A Greener Assessment for a Sustainable Future: Introduction to Environment Impact Assessment

Akshay Shandilya, Research Associate

With the onset of First World War, rapid industrialization and urbanization in western countries was causing rapid loss of natural resource, which stretched to the period after the Second World War giving rise to concerns for pollution, quality of life and environmental stress. In early 1960s, investors and people realized that the projects they were undertaking were affecting the environment, resources, raw materials and people. As a result, pressure groups formed with the objective of achieving a tool that can be used to safeguard the environment in any development process. Countries in order to respond to this issue started enacting legislations on environment protection. Furthermore, countries devised a method known as Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which became an official tool to protect the environment1. EIA is a statutory procedure in which the environmental impacts of a project are determined. The assessment is the responsibility of the party implementing the project2. The basic objectives on which the EIA focuses are-

  1. Human health, living conditions and comfort.
  2. Soil, water, air, climate, vegetation, organisms, their mutual interaction, and biodiversity.
  3. Community structure, buildings, landscape, townscape and cultural heritage utilization of natural resources3.

The Early Origins

The phrase ‘Environmental Impact Assessment’ comes from Section 102(2) of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 1969, of the United States of America. Some rudiments of EIA are implicit even in early examples of environmental legislation. The concept of EIA which came of lately was not readily understood and accepted as a tool in developing countries. In a nutshell, EIA was considered just another bureaucratic stumbling block in the path of development. Earlier with the introduction of new projects the primary focus was based only on one criterion i.e. economic viability. But due to increase in environmental and social impact, they have become an important yardstick.

The Indian Chapter

In India, the environmental revolution formally started with the participation of late Smt. India Gandhi in the UN Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. A National Committee on Environmental Planning & Coordination (NCEPC) was established to be the apex body in the Department of Science and Technology. The term ‘Environment’ figured for the first time in the Fourth Five Year Plan (1969-74) which recorded that ‘harmonious development is possible only on the basis of a comprehensive appraisal of environmental issues4.’ By means of this notable cognizance India became one of the few countries which took environment protection seriously at a time when industries were expanding exponentially. It started in 1976-77 when the Planning Commission asked the Department of Science and Technology to examine the river-valley projects from an environmental angle. On January 27, 1994, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) under the Environmental (Protection) Act 1986 promulgated an EIA notification making Environmental Clearance (EC) mandatory for expansion or modernization of any activity or for setting up new projects listed in Schedule 1 of the notification. Since then there have been 12 amendments made in the EIA notification of 19945. EIA notifications 2006 states-

Construction of new projects or activities or the expansion or modernization of existing projects or activities listed in the schedule to the notification entailing capacity addition with change in the process or technology shall be undertaken in any part of India only after the prior environmental clearance from the Central Government or by State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority6.

Objective and Applicability of EIA

The familiar objective of EIA notifications, 2006 is the control of development of industrial activities following the principles of sustainable development.

Its applicability can be seen in various areas such as-

  1. Mining extraction of natural resources and power generation.
  2. Primary Processing.
  3. Materials production. (Cement plant).
  4. Materials processing (Petroleum refinery industry).
  5. Manufacturing/Fabrication (Comical fertilizers).
  6. Services Sector (Oil and gas transportation pipeline).
  7. Building/Construction Projects/Area development Projects and Townships7.

The EIA Process in India

The most important step in the process of obtaining environmental clearance under the EIA notification is for the project proponent to conduct an environmental impact assessment of the project. The steps of EIA process are-

  1. 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.
  2. 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. Then the study team elects primary impacts for the EIA to focus upon expanding on the basis of magnitude, geographical extent, significance to decision makers or because the realist special locally (e.g. soil erosion on, the presence of an endangered spices, or a nearby historical sites) or is an eco-sensitive area8.
  3. Impact analysis– This stage of EIA identifies and predicts the likely environmental and social impact of the proposed project and evaluates the significance.
  4. Mitigation– In this phase the study team formally analyses mitigation. A wide range of measures re proposed to prevent, reduce, remedy or compensate for each of the adverse impacts evaluated as significant9.
  5. Accountability– The decision makers are responsible to all parties for their action and decisions under the assessment process.
  6. Cost Effectiveness– The assessment process and its outcomes will ensure environmental protection at the least cost to the society10.
  7. Evaluation– It is so called because it evaluates the predicated adverse impacts to determine whether they are significant enough to warrant mitigation.
  8. Documentation– In this last step of EIA processes the key decision makers will provide straight forward answers for easy interpretation in relation to their decision making. Successful EIA documentation is more readily produced if the audience and their needs are established at the start of EIA and then made to affect how the research is focused and reported.

