Setting up development projects is an essential activity for the growth and development of an economy. While these projects add to the national income and jobs, they are likely to have a potentially harmful impact on the environment, including the air, water, forests, soil and ecology, which, in turn, can affect local communities in the respective regions.

Hence, it is essential to conduct a comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) to determine the project’s benefits and externalities at the stage of its conception. The need for adequate care of local communities arises from the fact that many of the affected members might lose their land and habitat and suffer from detrimental health issues.

There has been impressive advancements in the knowledge and practice of environmental impact assessment methodologies. However, there are still some deficiencies needing attention. These include the lack of information on the appropriate structure of the environment assessment appeal process, contextual factors regarding applying the proposed practices in specific settings, and verification of links between processes and desired outcomes.

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) published the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020 on April 11, 2020, which would replace EIA Notification, 2006 and its subsequent amendments.

The draft EIA Notification has been scrutinised by various stakeholders, who claim that the new provisions dilute already weak environmental regulations. Some former bureaucrats have also spoken out against the notification. More than 60 bureaucrats (from both Central and State governments, including a Former Secretary, Ministry of Environment & Forest) co-signed a letter sent to MoEF&CC and the PMO urging that the draft notification be reconsidered. Various environmental organisations, NGOs and other stakeholders have also spoken out against the notification for similar reasons.

The criticisms can be summed up into four broad points.

First, specific projects have been exempted from preparing an EIA, including ‘B2’ category projects, such as small-scale mining and irrigation, and various factories operated by small and medium enterprises.

Second, the notification gives way for currently operational projects without an environmental clearance (EC) to pay for remediation and fines and apply for an EC.

Third, the efficiency of the public hearing process has been reduced by removing this requirement for several project types, including certain expansions and projects near border areas. The public would have 20 days to respond to the draft EIA report, compared to the current norm of 30 days. Further, only the report’s summary would need to be translated to the local language, while the full report can be submitted in English.

And, fourth, the requirements for compliance monitoring have been reduced from twice-a-year to annually.

The exemption of some projects from the requirement of preparing an EIA report is antithetical to environmental protection — these exempted projects still pose a risk to the environment. Thorough due diligence must precede the granting of such exemption.

There is some well-researched literature on good global practices for EIA. It would be apt to adopt them in the interest of long-term sustainability of growth and the environment. Inputs and guidance may be sought from various disciplines, including public policy planning, risk management, administrative law, environmental policy and mega-project planning.

A forward-looking EIA strategy would ensure that all stakeholders are involved in the decision-making process well in advance.

Chadha is Program Director and Sivamani is Research Assistant, Natural Resources, Centre for Social and Economic Progress. Views are personal