GS Paper 3 -ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ASSESSMENT (EIA)

The International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) defines an EIA as ‘‘The process of identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social, and other relevant effects of development proposals prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made.’’

EIAs commenced in the 1960s, as part of increasing environmental awareness. The USA was the first country to enact legislation on EIA. The United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972 and subsequent conventions formalized EIA.

The EIA has the following objectives:

(i) Predict environmental impact of projects;

(ii) Find ways and means to reduce adverse impacts;

(iii) Shape project to suit local environment;

(iv) Present the predictions and options to the decision-makers.

EIA LEGISLATION IN INDIA:

India has invested considerable effort in implementing the universally accepted principles of Rio Declaration. In one of its 27 principles, the Rio Declaration calls for environmental impact assessment (EIA) to be undertaken for activities that are likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment (United Nations, 1992). As per its commitment India has instituted legal and institutional framework for application of EIA as an important tool to achieve sustainable development.

The EIA notification was first issued in 1994 by the Central Government (Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF)) in exercise of its power to take any measure to protect and improve the environment as provided under Section 3 of the Environment Protection Act, 1986. The MOEF functions as Impact Assessment Agency which could consult a Committee of Experts set up for this purpose.

The MoEF notified another EIA legislation in September 2006. The notification makes it mandatory for various projects to get environment clearance. However, unlike the EIA Notification of 1994, the new legislation has put the onus of clearing projects on the State government depending on the size/capacity of the project.

EIA PROCESS AND PROCEDURES:

The EIA consists of eight steps with each step equally important in determining the overall performance of the project.

SCREENING:

The screening is the first and simplest tier in project evaluation. Screening helps to clear those types of projects, which from past experience are not likely to cause significant environmental problems. The activity may take one of the following several forms:

  1. Measurements using simple criteria such as size or location.
  2. Comparing the proposal with list of projects rarely needing an EIA (e.g. schools) or definitely needing one (e.g. coal mines).
  3. Estimating general impacts (e.g. increased in infrastructure needed) and comparing these impacts against set thresholds.
  4. Doing complex analyses, but using readily available data.

SCOPING:

The first task of the EIA study team is scoping the EIA. The aim of scoping is to ensure that the study address all the issues of importance to the decision makers.

After “scoping” the main EIA begins. The EIA attempts to answer five questions basically:

  1. What will happen as a result of the project?
  2. What will be the extent of the changes?
  3. Do the changes matter?
  4. What can be done about them?
  5. How can decision makers be informed of what needs to be done?

IMPACT ANALYSIS:

This is done through two processes namely identification and prediction.

IDENTIFICATION:

It means the answer to the first question, i.e. “what will happen as result of the project?”.

This identification phase of the study may use these or other methods

  1. Compile a list of key impacts (e.g. changes in air quality, noise levels, social and cultural systems from other EIA s for similar projects)
  2. Name all the projects sources of impacts (e.g. smoke emissions, water consumption, construction jobs) using checklists of questionnaires, then list possible receptors in the environment.
  3. Identify impacts themselves through the use of checklist, matrices, networks, overlays, models and simulations.

PREDICTION:

The next step called predictions answers the EIA’s second question: “what will be the extent of the changes?”

Prediction draws on physical, biological, socioeconomic and anthropological data techniques. In quantifying impacts, it may employ mathematical models, physical models, socio cultural models, economic models, experiments or expert judgments.

All prediction techniques by their nature involve some degree of uncertainty. So along with each attempt to quantify an impact, the study team should also quantify the predictions uncertainty in terms of probabilities or margins of error.

EVALUATION:

The next question addressed by the EIA – “do the changes matter?” is answered in the next step. Evaluation is so called because it evaluates the predicated adverse impacts to determine whether they are significant enough to warrant mitigation.

MITIGATION:

In this phase the study team formally analyses mitigation. A wide range of measures are proposed to prevent, reduce, remedy or compensate for each of the adverse impacts evaluated as significant. Possible mitigation measures include:

  • Changing project sites, processes etc.,
  • Introducing pollution controls.
  • Offering (as compensation) restoration of damaged resources.

REPORTING:

The last step in the EIA process, which answers the question – how decision makers be informed of what needs to be done? In documenting an EIA, this means identifying the key decisions makers, perceiving the question they will be asking and providing them with straight forward answers formatted for easy interpretation in relation to their decision making (e.g. tables, graphs, summary, points).

