Should We Stop the Environmental Clearance Process?

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been a celebrated tool, widely accepted across the world for sustainable development following a precautionary principle. But in its 50 years of existence, effectiveness of EIA has remained in question. Some believe that requirement of EIA has influenced the project concept, its siting, design and operations and they have few good stories to share where EIA added a value. A large number of people however argue that EIA studies are carried out essentially to obtain the Environmental Clearance (EC). Unfortunately, the implementation and monitoring of the agreed Environmental Management Plans (EMP) have remained weak.

One of the reasons for this apathy is the poor understanding of the relationship between environment, economics and livelihoods at the government bodies as well as at the business or the private sector. The pace and pressure on economic development is not giving us time enough or a respite to rethink. Corruption and pollution around us have shaken up the foundations of transparency, ethics and equity. No wonder, EIA has remained today more as a perfunctory tool.

“If this is the case, then why are we proposing 2020 EIA Notification? Is the proposed Notification solving these problems?” My Professor Friend asked me this question.

“Well Professor, all systems need to be updated. It is now more than 14 years that the last EIA Notification was introduced”. I answered in a tone of matter of fact.

There have been so many amendments to the 2006 EIA Notification in the past several years, that understanding what is currently applicable has often been a challenge.

These numerous OMs (Office Memorandums) have been now well reflected and consolidated in the 2020 Draft Notification. I thought that this work itself deserves congratulations to the Ministry.

But Professor raised a red flag.

He said the only worry was that in such an exercise of consolidation, OMs that were meant to resolve certain irregularities in the past, especially on the violations of EC, were now brought in as applicable to all future cases of violations i.e. violations on EC will now be allowed, albeit with a penalty.

He was right. This reminded me of the amnesty scheme released time to time for the Income Tax defaulters to regularize their misdeeds. Perhaps the administrators at the Environment Ministry had their last posting in the Income Tax departments where they were accustomed to allow tax violations against penalties.

But I had positive stories to tell.

“Professor, this Draft Notification has addressed several grey areas and provided clear guidelines and formats to make the Environmental Clearance (EC) process efficient and easier”. I explained how this was achieved by taking him through a comparative assessment of 2006 and 2020 notifications.

This Draft would lead to reduction in the timelines and granting of certain exemptions, in line with the national interest of ease of doing business, especially during the COVID times.

Professor was not impressed. He pointed out that unfortunately, the post EC monitoring, especially of the agreed EMPs, continues to be weak in this Draft. Further, the existing machinery at the Pollution Control Board (PCBs) was not good enough to do regular inspections for checking compliance.

He continued.

“Well, Dr Modak. I am not too worried about weak implementation as today India’s Judiciary is playing an important role by responding to the complaints from the public or affected people. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been passing orders on closures and demanding recovery of the damage caused to the environment through hefty fines. So, I am sure that those who do not implement the agreed EMP, will be exposed by the public and pulled up to the Courts”

I understood then the essence of “participatory” environmental governance that Professor was hinting.

Professor paused and looked outside the window.

“Dr Modak, sometimes I wonder why do we need an EIA Notification in the first place? Let all project developers establish and operate without EC or environmental permissions. We should have more green courts and more benches of the Tribunals across the country. Their presence and active participation should be good enough to scare the defaulters and meet the compliance”

I thought this was a stupid idea but perhaps what he was suggesting could happen and be brutally true.

I wanted to think positive. So, I asked Professor for a better idea.

“ Dr Modak, I studied EMPs prescribed in the ECs across various sectors. I realized that many of the good practices prescribed really did not require to be “found” through an EIA. To me many recommendations were obvious and must do. For example, for a Coal Fired Thermal Power Plant, do you need modelling to arrive at a requirement of an Electrostatic Precipitator or a requirement of double pass cooling? Besides, we are stipulating a minimum stack height of 250 m and condition of thermal block criteria anyway. Let me give another example.  Why not we insist on Electric Arc Furnaces for processing steel scrap instead of a blast furnace when the former is more energy efficient and reduces GHG emissions? We could also impose a requirement that the minimum production capacity of a paper and pulp unit processing agriculture residues should be 30 tons per day as only then a black liquor recovery unit is economically feasible.”

