New Delhi:The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC), announced on 17 January that a new system was being implemented to rate each state’s Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA). The process is based upon the speed at which they grant environmental clearance (EC), to projects such as construction work.
The Memorandum of understanding for the office (OM) issued by the ministry states that the system has been put in place to incentivise states through a star-rating system, based on the efficiency and timeliness in granting EC”.
According to the memorandum, a system ranking states on how much time they take to grant an EC had been discussed at a meeting with Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba on 13 November 2021, in the context of action taken on the ease of doing business”.
State authorities must meet seven criteria to be considered highly. They can earn a maximum of 8 points (and a rating up to five stars) These criteria include the speed at which the EC is granted, site visits and the percentage of EC proposals that are disposed of within six month.
Researchers and activists have criticised the move, arguing that it could lead to states granting ECs in a hurry and without thorough review.
ThePrint reached Gaurav Khare, spokesperson for MOEFCC, via WhatsApp for comment. He said that he had forwarded the question to Secretary Leena Nagdan. However, there was no response from the ministry until the publication of this article.
What is the new system?
The new system allows state environment impact assessment authorities to earn up to one point for six criteria and up to two for the remaining. The SEIAAs will be rated every six months in what the ministry calls a dynamic process”.
The first criterion is the average number of days for granting EC”. Two points can be earned for states that grant EC in less than 80 days after receiving the proposal. States can earn one point for granting it after 105 or less days. States can earn half a points for granting it between 120 and 105 days.
The second criterion measures the percentage of terms or reference (TOR), proposals that have been disposed within 30 days. The SEIAA issues a document called TOR which outlines the elements necessary for a fair assessment of environmental impacts. One point will be awarded to SEIAAs who dispose of more than 90% of such TOR proposals. State that disposes of 80-90cc will get half a points, while those that dispose less than 80cc will earn them zero points.
States will also be rated on the number of times they request information about a project more than once. The SEIAA could lose more points if it requests additional details multiple times. The rating system stipulates that state authorities that request additional details more than once in more than 30% of cases will be given zero points. However, those who request additional details in fewer cases than 10% will receive one point.
Other criteria for assessment include how long it took the authority to accept EC/TOR proposals (with authorities accepting proposals within five days earning one points), and the number or quality of complaints that were addressed by the authority. One point will be given to authorities who address all of their complaints. Half the points will go to those who address 50 percent or more. None will be awarded for those who address less than 50per cent.
Finally, states are rated based on the number of site visits they make to cases with the authority. States that conduct site visits of less than 10% will be awarded one point. States that visit more than 20% of cases will receive zero points.
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What is the process of environmental clearance?
The Environmental Impact Assessment notification of 2006 lists 39 types of projects that require environmental clearance. These include mining of minerals, building airports and towns, and installing thermal power plants.
These projects are classified according to the level of environmental clearance that they would need. Category A projects must be cleared at the central level. Category B projects can be reviewed at the state level by the SEIAAs.
These projects are further classified by the SEIAAs into B1 or B2, which does not require an environmental impact assessment to be completed in order to be granted clearance. Clearance must be granted to projects in the B2 category.
Project proponents can either hire a consultant or do it themselves if they need to conduct environmental impact assessments. Environmental clearance is usually done by consultants. There are four stages: Screening, scoping and public consultation.
The SEIAAs conduct screening for category B projects to determine if further studies are required before an environmental impact assessment is performed for that project. Scope is done for category A or B1 projects. It also includes the drafting of TORs to aid in environmental impact assessment.
Public consultation is the next step for these projects. It involves a public hearing of an environmental impact assessment report. This allows it to be scrutinised and the voices from those affected by the project taken into account.
Finaly, at the appraisal stage, an expert appraisal committee (EAC), at the central level or its state equivalent, reviews the environmental impact assessment and grants final clearance.
2020: The environment ministry proposed that the EIA be amended NotificationAllow ex-post facto clearance to multiple projects. Others are exempted from the requirements of an assessment and public consultation. These include irrigation projects and the expansion of national roads.
Other changes to environmental law
The ministry of environment proposed a number of other measures to relax environmental compliance norms.
The ministry tried to implement this on the 1st of November 2021. Modify India’s Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, 2019, to exempt oil and natural gas exploration and development activities from obtaining mandatory clearances.
The ministry proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act in October 2013. These would allow for more economic activities in forest areas.
Last month, the government presented amendments to the Biological Diversity Act to Parliament’s winter session. These proposed to reduce the pressure on wild medicinal plant populations by encouraging their cultivation to encourage Indian medicine, fast track research and patent applications, as well as to increase foreign investment in the chain of biological resources.
Why is the rating system being criticised
The new rating system is being criticized by activists and scholars because it could lead to the SEIAAs having oversight of environmental clearance.
Lawyer Ritwick Dutta of Legal Initiative For Environment (LIFE), an environmental litigation firm, put out a statement on social media, saying the system will ensure that the SEIAAs aim will be to clear projects in the shortest possible time frame”.
Dutta stated that SEIAAs could be penalized for asking for additional information more times than once. This could lead to them granting permissions with insufficient data since seasonal changes also affect the biodiversity profile of a specific area.
Any SEIAA who asks for such data is likely to be given low marks or even zero. The statement also stated that the SEIAA can reject projects and the OM isn’t privy to this right.
Arpitha Kodiveri is an environmental lawyer and postdoctoral research fellow at the New York University School of Law. She said, “It creates a situation in which you aren’t providing the time necessary to make these decisions carefully. It can also lead to artificial competition between states which could result in industries moving to states with quicker environmental clearance.
She also said that the EIA process is complete regulatory capture, as the consultants producing the reports are employed by the businesses. This pressure of speed, efficiency and incentivisation is going to skew environmental governance and make it pro-business.”
Poulomi Banerjee edited this article
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