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Our broken system for environmental clearance

Our broken system for environmental clearance

Environmental impact assessment has become a complex exercise that is futile.

Ranking is an instrument to reward the best performers — but more importantly, it signals the best way to do things. So, when the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) says that it will rank the state environmental impact assessment authorities based on the speed at which environmental approvals are given, it basically implies that all it cares about is the “clearance” of projects, not the quality of the assessment or the ability to ensure that the environmental impacts of development projects are mitigated.

You could argue that time taken is not an indicator of the level of scrutiny — and that MoEFCC’s notice is designed only to hold the assessment committees accountable and to ensure that projects are not unnecessarily delayed. It is not so simple. The fact is this “ranking” is the final nail in the already built coffin of environmental assessments.

Government after government has decimated the process for decision-making that would allow scrutiny or assessment over the past decade. It is a sham and a farce, and in my view this direction by the ministry — set up to purportedly safeguard environmental interests — has only made its contempt for its self-built process apparent.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which began in 1994, was initiated when there were few development projects and the process was uncontested. The rot took hold from the early 2000s when “building” projects were included in this system of scrutiny.

It is clear that large-scale construction, including commercial, residential, and infrastructure projects, has a huge environmental impact. They contribute to water usage, wastewater production, traffic, and solid waste.

The problem was the system was never upgraded to handle the huge volume of “building” projects. This led to delays and high transaction costs — corruption, in other words. In 2006, MoEFCC decided to decentralize and outsource the work to states. It also established state environmental impact assessments authorities and replicated the central state system. A maze of categories — projects falling into A, B, BI and B2 — were created, with overlaps and a good measure of discretion thrown in.

Overall, the quality of scrutiny has not increased and development projects are no more environmentally friendly. EIA has become a complex exercise that is destined to fail.

Why are you saying this? Consider how flawed this process is today. The project proponent must pay consultants to complete the EIA. This is based on the terms and reference (ToR), approved by the Central or state environment impact assessment authority. Category A projects go to the Centre, while B projects go to the state. The state authority decides if the project is B1 (projects that require detailed assessments) or if it’s B2 (projects that do not need detailed assessments).

The ToR can be approved by the committee, or they can ask for further information. After this, the EIA is done, which, in turn, requires the involvement of at least 12 functional area experts and management and monitoring plans. The draft EIA is in English and its summary in the regional language, which is then put out for public consultation.

A detailed process is in place for holding the public hearing, which would be crucial for “listening” to local objections. The appraisal committee will then review the draft, request more information, and either accept it or reject it.

In actual fact, projects are rarely “rejected”. Our analysis of 3,100 projects submitted between July 2015 – August 2020 revealed that only 3 percent were not recommended. Even these would return with more information.

In this way, proponents are asked — and more so in controversial projects — many times to come back with more data and more clarifications. Finally, the committees “clear” the project, and in most cases, to protect themselves they do so with a fistful of conditions that will never really be monitored. The faceless committees are not held responsible for the project post clearance; their “job” ends with this clearance.

They are not liable for the quality or the outcome of the decision made. The monitoring is then left to the understaffed regional offices of MoEFCC — state pollution control boards are not empowered to monitor impacts as this clearance is done under the Environmental Protection Act and not under the laws governing air or water. All this leads to duplication, lacks of scrutiny, and no real intention to ensure that projects are executed in accordance with environmental interests.

So, when we defend this broken system of “clearances” it only adds fuel to the fire of the extremely false narrative of environment versus development. In reality, environmental concerns have been bypassed and development has become a mindless endeavor without regard to how to mitigate or manage harm.

Next time, I’ll discuss what needs to happen if we want to improve decision making for sustainable development. 

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