So, what would you propose Professor? I found his idea interesting.

Professor took a deep puff

“I suggest that we develop mandatory best practices in the project concept, planning, design and operation for each key development sector in consultation with the relevant line ministries. The project developers will get license or permission only if these mandatory requirements are met. These requirements will ensure that we are operating at high resource efficiency, closer to the benchmarks, generating low residues. We should also push a residue management system that aligns well with regional circular economy. Working “upstream”, may not then require following of an EIA process. The system of granting consents and authorizations from the PCBs followed by inspections and monitoring should be good enough instead of asking for an EC”.

“No Professor, we must realize that enforcing good practices alone is not going to address people’s concerns, ecological sensitivity and issues such land acquisition and resettlement. So, EC process cannot be abandoned and will be required”

Professor had an answer.

“Dr Modak, you are perhaps exaggerating the issue. We already have notified Environmental Sensitive Zones (ESZ), Protected Areas and Forests and Coastal Regulation Zones (CRZ) and so these notifications will continue take care of local ecological sensitivity. The Land Acquisition Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act will address people’s concerns related to displacement. And finally, to top all,  we already have the Green Courts, NGT and Supreme Court.

I am now thinking why have an EIA Notification then?  The basic working of EC system itself (whether 2006 or 2020) is hardly effective, it is corrupt and is causing significant delays. Unfortunately, despite these notifications, environment has continued to deteriorate with changes that are irreversible. There is poor social justice. More worrisome is that we are still focusing on project level EIAs and not notifying a requirement for Regional EIA. We continue to fail in addressing the cumulative impacts. And where are we addressing climate induced vulnerability in the EC? I wish the 2020 Draft could have addressed these lacunae.”

I was astonished to hear these radical thoughts, But I had a million-dollar question to ask.

“So, Professor, would you then recommend that the EIA Notification itself should be dropped and the current Draft is not worth discussing?”

Professor extinguished his cigar and got up from his chair

“Well, Dr Modak. This is what I would like to recommend, but then I realize that if we shut down the EC process , then what will happen to the business of EIA consultants and money that circulates around obtaining the EC? How about the interest of some of the NGOs and politicians? Realize that we would be targeted by all the nations as a country that is butchering environment for the sake of short-term economic development. So, impact of not following EC or not doing impact assessment could be substantially adverse. Given these considerations, the EC process with the cosmetic changes will have to continue”.

I thought the Professor was right.  Once again.

EIA should be ideally carried out by every project developer, the regulator, the investor and the citizens, as an essential and integral part of any project development & operations. EIA should not be considered as an ad on.

The drivers for the conduct of EIA should be the precautionary principle, empathy and responsibility, leading to preventive actions & implementation of best practices. EIA should demonstrate a “value add” and thus make a compelling proposition.

And finally, the purpose of conducting an EIA should not be limited to obtain an Environmental Clearance. It is much more.

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  1. In essence, we shall continue to pretend that we have EC process to address environmental concerns.

  2. As a natural corollary to the Professor’s theory that Green courts, the Hon. NGT and the Hon. Supreme Court have now taken over the responsibility for protecting the Environment, the MOEF&CC must seriously consider shutting down all state PCBs. Even a cursory review and examination of the performance and effectiveness of these agencies in carrying out the tasks mandated under various Acts will support this theory. Radical as it may sound, that is the bitter truth.

    On a lighter note Prasad, does your Professor friend have a name ? Just curious.

  3. Dr Modak, very few environmentalists have the guts to put up on record such a daring question. Your question is a very valid and is appreciated.

    Introducing myself, I am Babubhai Patel (Age 83 Yrs), Chairman, Nandesari Industries Association, GIDC, Nandesari, Vadodara, Gujarat.

    I had established chemical units in GIDC in 1974 and am still running them for more than 4½ decades. I was running the units when there were no Pollution control Laws and am still running the units successfully when various pollution laws, EIA acts and NGT orders have come into force.