An EIA report should contain:

  1. An executive summary of the EIA findings.
  2. A description of the proposed development projects.
  3. The major environmental and natural resource issues that needed clarification and elaboration.
  4. The projects impact on the environment (in comparison with a base line were identified and predicated.).
  5. A discussion of options for mitigating adverse impacts and for shaping the project to suit its proposed environment, and an analysis of the trade-offs involved in choosing between alternative actions.
  6. An over view of gaps or uncertainties in the information.
  7. A summary of the EIA for the general public.

Once the EIA reports have been completed, the project proponent needs to submit the report along with other information or documents to the SPCB for getting the non-clearance certificate (NOC).

On receiving the required documents from the project proponents, it is the responsibility of the SPCB to conduct the public hearing. After completion of the public hearing the project proponents has to submit to the secretary of MOEF for the environmental clearance.

ENVIRONMENTAL APPRAISAL PROCEDURE:

The MOEF is the nodal agency for environmental clearance. The application is evaluated and assessed by the Impact Assessment Agency (IAA). The IAA may consult a committee of experts constituted by it or other body authorized by it in this regard, if necessary.

The IAA prepares a set of recommendations based on technical assessment of documents and data, furnished by the project authorities or collected during visits to sites or factories and details of public hearing

PUBLIC HEARING PROCESS IN INDIA:

A fully informed public participation has been recognized as an essential element in EIA.

In India public hearing of development projects has been made mandatory for environmental clearance by the Amendment to the EIA Notification of April 10, 1997.

The salient features of the public hearing notification are as follows:

Notice for public hearing: The SPCB must issue notice for environmental public hearing by publishing it in at least two newspapers circulated in the region around the project with date, time and place of public hearing. The notice must be given at least 30 days prior to the public hearing.

Involvement of the public: Written suggestions, views, comments and objection by the public can be handed over to the SPCB within 30 days from the date of publication of the notice. Oral /written suggestions can be made to the SPCB during the public hearing.

Who can participate? All the affected person, including residents residing in and around the project site or the site of displacement or site of alleged adverse environmental impact. It also includes environmental groups and any association of persons whether incorporated or not, likely to be affected by the project and/or functioning in the field of environment. Persons who own or have control over the project can also participate.

Access to the documents: The public are entitled to have access to the executive summary containing the salient features of the project, both in English as well as the local language. They are also entitled to the Environmental Impact Assessment Report.

Drawbacks in Indian EIA system:

  1. A number of projects with significant environmental and social impacts have been excluded from the mandatory public hearing process. There are also concerns on how much value is given to opinions expressed during the public hearing.
  2. Most projects are located in the resource rich tribal and rural areas. Due to the inherent social conditions in such areas, such as lack of literacy and the simple nature of Tribals, people are easily convinced and lured by the prospect of money and jobs.
  3. The local environmental and social groups face a uphill task educating the people about the true nature and impacts of the project and getting them to forcefully raise objections and issues of concern.
  • Similarly, the affected peoples are informed just few days before the stipulated date of public hearing. The local administration also supports the projects owner.
  • Many EIA reports tend to justify the need for the project, shifting the focus of the EIA from a process that provides insights in to the viability and desirability of the project, to one that finds justification for the projects.
  • The notification does not prescribe clear and well-defined guidelines for conducting the public hearing. The bearing of the expenses involved in conducting the public hearing are not dealt with by the notification. This is another problem with no clear answers.
  • The documents which the public are entitled to are seldom available on time. The notification prescribes a number of places where one can access these documents, but does not stipulated who is responsible for ensuring that the documents are made available at these locations.
  • In many cases minutes of public hearing or recommendations of the public hearing panels do not reflect the actual proceedings and objections raised.
  • Further the recommendations of the public hearing panel are only advisory and it is not mandatory for the impact assessment agency to even consider these while granting environmental clearance to projects.
  1. As it stands today, there are several projects with significant environmental impacts that are exempted from the notification either because they are not listed in schedule1, or their investments are less than what is provided for in the notification.
  1. Projects are granted clearances based on certain conditions, which the project authorities need to comply with. These are both related to the construction phase and post construction phase of a project. However, the local population does not even know of these conditions and are not a part of its monitoring.
  1. Access to these compliance reports is only subject to public interest. The lack of access to compliance reports has severe repercussions on the rights of people who were opposed to the project and for whose benefits some conditions may have been laid out for the project to follow.
  1. While monitoring compliance with conditions imposed for environmental clearance, it is found that pollution control boards have their own standards, whereas the standards under the EPA, which the MOEF and the regional offices follow, are quite different.
  1. Another problem in monitoring is the location of the regional offices and their large jurisdictions, which make it difficult for them to discharge their functions effectively.
  1. There is an urgent need to build capacities of government agencies, communities, NGOs and the judiciary with regard to the implementation of the existing EIA notification. For instances, the public hearing panel often has no clue on the scope of their role in environmental clearance process.
  1. The present redressal mechanism meant exclusively for the challenging environmental clearance is extremely weak and limited in its scope. The process of seeking redressal from courts requires a fair amount of energy and financial allocation. It is not possible for all those with grievances to take on legal battles against large and powerful project proponents.

