Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a process used to identify and evaluate the potential environmental and social effects of a proposed project, plan, or policy before it is implemented. 

The primary purpose of EIA is to ensure that decision-makers and stakeholders have access to information about the environmental consequences of their actions, enabling them to make informed choices and mitigate adverse impacts.

History and Evolution of Environmental Impact Assessment:

  1. Early Roots: The origins of EIA can be traced back to the early 20th century, with the establishment of environmental laws in different countries. For example, in the United States, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was enacted in 1969, which laid the foundation for modern EIA practices. NEPA required federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of their projects and provide public involvement in the decision-making process.
  2. Growth in the 1970s: During the 1970s, the need for assessing and mitigating environmental impacts became more apparent due to increasing industrialization and concerns about environmental degradation. Many countries started developing their own EIA regulations and guidelines, drawing inspiration from NEPA. This decade marked the expansion of EIA as a tool for environmental management.
  3. Global Recognition in the 1980s: In the 1980s, EIA gained international recognition as a critical process for sustainable development. Organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) endorsed the use of EIA in various development projects. The concept of “best available technology” and “best environmental practices” became central to EIA assessments during this period.
  4. Maturation and Standardization: In the 1990s, EIA practices matured, and there was an increasing emphasis on standardizing the process to ensure consistency and effectiveness. International organizations, including the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA), played a vital role in developing guidelines and best practices for EIA across different sectors and regions.
  5. Integration with Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA): In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the integration of EIA with Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) became more common. SEA evaluates the environmental implications of policies, plans, and programs, complementing the project-level focus of EIA. This integration strengthened the consideration of broader environmental implications in decision-making processes.
  6. Focus on Climate Change and Sustainability: As concerns about climate change and sustainability grew in the 21st century, EIA adapted to include specific considerations for greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and resilience to climate-related risks. Climate Change Impact Assessment (CCIA) and Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA) have become integral components of EIA in many jurisdictions.
  7. Advancements in Technology: Advancements in technology have also influenced the evolution of EIA. Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing, and modeling tools now facilitate more accurate and comprehensive assessments. These technologies allow for better data collection, visualization, and analysis of potential impacts.
  8. International Collaboration: Today, EIA continues to evolve, driven by ongoing international collaboration and the adoption of best practices from different countries. Various global initiatives, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), have further emphasized the importance of EIA in achieving sustainable development objectives.

Process of EIA

EIA Process Stage Description
Screening The initial stage of EIA determines whether the proposed project necessitates an assessment and, if so, the level of evaluation required.
Scoping At this stage, key issues and impacts to be investigated further are identified. The boundaries and time frame for the study are also defined.
Impact Analysis This phase involves identifying and predicting the potential environmental and social impacts of the project and evaluating their significance.
Mitigation In this step, measures are recommended to minimize and prevent adverse environmental consequences associated with the project’s development activities.
Reporting The results of the EIA are compiled into a report presented to the decision-making body and other interested parties.
Public Hearing After the EIA report is completed, the public and environmental groups living near the project site may be informed and consulted.
Review of EIA The adequacy and effectiveness of the EIA report are examined, providing essential information for decision-making.
Decision-Making This stage involves determining whether the project is approved, rejected, or requires further modifications.
Post Monitoring After the project is commissioned, this stage ensures that its impacts comply with legal standards and that the mitigation measures described in the EIA report are implemented as intended.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in India

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in India traces its roots back to 1976-77 when the Planning Commission tasked the Department of Science & Technology with evaluating river valley projects from an environmental perspective. This scope expanded to include projects requiring Public Investment Board approval. 

  • In 1986, the Indian government passed the Environment (Protection) Act, making EIA a statutory requirement. Other significant laws related to this field are the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act (1972), the Water Act (1974), the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act (1981), and the Biological Diversity Act (2002).
  • To enhance environmental information management, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change established the Environmental Information System (ENVIS) in 1982. ENVIS serves as a web-based distributed network of subject-specific databases, facilitating the collection, storage, retrieval, and dissemination of environment-related data, thus supporting better environmental assessment practices.
  • The central regulatory framework governing green clearance for industry establishment or expansion based on potential environmental impacts is the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification of 2006. Since its inception in 1994, the notification has undergone several revisions, adapting to changing circumstances.

However, the flexibility of the 2006 notification has led to its misuse by governments seeking to ease the establishment and expansion of polluting industries. Office memorandums have been introduced to modify the notification without public consultation. 

In the past five years, 110 such changes have been implemented, some of which have faced challenges in the National Green Tribunal. The year 2022-23 witnessed the highest number of changes introduced to the 2006 notification in the last five years.

EIA Notification 2006

EIA Notification 2006, also known as the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2006, brought significant changes to the project clearance process in India. It decentralized the clearance procedure and categorized developmental projects into two main groups:

  1. Category A (National Level Appraisal): Projects falling under Category A are appraised by the Impact Assessment Agency (IAA) and the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) at the national level. These projects require mandatory environmental clearance and do not undergo the initial screening process.
  2. Category B (State Level Appraisal): Projects falling under Category B are appraised by the State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) and the State Level Expert Appraisal Committee (SEAC) at the state level. Category B projects undergo a screening process to determine their classification into B1 (Mandatorily requiring EIA) and B2 (Not requiring EIA).

