Trails that lead nowhere
The need for assessing environment and social impact of development and industrial projects has been an area of concern. A system of Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) was institutionalised through a notification by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in 1994. Since then, the experience with these assessments has been far from satisfactory. EIA reports have been done in an extremely shoddy, incomplete and inadequate manner. Yet year after year, projects have been cleared, despite criticism and protests. In September 2006, the MoEF re-engineered the environment clearance process through the notification, with special consultations with the industry associations at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office. It was like making a regulatory law keeping the needs of those who need to be regulated in mind.
As if the diluted notification was not enough, the MoEF and industry associations have initiated a new exercise for the accreditation of EIA consultants. It is a voluntary scheme to register agencies that prepare EIA reports for development projects under the National Registration Board for Personnel and Training (NRBPT), a constituent of the Quality Council of India (QCI). QCI is an autonomous body with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry as its nodal ministry. The industry representatives on this are Assocham, CII and Ficci. Interestingly, these were the same three industry associations the MoEF had shared the revised version of the re-engineered EIA notification with through special meetings. They, therefore, had an important role to play in the highly diluted version of the law that is under implementation today.
Critics have been pointing out that for the last 13 years some EIA consultants are habitual violators, repeatedly producing shoddy reports and need to be ‘blacklisted’. They have also been stating that only consultants who have demonstrated professional integrity should be allowed to do EIAs. But the new initiative does not focus on either of these concerns. Instead, it adopts a system of voluntary registration. Will the registered consultants get any special privileges or incentives for good work or is the registration incidental to the question of who can conduct EIAs? This remains unanswered.
The MoEF’s role in this initiative is murky. It admits that two meetings were chaired by the Secretary, MoEF. The draft scheme prepared by the QCI was discussed and finalised based on these meetings held on October 24, 2005 and July 26, 2006. Presentations were also made to the MoEF’s Expert Appraisal Committee on Mining. An RTI response indicates that there are no minutes of these meetings. Why is the ministry attempting to conceal its level of involvement in this registration scheme? One presentation made to the MoEF indicates that a proposed budget to the tune of Rs 55 lakh was presented to the MoEF.
The abysmal quality of EIA reports is something that has been acknowledged even in the NRBPT document. But this has not been considered reason enough to reject clearance to any project. During 2003-2006, the MoEF has cleared approximately 2,056 projects in different sectors. The EIAs of many of these projects were studied by civil society groups and communities and well researched critiques were presented to the decision-making authorities at the time of public hearings. Unfortunately, it made no difference.
There is undoubtedly a need for regulating the manner in which EIAs are carried out in the country. But to hand this responsibility to an organisation directly backed by industry is unacceptable. A credible, independent committee with an equal representation of civil society should be given the power to register, revoke certification and blacklist EIA consultants who may still submit shoddy reports despite having received certification through the registration process. This ought to be an open and transparent process, taking into consideration public testimonies of the experiences of project affected communities and civil society groups.
Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon are members of Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group