The Indian Himalayan Region needs its own EIA
The Teesta dam breach in Sikkim and the recent floods and landslides in Himachal Pradesh have created an alarm regarding the detrimental impact of our development model on the environment and ecology, particularly in mountainous regions.
GS – 01, GS-03 (Geographical Features and their Location, Disaster Management)
Glacial Lake Outburst Flood, Teesta River, Indian Himalayan Region, Climate change, National Disaster Management Authority, Avalanche
Analyze the significance of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process in the context of its role in mitigating environmental repercussions and its applicability in the Indian Himalayan Region. (150 words)
Dimensions of the Article:
- The Basis of EIA
- Evolution of EIA in India
- Role and Applicability of EIA
- The Discrepancy in the Graded Approach
- Addressing the Needs of the IHR
- Challenges in the EIA Process
The Basis of EIA:
- The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) is a process recognized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), designed to identify the environmental, social, and economic implications of a project before its execution.
- It involves a comprehensive evaluation of various alternatives for the proposed project and an analysis of potential environmental consequences in different scenarios. The EIA also aids in formulating suitable mitigation strategies.
- To achieve meaningful outcomes through the EIA process, it necessitates robust and trustworthy data. The baseline data forms the foundation upon which future environmental impacts are predicted.
Evolution of EIA in India:
- The initial precursor to the EIA in India can be traced back to 1976-77 when the Planning Commission tasked the Department of Science and Technology with evaluating river valley projects from an environmental perspective.
- This initiative later expanded to encompass all projects requiring approval from the Public Investment Board. Initially, environmental clearance was primarily an administrative decision by the central government. However, the landscape evolved with the promulgation of the first EIA notification under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 (EPA) by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on January 27, 1994.
- This notification made Environmental Clearance (EC) mandatory for specific new projects and expansion or modernization of certain activities. The 1994 notification underwent 12 amendments within 11 years before being succeeded by the EIA 2006 notification.
- The significant change brought by the 2006 notification was the decentralization of the EC process, allowing state governments to grant EC in specific cases. This notification has since undergone several amendments, and a draft EIA in 2020 sparked controversy, as it was perceived to favor industry over ecological concerns.
Role and Applicability of EIA:
- Used judiciously, the EIA has the potential to be a robust regulatory tool in the domain of environmental governance, aligning with the vision of sustainable development.
- The EIA 2006 notification outlines the procedure and institutional setup for granting environmental clearance to projects subject to its provisions. It classifies projects under various categories such as mining, natural resource extraction, power generation, and physical infrastructure. Unfortunately, the threshold limits for when an EIA is mandatory remain consistent across the country.
The Discrepancy in the Graded Approach:
- The Indian regulatory framework adopts a graded approach for differentiated risk management, varying depending on the project’s location within protected forests, reserved forests, national parks, or critical tiger habitats.
- The stringency of environmental conditions imposed during the scoping stage of the EIA process is proportionate to the ecological significance of the habitat affected by the project.
- One glaring omission in this graded approach is the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR), which is treated no differently from other regions. Despite the IHR’s unique characteristics, ecological importance, and vulnerability to extreme weather conditions, it is not subject to separate environmental standards.
Addressing the Needs of the IHR:
- The specific needs of the Himalayan region should be considered at all stages of the EIA process, encompassing screening, scoping, public consultation, and appraisal. Projects and activities within mountainous regions should be subject to standards commensurate with the region’s ecological requirements.
- General conditions mandated for all projects at the end of the notification should include clauses tailored to the IHR or high-altitude mountainous areas with specific characteristics that amplify environmental liability for project proponents.
Challenges in the EIA Process:
- One major issue is the absence of a national-level regulator, despite the Supreme Court’s suggestion in 2011 for an independent body to conduct objective and transparent project assessments and monitor compliance with EC conditions.
- The EIA process typically reacts to development proposals rather than proactively anticipating them, with a tendency to favor the project due to financial dependence on the proponent. Cumulative impacts of multiple projects in an area are inadequately considered, although some subcomponents or ancillary developments may be addressed.
- The EIA process is often reduced to a checkbox exercise, leading to formality rather than substantive evaluation. These limitations are even more pronounced in the IHR, which bears the brunt of the shortcomings. Policymakers should explore alternative tools such as strategic environmental assessment to comprehensively address the unique ecological requirements of the IHR.
- The EIA process in India requires a reevaluation and overhaul to accommodate the ecological sensitivities of the Indian Himalayan Region. Implementing differentiated standards, ensuring comprehensive evaluations, and addressing the inherent vulnerabilities of the region are pivotal steps to protect this crucial ecosystem.
- Sustainable development can only be realized through a balanced approach that values environmental preservation alongside development. A revised and more inclusive EIA process is integral to achieving this equilibrium and safeguarding our precious natural heritage.