Limitations in India

EIA generates huge benefits in selection of project location, process, design, development actions, and decision-making; however, in the current practice of EIA there are a number of flaws, shortcomings and deficiencies. There are many reasons behind the poor quality of EIA reports, but one major cause stems from the simple fact that too many EIA reports are prepared with limited environmental information and data. As noted by the World Bank (2012), “the need for vast numbers of EIAs coupled with an absence of baseline environmental data resulted in mass production of EIAs of poor quality and little value11. The Limitations to EIA in India re enumerated below:

  1. The EIA taken should be at policy and planning level rather than the project level.
  2. Possible alternatives are often small.
  3. There are no criteria to decide what types of projects undergo EIA, because many projects do not require in depth EIA.
  4. Lack of comprehensive environmental information, base limitations of time, manpower, financial resources.
  5. More research and development of improved methodologies required to overcome limitations relating in data.
  6. EIA report too academic, bureaucratic and lengthy therefore difficult to understand for common people.
  7. In actuality, EIA immediately ends after project clearance, no follow up taken12.

Reassessing the Assessment

Environmental Impact Assessment is a tool used to identify the economic, social and environmental impacts of project prior to decision making in India context. Even after through deliberation the big picture about the water, forest, agriculture sectors and their sustainability challenges in the Indian Himalayan states still remains a problem13. This is due to faulty Indian practice of project level Environmental Impact Assessment for extensive hydropower development. Site inspection says the state government should carry out basin wide EIAs for all river basins and until those are finalized no more hydel projects should be allotted in those places. Construction of operation of small hydropower projects can lead to other significant impacts such as deforestation, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and disturbances of groundwater regimes.

Strategic Environmental Assessment has the potential to address the urgent problem of cumulative impacts and would allow for examination of strategic alternatives. In India, even the limited and flawed safeguards offered by the environmental clearance procedure have now been diluted through recent changes. The EIA Notification of September 2006 puts enormous discretion in the hands of authorities; they can now do away with a public hearing that was earlier mandatory. The right of participation in the hearing has also been restricted to “local people14.” India has only limited experience in it and in case of hydropower planning its almost missing. This is happening due to inadequacy of EIA regulation in addressing significant environmental aspects on the other hand SEA could play a major role in closing knowledge gaps regarding cumulative and basin effects and making the due consideration of environmental aspects an integral part of decision making15.

Nonetheless EIA is playing a crucial role in all future decisions upon the development of areas between flow principle, that is based on an equilibrium of material and energy and financial input output for improving the quality of life including ecological, cultural, political, institutional, social and economic components without leaving a burden on the future generations.

  1. Pacifica F. Achieng Ogola Environmental Impact Assessment General Procedures, Presented at Short Course II on Surface Exploration for Geothermal Resources, November 2007, http://www.os.is/gogn/unu-gtp-sc/UNU-GTP-SC-05-28.pdf. []
  2. What is EIA, Posiva, http://www.posiva.fi/en/nuclear_waste_management/required_permissions_and_procedures/environmental_impact_assessment_procedure/what_is_eia. []
  3. Id. []
  4. Manu and Anshu Environmental Impact Assessment,  UEMRI-India, http://www.gdrc.org/uem/eia.html. []
  5. Understanding EIA, Centre for Science and Development, http://www.cseindia.org/node/383. []
  6. Environment Impact Notification 2006, Gazette of India, September 14, 2006, envfor.nic.in/legis/eia/so1533.pdf. []
  7. Aagati Consulting Environment Impact Assesment in India, Aagati Consulting, April 10, 2012, http://www.AagatiConsulting/environmental-impact-assessment-in-india-aagati-consulting-12334280. []
  8. Aruna Murthy & Himansu Sekhar Patra, Environment Impact Assessment Process in India and the Drawbacks,  September 2005, http://www.freewebs.com/epgorissa/ENVIRONMENT%20IMPACT%20ASSESSMENT%20PROCESS%20IN%20INDIA%20AND%20THE%20DRAWBACKS-1.pdf. []
  9. Id. []
  10. Environmental Impact Assessment Principles and Process, Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, October 30, 2003, http://www.unescap.org/drpad/vc/orientation/m8_1.htm. []
  11. John Kakonge Improving Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Effectiveness: Some Reflections, Global Policy, (March 5, 2013), http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/05/03/2013/improving-environmental-impact-assessment-eia-effectiveness-some-reflections. []
  12. Bibhabasu Mohanty, Environment Impact Assessment, SlideShare, (October 21, 2012), http://www.slideshare.net/bibhabasumohanty/environmental-impact-assessment-m5 []
  13. Indian Himalayan Youth Summit Concludes, Nagaland Post, (September 25, 2013), http://www.nagalandpost.com/ChannelNews/State/StateNews.aspx?news=TkVXUzEwMDA0NjE0NQ%3D%3D-fyOC9YgOaP0%3D. []
  14. Shripad Dharmadhikary, Mountains of Concrete: Dam Building in the Himalayas, International Rivers, 4 (2008), http://www.internationalrivers.org/files/attached-files/ir_himalayas.pdf. []
  15. Ravinder Makhaik Himachal’s vanishing rivers, damaging original habitats – German study, (October 9, 2013) http://hillpost.in/2013/10/himachals-vanishing-rivers-damaging-original-habitats-german-study/96458. []