Draft EIA-2020: The good, the bad and the way forward

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued a Draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020 to replace the current EIA Notification 2006. The draft was released in public domain for comments and suggestions in March. Since then, multiple articles have been published and comments have been pouring in mentioning the criticalities of the new draft.

The new version has brought a plethora of changes of which most have not gone down well with experts or laymen which is evident from their reviews. There are certain commonalities amongst majority of the reviews and they are featured around certain specific aspects such as “Post- Facto clearances”, “Suo moto application by project proponent in case of violation”, “reducing the public consultation time from 30 to 20 days”, “converting many large scale mainly B1 projects to B2 category”, “removing public hearing stage and EC requirement from many projects”, etc.,  which are thought to curtail certain freedoms/rights of the people and widely regarded as detrimental to the environment.

These views though bring out the important points of the new draft but seem to concentrate only on the negative aspects and overlook some of the positive ones. Hence, a comprehensive review of the draft is required to understand how the new draft can be better implemented to mitigate the adverse impacts of said points and amend them in ways which capitalise on the positive (developmental) aspects without compromising on the environmental ones. 

Following are my observations and descriptive feedback on the topic considering the comprehensive approach:

The Good

  • In the new draft the process of issuing environmental clearances has been made more transparent and expedient through implementation of an online system.
  • It tries to strengthen the monitoring mechanism for compliance of conditions of Prior Environment Clearance by introducing the system of late fees/ penalties in case of failure to submit yearly compliance reports by the project proponent.
  • It aims to standardize the process of Environmental Clearance by reducing the overall time. 
  • Clear demarcation of roles and responsibilities and inter-co-ordination among the authorities has been made for Category A, B1 and B2 which was earlier more ambiguous especially in terms of category B projects.
  • In case of violation cases, the project proponent is required to prepare and implement the EMP, comprising of remediation plan and natural and community resource augmentation plan corresponding to the 1.5 times and 2 times the ecological damage assessed and economic benefit derived due to violation in case of the suo moto applications or Government reported cases respectively. 
  • The project proponent is required to submit a bank guarantee valid for five years equivalent to the amount of remediation plan and Natural and Community Resource Augmentation Plan with the SPCB or UTPCC, as the case may be, and the bank guarantee will be released after successful implementation of the action plan.
  • The EIA report structure has been made more standardized.
  • An appeal can be made to the National Green Tribunal against the prior EC.

The Bad

  • Many large-scale projects are re-categorised as B2 which have multiple exemptions such as- preparation of EIA report, public consultation, filing of complaint by the public and other agencies in case of violations. Such exemption poses a huge threat to the local people and environment.
  • The mechanism to deal with violations is ambiguous regarding its applicability (in terms of expansion projects, already existing projects or new projects) and allows an ex post facto EC to such projects, which further raises the question of how such projects are existing without an EC in the first place. 
  • Climate change and related considerations have not been mentioned in the new draft.
  • The previous EIA 2006 did not consider the cumulative impacts of multiple projects in an area and its scope has been further curtailed in the new draft.
  • The Compliance report was earlier required to be submitted in six months which has now been relaxed to 1 year, which raises concerns over checking the environmental issues arising in between the mentioned time.
  • As per the new draft: “In case, the Regulatory Authority does not refer the matter to the Appraisal Committee within 30 days of date of application in Form-I, sector specific Standard ToR shall be issued, online, on 30th day, by the Regulatory Authority.”, the standard TOR for a sector might overlook the geographical and social concerns of a particular area.
  • Public Consultation will be undertaken only for Category ‘A’ and Category “B1” projects of new or expansion proposals or modernization with capacity increase more than 50 percent. It is unclear how and if this move will benefit the public as the environment damage assessment for anything less than 50 percent is not considered for public consultation. 
  • The Public consultation aspect was already weak in the previous notification and in the new draft its importance has been further diluted in the following ways:  a) The time for public consultation has been reduced from 30 to 20 days; b) In case of category B2 it has been completely omitted; c) The regulatory authority can decide to not include the public hearing in the following case “  If the public agency or authority nominated under the sub-clause (7) above reports to the Regulatory Authority concerned that owing to the local situation, it is not possible to conduct the public hearing in a manner which will enable the views of the concerned local persons to be freely expressed, it shall report the facts in detail to the concerned Regulatory Authority, which may, after due consideration of the report and other reliable information that it may have, decide that the public consultation in the case need not include the public hearing”; d) it limits the power of affected communities to report the environmental violation.
  • The new draft does not mention about clearances required from authorities other than Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 (Forest Act) and recommendations of State or Union Territory Coastal Management Authority, in case of the project located in the CRZ area.
  • The quality of decision making by the authority and assessment by consultants was already weak w.r.t. to the previous notification and the new draft also has overlooked this component.

The way forward

  • Sustainable development and climate change being the major agenda of the MoEFCC, if reflected and linked with the EIA notification 2020, will help in moving towards fulfilling their goal.
  • The actions in case of violations of B2 category projects must be clearly specified.
  •  Including public consultation in the initial stages of the project will avoid conflicts in clearances, this will also help in considering possible impacts on the environment, and making the project more relevant to needs of the local people.
  • Capacity building, standardization and best practices approach can be an effective tool for improving the quality of decision making, particularly of the expert appraisal committees, which perform the critical function of evaluation of projects.
  • More scientific and technological means may be adopted to increase the efficiency of monitoring and compliance and also brief intermediate reporting by the project proponent will help in avoiding the possible environmental hazards of a project.
  • Projects undergoing minor alteration (of<10%) won’t be required for EC but an undertaking and evidence of not impacting the environment and surrounding population negatively must be taken from them.
  • Specific TOR will ensure better assessment of ground conditions over standard specific TOR.
  • Exempting B2 project of EIA process and directly requiring EMP is a move towards reducing time and enhance development but accountability of the Consultant, local and state authorities must be defined and stringent methods must be adopted to ensure its implementation to prevent environmental hazards.
  • Cumulative and integrated impact can be a preferred approach to assess the aggregate environmental, health and associated impacts (Social) of multiple projects in a larger area.