The EIA Notification 2006 introduced four stages into the EIA Cycle:

  1. Screening: Projects under Category B are screened to determine whether they mandatorily require Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or not.
  2. Scoping: This stage involves defining the scope of the EIA, identifying key issues, and determining the boundaries and timeframe of the assessment.
  3. Public Hearing: During this stage, public and environmental groups living near the project site are informed and consulted on the proposed project’s environmental impacts.
  4. Appraisal: Projects under Category A and B1 undergo a comprehensive environmental appraisal by the respective appraisal committees.

Certain projects, such as mining, thermal power plants, river valley projects, infrastructure development (roads, highways, ports, harbors, and airports), and specific industries including very small electroplating or foundry units, are mandated to obtain environmental clearance due to their potential environmental impacts.

Importance of EIA

  1. Identifying Environmental Impacts: EIA helps identify and evaluate potential environmental impacts of proposed projects, policies, or plans before they are implemented. This enables decision-makers to understand the potential consequences and take necessary steps to mitigate adverse effects.
  2. Informed Decision-Making: EIA provides decision-makers with valuable information about the environmental implications of their actions. This ensures that projects are designed and implemented in a manner that minimizes negative impacts and maximizes positive outcomes.
  3. Public Participation and Transparency: EIA involves public consultation and engagement, allowing affected communities, stakeholders, and environmental experts to voice their concerns and opinions. This participatory approach promotes transparency and ensures that decisions are made with a broader understanding of public interests.
  4. Sustainable Development: By considering environmental and social factors, EIA contributes to sustainable development. It helps strike a balance between economic growth, social well-being, and environmental protection, ensuring that development projects meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.
  5. Avoiding Irreversible Damage: EIA can prevent irreversible damage to ecosystems, biodiversity, and natural resources. By identifying potential negative impacts at an early stage, appropriate measures can be taken to avoid or minimize long-term ecological harm.
  6. Enhancing Project Design: EIA promotes a comprehensive understanding of project complexities and their potential effects. This knowledge can lead to improved project designs that are more environmentally friendly and socially acceptable.
  7. Compliance with Legal and Regulatory Requirements: In many countries, EIA is a legal requirement for certain types of projects. By adhering to the EIA process, project proponents ensure compliance with environmental regulations and avoid legal challenges.
  8. International Cooperation: EIA has become an internationally recognized practice. Many multinational projects funded by international organizations require adherence to rigorous EIA processes, promoting global environmental standards and cooperation.
  9. Climate Change Considerations: EIA has adapted to address climate change concerns. It assesses greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and climate resilience, enabling projects to incorporate climate-friendly practices and reduce their carbon footprint.
  10. Risk Management: EIA assists in identifying potential environmental risks and uncertainties associated with projects. Understanding these risks allows for the implementation of suitable risk management measures to protect the environment and communities.

Drawbacks of EIA in the Indian System:

  1. Limited Applicability: The current EIA notification excludes certain projects with significant environmental impacts, either because they are not listed in Schedule 1 or because their investments fall below the specified threshold. This leads to potential oversight of crucial assessments.
  2. Expert Committee Composition: The expertise of the committees responsible for conducting EIA investigations is often deficient in various fields, such as anthropology, environmental science, and wildlife expertise. This lack of diverse knowledge may hinder comprehensive assessments.
  3. Inadequate Ecological and Socioeconomic Indicators: The EIA process lacks comprehensive ecological and socioeconomic indicators for impact assessment. This deficiency may result in an incomplete understanding of the project’s potential consequences.
  4. Limited Public Participation: Public opinions are not consistently considered from the beginning of the EIA process, leading to disagreements during the project clearance stages. Moreover, some projects with significant environmental and social impacts skip the required public hearing procedure, limiting public involvement.
  5. Lack of Timely Access to Documents: Publicly accessible documents related to EIA assessments are often not made available in a timely manner. This reduces transparency and hinders meaningful public engagement.
  6. Disregard for Traditional Knowledge: The data-gathering process does not always respect the indigenous knowledge of local communities. This oversight may overlook valuable insights into the project’s potential impacts on the environment and society.

Recommendations for EIA in the Indian System:

  1. Enhanced Applicability: Ensure that all projects, regardless of size or investment, which are expected to have significant impacts on ecosystems, undergo the environmental clearance process. This will help prevent potential oversights and ensure comprehensive assessments.
  2. Prohibition in Environmentally Vulnerable Areas: Restrict industrial development in environmentally vulnerable regions to safeguard sensitive ecosystems and prevent irreversible damage to natural habitats.
  3. Comprehensive Public Hearing: Subject all previously exempt categories of projects with environmental consequences to public hearings. This will promote transparency, public participation, and better decision-making.
  4. Shift in Focus: Reprioritize the objective of EIA towards the conservation of natural resources rather than their exploitation and utilization. This approach will foster sustainable development and environmental protection.
  5. Inclusive Checklist: Include important considerations in the checklist, such as the implications on agricultural biodiversity, traditional knowledge related to biodiversity, and livelihoods. These factors are essential for a holistic assessment of environmental impacts.

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