New Delhi: On 17 January, the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MOEFCC) announced the implementation of a new system of rating each State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA). The process is based on the speed with which they grant environmental clearance (EC) to projects such as mining operations and construction work.
The office memorandum (OM) issued by the ministry states that the system has been put in place to “incentivise states through a star-rating system, based on the efficiency and timeliness in granting EC”.
According to the memorandum, a system ranking states on how much time they take to grant an EC had been discussed at a meeting with Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba on 13 November 2021, in the context of action taken on the “ease of doing business”.
In order to be rated highly, the state authorities must satisfactorily fulfil seven criteria that can earn them a maximum of eight points (and a rating of five stars). These criteria include how quickly the EC is granted, site visits, and percentage of EC proposals disposed of within six months, among others.
The move has been criticised by researchers and activists, who say it could result in states granting ECs hurriedly and without thorough review.
ThePrint reached MOEFCC spokesperson Gaurav Khare on WhatsApp for comment, and he said he had forwarded the query to Secretary Leena Nandan. There was, however, no response from the ministry till the publication of this report.
What the new system proposes
According to the new system, state environment impact assessment authorities can earn up to one point each for six of the criteria and up to two points for the remaining one. The SEIAAs will be rated every six months in what the ministry calls a “dynamic process”.
The first criterion is the “average number of days for granting EC”. States that do so in less than 80 days of receiving the project proposal can earn two points (“one extra”). Granting it after 105 days or less will earn states one point, and granting it between 105 and 120 days will earn states half a point.
The second criterion is the percentage of terms of reference (TOR) proposals that have been disposed of 30 days after receiving them. The TOR is a document issued by the SEIAA which outlines elements required for a fair environmental impact assessment. SEIAAs that dispose of more than 90 per cent of such TOR proposals will get one point. Those that dispose of 80-90 cent will get half a point, and clearance of 80 per cent or below will earn states zero points.
States will also be rated by the percentage of cases in which they seek information about a project multiple times. If the SEIAA seeks additional details more than once, it could stand to lose more points. According to the rating system, state authorities that ask for additional details multiple times in more than 30 per cent of cases will get zero points, while those who ask for additional details in fewer than 10 per cent of cases will receive one point.
Other criteria for assessment include the average number of days the authority took to accept EC and TOR proposals (with authorities accepting proposals in five days or less earning one point), as well as the complaints addressed by the authority. Authorities that address all their complaints will earn one point, those that address 50 per cent or more will get half a point, and those that address less than 50 per cent will get no points.
Lastly, states are rated according to the percentage of site visits they make out of cases with the authority. States that conduct fewer site visits — 10 per cent or less — will be rewarded with the maximum of one point, while states conducting site visits in more than 20 per cent of cases will receive zero points.
What is the environmental clearance process
The environmental clearance process is warranted for 39 types of projects listed in the Environmental Impact Assessment notification of 2006. These include the mining of minerals, the building of airports and townships, and the installation of thermal power plants, to name a few.
These projects are categorised based on the kind of environmental clearance they would require. Category A projects require mandatory environmental clearance at the central level, and category B projects are reviewed at the state level by the SEIAAs.
The SEIAAs further categorise these projects into B1 and B2, with the latter not requiring an environmental impact assessment to be carried out in order for clearance to be granted. Those in the B2 category have to meet a separate set of parameters for clearance.
Project proponents who have to carry out environmental impact assessments can either do so directly or hire a consultant to carry it out. Typically, environmental clearance has four stages: screening, scoping, public consultation, and appraisal.
Screening is undertaken by the SEIAAs for category B projects, to determine whether further studies are needed before an environmental impact assessment for a particular project is carried out. Scoping is for category A and B1 projects, and includes the drafting of TORs for environmental impact assessment.
The next step for these projects is public consultation, which involves a public hearing of the environmental impact assessment report, so it can be scrutinised and the voices of those affected by the project are taken into account.
Finally, at the appraisal stage, the environmental impact assessment is scrutinised by an expert appraisal committee (EAC) at the central level, or its state equivalent, which grants the final clearance.
In 2020, the environment ministry proposed to amend the EIA notification to allow the grant of ex-post facto clearance for several projects, as well as exempting others from the purview of an assessment and public consultation. Some of these include irrigation projects, the expansion of national highways, and projects concerning national defence and security.
Other changes to environmental laws
The latest rating system follows a slew of other measures that the ministry of environment has proposed to loosen environmental compliance norms.
For example, on 1 November 2021, the ministry sought to amend India’s Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, 2019, to exempt oil and natural gas exploration and development activities from obtaining mandatory clearances.
In October last year, the ministry proposed several amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act that would relax permits for economic activities within forest areas.
Last month, the government tabled amendments to the Biological Diversity Act in the winter session of Parliament, which proposed to reduce pressure on wild medicinal plants by encouraging their cultivation to “encourage Indian system of medicine”, fast-track research and patent applications, and bring in more foreign investments to “the chain of biological resources”.
Why the rating system is being criticised
The new rating system is being criticised because, according to activists and scholars, it could lead to oversight by the SEIAAs in granting environmental clearance.
Lawyer Ritwick Dutta of Legal Initiative For Environment (LIFE), an environmental litigation firm, put out a statement on social media, saying the system “will ensure that the SEIAA’s aim will be to clear projects in the shortest possible time frame”.
Penalising SEIAAs for seeking additional information more than once could lead to them granting clearances with inadequate data, since seasonal changes also impact the biodiversity profile of a certain area, Dutta said in the statement.
“Any SEIAA that asks for such data will be given low marks or in fact zero. Besides, the SEIAA has the right to reject projects, something the OM is silent on,” the statement read.
Arpitha Kodiveri, an environmental lawyer and postdoctoral researcher at the New York University School of Law, agreed, saying, “It creates a situation where you are not providing the time needed to make these decisions carefully. It also creates artificial competition between states, which may result in industries locating in states that offer environmental clearance quicker.”
She added: “As it is, if you see the EIA process, there is complete regulatory capture because the consultancies producing environmental impact reports are hired by the businesses themselves. This pressure of speed, efficiency and incentivisation is going to skew environmental governance and make it pro-business.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)