Do not rush to assess the environmental benefits and costs of projects.
After one of its official communiqus went public, the Union Environment Ministry has made controversial moves to implement a star rating system. This scheme would reward State-level environmental committees that evaluate industrial projects for potential environmental risk with points for transparency and efficiency as well as accountability. This idea emerged from a Union Cabinet meeting held this month to encourage the Governments’ wider commitment to Ease in Doing Business. The Environmental Impact Assessment is a key component of ensuring that infrastructure development costs are low. Prospective projects exceeding a certain amount of size and having the potential to significantly alter natural environments must first be approved by the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority, (SEIAA), a group of State officials and independent experts. The Centre will approve projects that are even larger or involve forestland category A. The majority of approved projects are SEIAA projects. These projects include small-scale mining and construction projects and are less polluting.
The star rating system is designed to rank and reward states based on their ability to grant environmental clearances. It outlines seven criteria for grading SEIAAs on transparency and accountability. An SEIAA gets more points if it grants clearances in less than 80 days than if they do so within 105 days. There are no marks for anything beyond that. Five-star rating would be given to a score of seven points or more. The order does not give the impression that States would rather seek to speedily clear projects than ensure an accurate appraisal. In response to criticisms, the Environment Ministry stated that the intention was not to speed up clearances but to accelerate decision making. It insists that all objections should be compiled and addressed in one place, rather than being sent back for each query. While faster decision-making is a benefit to everyone, the State committees are currently hindered by having too few independent experts. Decision-making is also being left to bureaucrats instead of to environmental specialists. Both States and industry both gain from projects. Therefore, it is easier to overlook environmental concerns. Site visits are crucial in many cases to understand the potential environmental problems. Calculating the risks and benefits of industrial projects vis–visTheir environmental impact can be difficult. The best way to move forward is to increase trust in this system and to ensure that all States have competent specialists who can perform appraisals without fear or favor. This cannot be achieved by a list of empty ranks.