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Environmental Impact Assessment Framework for the Indian Himalayan Region

The breach of the Teesta dam in Sikkim in early October and the recent floods and landslides in Himachal Pradesh reflect the fact that our development model is wreaking havoc on our environment and ecology, especially in the mountains. It is essential to assess the merits of any significant human endeavor in terms of its impact on the environment.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a process defined by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) as a tool to identify the environmental, social, and economic impacts of a project before its implementation. This tool compares different alternatives to a proposed project, predicting and analyzing all possible environmental impacts in different scenarios. Environmental impact assessment also helps in deciding appropriate mitigation strategies.

The environmental impact assessment process will require comprehensive, reliable data and will yield results only if it is designed to obtain the most appropriate, relevant, and reliable information regarding the project. Therefore, the baseline data on which future potential impacts are being predicted is very important.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in India

In India, the EIA began in 1976–77, when the Planning Commission directed the Department of Science and Technology to assess river valley projects from an environmental point of view. This was later extended to all projects that required approval from the Public Investment Board.

At that time, environmental clearance was only an administrative decision of the Central Government. On January 27, 1994, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Climate Change under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 (EPA) issued the first EIA notification making environmental clearance (EC) mandatory for setting up certain specified new projects.

Amendments to Environmental Impact Assessment

The hallmark of the 2006 notification was the decentralization of the EC process. State governments were also given powers to issue EC in certain cases. In the name of streamlining the process, the 2006 notification has also been amended several times. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Climate Change released a draft EIA in 2020 for public comment, which was deemed pro-industry and compromising ecological concerns.

When used diligently, the EIA can be the most powerful regulatory tool in the arsenal of environmental governance to pursue the vision of sustainable development in the country.

The Environmental Impact Assessment 2006 Notification lays down the procedure as well as the institutional arrangements for granting environmental clearance to projects that require such clearance as per this Notification. Prior EC is required only for the projects mentioned in the schedule attached to the notification. EIA is not required for many projects as they do not fall within the scope of this notification.

In this notification, the projects have been classified under different headings, such as mining, extraction of natural resources, power generation, and physical infrastructure. Unfortunately, the extent of the EIA required for all these projects is the same across the country.

Indian Himalayan Region

Despite all levels of government being deeply aware of the special needs of the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR), the vulnerabilities and fragility of this region have not been given separate consideration. While some of the industries mentioned in the schedule of the notification cannot be set up in IHR states due to the industrial policies of the respective states, other industries and projects will have to meet the same threshold as in the rest of the country. Even the draft 2020 notification released for public discussion does not treat IHR as distinct from the rest of the country and is not cognizant of the special developmental needs of IHR.

Drawbacks of the Hierarchical Approach

The Indian regulatory system uses a hierarchical approach and a differentiated risk management approach depending on whether a project falls within a protected forest, reserved forest, national park, or critical tiger habitat. In the context of the Environmental Impact Assessment process, the stringency of the proposed environmental conditions is proportionate to the value and sensitivity of the habitat that will be affected by the project.

An unfortunate omission from this hierarchical approach to differentiated risk management has been IHR. Despite its special needs and being an area of immense ecological importance for the entire country (it serves as a water tower and provider of ecosystem services), the area is treated like any other part of the country.

Integrating IHR-specific terms

Suggest the inclusion of IHR-specific conditions in the EIA framework, addressing altitude, geographical characteristics, and other factors that increase the environmental vulnerability of the area. Such conditions can be integrated into all stages of the EIA process, from screening to evaluation.

When classifying projects, it is important that the impacts of all such projects and activities are viewed in the IHR context of the fragility and vulnerability of the region’s ecology and environment. We have an adequate systemic understanding that the Himalayas are naturally vulnerable to extreme weather conditions such as heavy rains, flash floods, and landslides and are seismically active. Climate change has added another layer of vulnerability to this ecosystem. Despite this understanding of the fragility and vulnerability of the Himalayas, there is no mention of a different set of environmental standards required if the project is located in the IHR.

The rapid devastation that the Himalayan states are witnessing every year following extreme weather conditions shows that the region is already paying a heavy price for this indifference.

Steps for the Environmental Impact Assessment

The needs of these mountains can be addressed at all four stages of EIA—screening, scoping, public consultation, and evaluation—if the criteria for projects and activities requiring EC in hilly areas are tailored to the ecological needs of the region.

The general conditions mandatory for all projects at the end of the notification may also contain a clause regarding IHR or mountains above a certain height or with certain specified features that may increase the liability of the project proponent.

The way forward: balancing development and conservation

Urgency of change

Reiterating the urgency of revisiting the EIA framework for IHR in light of recent environmental disasters, the article emphasizes the current enormous damage to the area and the need for immediate action.

Balancing development and conservation

Concluding a call to balance development goals with environmental protection in the IHR, it is important to emphasize the role of the revised EIA framework as an important step towards achieving sustainable development in hilly areas.

A one-size-fits-all approach to environmental impact assessment is clearly inadequate in a diverse and ecologically sensitive country like India. The Indian Himalayan region, with its unique challenges and ecological importance, underlines the need for a specific environmental impact assessment framework that aligns with its fragility and contributes to the vision of sustainable development. This article advocates a paradigm shift in our regulatory approach, urging stakeholders to recognize the urgency of addressing the environmental vulnerabilities of IHR.

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When did EIA in India originate, and what was its early purpose?

EIA in India began in 1976–77 when the Planning Commission directed the assessment of river valley projects from an environmental perspective. Initially, it was directed at river valley projects.

What are the key amendments and challenges to the EIA process in India?

The EIA process has been amended multiple times, and a draft EIA in 2020 was criticized for being pro-industry. Challenges include the need for balance between development and ecological concerns.

Why is it urgent to revise the EIA framework for the IHR?

Recent environmental disasters and the increasing damage to the Himalayan region highlight the urgency of revisiting the EIA framework to protect this ecologically fragile area.

About the Author

Hey there! I'm Nikesh, a content writer at Adda247. I specialize in creating informative content focused on UPSC and State PSC exams. Join me as we unravel the complexities of these exams and turn aspirations into achievements together!

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