India’s environment approval process is not as independent and based on science as it may appear. The reality is that politics plays an important role in deciding the fates of important projects and the environment clearance process changes every time a new minister takes charge.
The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, the bible for the environment approval process, has undergone changes more than 100 times in less than seven years of coming into force.
The same has been the fate of the new EIA document, which has been changed repeatedly either on court orders or by the government. The result: contrary interpretations every few years.
For instance, the ministry prohibited expansion of projects without environment clearance and then changed its stand within two years to allow expansion of up to 25% without approval. Similarly, in 2010, the ministry decided to make disaster management an integral part of the EIA. Two years later, it was scrapped as the ministry termed it an infringement on the rights of local municipal bodies.
For many who track the environment clearance process like Pushp Jain, director of the Delhi-based EIA Resource and Response Centre, the frequent changes of interpretation of the EIA have resulted in ad hocism and confusion in the country’s environment policy regulation.
The main reason for the mess in environment clearance is that India — unlike the US and other developed countries — does not have an independent expert body which is at an arm’s length from the government for appraising and approving projects.
In India, the expert appraisal committee (EAC) for different sectors functions under the environment ministry with the environment minister having powers to overrule its recommendations. “The EAC has becoming a parking lot for retired IAS officers,” said Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
Then environment minister Jairam Ramesh declared in 2009 that an independent environment approval body on the lines of the United States Environment Protection Agency would be set up to make the approval process politically neutral. Four years down the line the proposed body called the National Environment Appraisal and Monitoring Authority remains a pipe dream.
What ails India’s environment regulation is the poor quality of the EIA reports, the scientific document on the basis of which the ministry decides the fate of a project.
Ritwik Dutta, an environmental lawyer, blamed the EAC for allowing faulty EIA reports, saying it should be responsibility of the “examiner” to find out whether the student was cheating or not. “Here, the EAC is willing to pass everyone,” Dutta said.