    The current EIA notification came into force in 2006. CPCB came out with the CEPI – 2009 where 88 industrial clusters were identified under various pollution categories like Critically polluted, severely polluted and other polluted areas. The CEPI – 2018 brought 100 industrial clusters in the polluted areas. So inspite of all the Laws and Acts, 18(1)(b) notifications, NGT orders, the pollution has not decreased but only increased many folds. Basically, Environmental Clearance came in the existence for the siting of the Industries, later it gradually incorporated full scale clearance comprising all the aspects of pollution.

    With Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan so strongly promogulated by our Honorable Prime Minister Shri Narendrabhai Modi, it is high time the industrial development and progress is put on fast track without compromising on the pollution. Like the advancement of technology in chemical manufacturing, there is an equal technological advancement on the treatment of water, wastewater, handling of solid waste and treatment and air pollution abatement methods. The CETP of Nandesari Industries Association, GIDC, Nandesari, Vadodara, Gujarat are treating complex waste water from a consortium of chemical industries on the most basis advanced oxidation process of Hydrodynamic Cavitation, which has been authenticated by NEERI. In the concluding remarks, NEERI has commented that
    – The CETP has undergone several changes and new approaches / unit have been added / replaced that ensured effective treatment of the effluent.
    – More notably it introduced Electro-oxidation Technology as well as Hydrodyanamic Cavitation for effluent treatment.
    – This is the first ever “Advanced Oxidation Process” (AOP) based CETP. Both Electro-oxidation and hydrodynamic cavitation technologies were implemented in full-scale in India and perhaps in the World catered for treatment of highly recalcitrant chemical industry effluents.

    I also feel that the entire Environment Clearance process should be abolished. One should not be forced to take so many clearances for the same purpose. First environment clearance, followed by consent to establish followed by consent to operate. However, if the process of environment clearance still continues, I have few suggestions to put forward:

    1) No environmental clearances should be needed till new project / expansion project investment of Rs. 100 Cr.
    The Environment Clearances are nothing but a permission to start the industry which is then taken over by State Pollution Control Boards (SPCB)
    The State Pollution Control Boards with their own team of scientists, chemists, engineers, experts, technical committees are already giving Consents to Establish, Consent to Operate, Renewal of Consents. The SPCB are aware of ground realities, history of the unit and have set methodologies to issue permission under various Environment Acts.
    By this, small units can commence construction followed by manufacturing activities within a short time of 60 ~ 90 days compared to more than 1½ years in case of Environment Clearance procedures where the SEAC/EAC have their own set of rules for clearance.

    2) No unit should be given Environment Clearance based on Zero Discharge, if the project has access to CETP’s. These so called Zero Discharge Industries are mainly responsible for the havoc caused to the environment by the industries.

    3) Analysis of Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) is the generally main basis of the performance of the waste water treatment plants and notices and closures are given on this parameter. But there is a serious flaw in the analysis of this parameter which is not accepted by the Regulatory Authorities.
    Some method for Chloride correction for wastewater samples containing chloride more than 2000 mg/L should be authenticated. We have written to various Regulatory Authorities but till date we have not received any replies. We have approached Standard Methods in USA which is considered the Bible for analysis of water and wastewater parameters and followed by all. They have accepted that there is a flaw and have asked our opinion on the procedure to be followed. We have submitted the procedure for measuring COD for saline waste water and the correspondence with Standard Methods is in progress.

    4) The appraisal committee for clearances of the projects should comprise of representation of the CETP authorities because ultimately it is the CETP which is going to accept the waste water from the unit for further processing.


  4. The new EIA draft isn’t aimed at easing set-up & operation of businesses – it is a badly veiled attempt at giving operations which are bound to cause significant damage to the environment, a free pass.
    It violates the precautionary principle. This cannot be likened to a tax evading individual or business because that would be comparing apples and oranges.
    While the EIA 2006 law may be dated, we need to strengthen it and not make it more lax. This entire conversation sounds imaginary – no self-respecting professor of Env. will say that we ought to do away with EC processes.

  5. Dr. Modak, – Quite an interesting discussion and suggestions thereof. With 13 lakh comments in Draft EIA Rule 2020, I assume a lot of people must have given a thought and compared the 2006 and 2020 notification. Bottom line is people are aware how it is going to affect the ease of doing business in every circle of the process.