Recommendations:

  1. Independent EIA Authority: Civil society groups have suggested the need for an independent Environmental Impact Assessment authority headed by a judicial officer and the decision of this authority would be binding on the MOEF.
  • Sector wide EIA s needed: There is a need to conduct policy-level and sector-wide EIAs in the form of strategic impact assessments (for various sectors including mining, power and so on). This is critical to judge the impacts of macro- economic, developmental and other policies, schemes and programmes.
  • Conduct options Assessment: EIAs should follow only after an options assessment and a least cost plan for a project is done by the state or central government.
  • Creation of an information desk: An information dissemination desk may be assigned within the MOEF which anyone can write to regarding the status of clearance of projects. Since all meetings and discussion are documented as electronic data, the officers should furnish this information regarding the status of clearance, with a record of the discussions in the Expert committee on the projects.
  • Environmental Risk Assessment: New approaches such as Environmental Risk Assessment which enable more flexible and dynamic assessments of direct and indirect impacts must be explored.
  • Issue a complete notification: The MOEF must issue and maintain on its website at all times a consolidated notification incorporating all the amendments till date.
  • Quality of EIA reports: At present EIA reports are extremely weak when it comes to assessment of biological diversity of a project area and the consequent impacts on it.
  • This gap needs to be plugged through a specific guideline and if necessary, through amendments to the EIA notification. The checklist needs to include impacts on agricultural biodiversity, biodiversity related traditional knowledge and live hoods.
  • It is critical that the preparation of an EIA is completely independent of the project proponent. One option for this could be the creation of a central fund for the EIA s which contains fees deposited by project proponents while seeking that an EIA be done for their proposed project.
  1. State and central governments should maintain a list of credible, independent and competent agencies that can carry out EIAs. A national level accreditation to environment consultancy should be adopted.
  1. Public hearings: The public hearing should be held for all projects which are likely to have environmental and social impacts. This should be strictly implemented.
  1. The preliminary hearing may be required to explain the process of conducting the assessment so that the scope of the assessment is decided with the participation of the public.
  1. The second can be with a purpose of presenting and discussing all aspects of the assessment’s findings, with the help of booklets presentation in local languages.
  1. The third hearing can be held after a week but no later than a month following the second meetings. This period being intended to give people a chance to analyse the information and points they have at the earlier hearing.
  1. Accountability should be built in to the public hearing procedure. The minutes of the public hearing should be compulsorily available.
  1. Grant of clearance: The notification needs to make it clear that the provision for site clearance does not imply any commitment on the part of the impact Assessment agency to grant full environmental clearance.
  1. The prior informed consent of local communities and urban wards or resident’s association needs to be made mandatory before the grant of environmental clearance.
  1. Composition of expert committees: The present executive committees should be replaced by expert people from various stakeholder groups, who are reputed in environmental and other relevant fields.
  1. The process of selection of those committees should be open and transparent, the minutes of the committee meetings, decisions and advice by these committee should be open to public.
  • Monitoring, compliance and institutional arrangements: The EIA notification needs to build within it an automatic withdrawal of clearance if the conditions of clearance are being violated, and introduce more stringent punishment for noncompliance. At present the EIA notification limits itself to the stage when environmental clearance is granted.
  • The MOEF should set up more regional offices, each with smaller areas of jurisdiction, to effectively monitor the compliance of clearance conditions. Such a monitoring body should be given powers to address compliance of both sets of clearance conditions together and to take punitive action against the project proponent in case of non-compliance of any of the conditions.
  • Local communities should be brought in to the formal monitoring and reporting process of the compliance of conditions presently done by the regional offices of the MOEF.
  • Redressal: The scope of the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) needs to be expanded to deal with more than just challenging environmental clearance of projects.
  • Capacity building: NGOs, civil society groups and local communities need to build their capacities to use the EIA notification towards better decision making on projects that can impact their local environments and live hoods.

Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) refers to systematic analysis of the environmental effects of development policies, plans, programmes and other proposed strategic actions. This process extends the aims and principles of EIA upstream in the decision-making process, beyond the project level and when major alternatives are still open. SEA represents a proactive approach to integrating environmental considerations into the higher levels of decision-making and this would be the way forward to realise the true objective of EIAs.