unaddressed and for which the government has been criticized heavily over the past, is the utmost neglect towards the environment and the people in the government’s new policies and practices.
  • In the latest Environmental Performance Index (EPI), India figured in the bottom five countries. It went from 141 in 2016 to 177 in 2018 out of 180 countries.


Sustainable development

  • Our Common Future”, defined the principle as an endeavor to ensure that any development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.
  • Environment Impact Assessment or EIA can be defined as the study to predict the effect of a proposed activity/project on the environment.
  • A decision making tool, EIA compares various alternatives for a project and seeks to identify the one which represents the best combination of economic and environmental costs and benefits.

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:

  • Screening: First stage of EIA, which determines whether the proposed project, requires an EIA and if it does, then the level of assessment required.
  • Scoping: This stage identifies the key issues and impacts that should be further investigated. This stage also defines the boundary and time limit of the study.
  • Impact analysis: This stage of EIA identifies and predicts the likely environmental and social impact of the proposed project and evaluates the significance.
  • Mitigation: This step in EIA recommends the actions to reduce and avoid the potential adverse environmental consequences of development activities.
  • Reporting: This stage presents the result of EIA in a form of a report to the decision-making body and other interested parties.
  • Review of EIA: It examines the adequacy and effectiveness of the EIA report and provides the information necessary for decision-making.
  • Decision-making: It decides whether the project is rejected, approved or needs further change.
  • Post monitoring: This stage comes into play once the project is commissioned. It checks to ensure that the impacts of the project do not exceed the legal standards and implementation of the mitigation measures are in the manner as described in the EIA report.

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:

  • The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), the largest NGO working in the field of bio-diversity and environmental conservation in India, has said the EIA report prepared by the NEERI is insufficient and a detailed study should be conducted in all seasons for at least a year.
  • The India Meteorological Department has assigned the Palk Bay area as a “high risk area” for volcanic and cyclonic activity, this fact has not been addressed at all.
  • The Gulf of Mannar supported by an USD 8.6 million conservation project from the GEF, and the Point Calimere flamingo reserve will be severely impacted.
  • Coastal Action Network (CAN), an organisation fighting for the protection of coastal ecology and the livelihood of coastal communities claims “The report does not give details of the ecological destruction likely to be caused by the project. Apparently, no major studies have been carried out with special focus on the fauna of the Palk Bay.
  • The PMO note commented that going ahead with the construction of this mega project without collecting information on the aspects of sedimentation due to cyclones and tsunamis could lead to major economic, technical and human problems in future that could border on a disaster.
  • NEERI’s suggestion that a trained pilot or environmental watcher should board the ships which cross the channel to watch out for marine mammals is not practical.
  • Invasive species may be dispersed into these hitherto relatively protected seas with the bilge water of ships sailing through the Channel.

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

  • The project proponents should be guided adequately by the State Pollution Control Boards to effectively interact with all the stakeholders.
  • There should be a system to empanel consultants after careful scrutiny of their credentials to carry out EIA studies
  • The MEF expert committees shall be composed of qualified members subject to public scrutiny with adequate representation from the affected area
  • Complete EIA reports shall be placed in the public domain for scrutiny.
  • The modified environmental clearance procedure involving the village panchayats shall be adopted to make the process more democratic and sustainable.
  • Every decision on the issue of ecosystem disturbance shall be guided in spirit by the precautionary principle.
  • A mechanism shall be instituted for periodical review and improvement of the environmental clearance procedure.

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.

Learning Aid

Practice Question:

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.

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