    A few things to remember –

    Where is NEPA or Env Appellate Authority and what triggered the concept of NGT.

    We are living in a country where judiciary takes a call on every matter of our life and we are responsible for the same.

    What happened to Zoning Map for the country of CPCB

    Why there is different classification criteria for industries as defined by CPCB Guideline and EIA Notification

    What is happening to the data of monitoring of EC / CTO stipulations

    And, many more…….

    Moreover, We were never either serious about environment or prioritized the environmental matter above money.

    Merely, modifying the existing act or bringing more OMs will not solve the issues of SDGs rather the violators will find some loopholes which the regulator will address by bringing more amendments or OMs.

    Pretending that only the EC process will address the environmental concerns will further destroy the SDGs,

    Rather to my understanding, the EC process should be made a part of protection of environment and the project proponent should adhere to best practices with demonstrable and audit-able Compliance Report for Sustainability (Like energy saving – Star rating programmes) for which the responsibility should be fixed with the professional Independent Directors at Board level for each project company and at the same time responsibility should also be fixed with Regulators for failure to monitor and audit the stipulation compliance. This may bring some changes in time to come.

    1. Dear Bijan. Thanks for sharing your views. I cannot disagree more.

      I hope you know I write my blogs as a satire and conversations are created to send messages that are subtle.

      Please read “About the Blog” section on the website.

      Many of your suggestions are already placed in the blog. Mainstreaming happens when you go for what we call as “programmatic EIA”. We are nowhere there.

      There are more high level concerns e.g. our EIA studies are project limited. We dont have directions for regional and strategic EIA studies where cumulative impacts and policy impacts are addressed. We havent looked at integrating climate change in certain categories of projects.

      We are simply “tweaking” on thresholds, putting exclusions and reducing time for processing and consultations. Thats not a reform! The subject deserves much more serious view, especially on ensuring its effectiveness.

      Do see the last para of my blog where I expressly state my opinion.

      I will uggest that you see my another blog This post may interest you.

      Anyway, most delighted to receive your views.


  6. It has become necessary to relax the EIA and EC process, because the existing process has been hijacked by the activists with unknown sources of funding, to file PILs and block development. Tens of thousands worth of projects are languishing for years because of such PILs. Their modus operandi is simple, find some minor procedural flaw in the EC process and file a PIL seeking a stay order. Usually the stay is secured not on the merits of the case, i.e. not on the grounds that the project was likely to cause some grave environmental harm, but on the grounds of some procedural violation, such as DPR was not made available 30 days prior to public hearing, and such. Once the stay is granted, the project promoter is in deep trouble as he continues to incur fixed costs. Then two things may happen. One, at some point he goes bankrupt and abandons the project. This has happened with many hydro-power projects. Two, he “buys peace” with environmentalists.

    The Expert Committees have non-official members, and unless they are selected with great care, they can play havoc. China had installed some radars close to Anadamans on islands owned by Myanmar. To counter this, our Coast Guard wanted to install radars in Narcondam island in Andamans. It is ludicrous that this should need a EC. Worst, believe it or not, but the NBWL denied clearance on the ground that it may disturb Narcondam Hornbill. This outcome was widely celebrated by the activists.

    A story goes, Dronacharya asked all his pupils to shoot an arrow through a bird’s eye. When asked what does he see Arjuna answered he sees only the eye of the bird and nothing else. Our environmentalists are modern day Arjuna. They see only the environment and nothing else.

    This example demonstrated the level of irresponsibility that pervades our environmental discourse. If the EIA process puts “possible harm” to the habitat of a bird above Nation’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, then it is time to decommission it. And if the environmental activists celebrate this outcome, it is time to ask – who is their real master?

    PS : That was in 2012-13. The clearances was granted in June 2014. What happened ? Did the Coast Guard propose some new radar that doesn’t disturb Narcondam Hornbill ? Or did the bird changed its ways so as to not get disturbed by the radars ? None of these. The Govt. had changed, and the new Govt. had different priorities. Finally, please note – radars are not “development”.

    Chetan Pandit

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