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Public Participation in Environment Impact Assessment

Written by: Arvin Thapliayal - I am an Vth year law student of ICFAI Law School, Dehradun, currently pursuing my BBA. LLB (Hons)
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  • Environment Impact Assessment or EIA can be defined as the study to predict the effect of a proposed activity/project on the environment. A decision making tool, EIA compares various alternatives for a project and seeks to identify the one which represents the best combination of economic and environmental costs and benefits.

    EIA systematically examines both beneficial and adverse consequences of the project and ensures that these effects are taken into account during project design. It helps to identify possible environmental effects of the proposed project, proposes measures to mitigate adverse effects and predicts whether there will be significant adverse environmental effects, even after the mitigation is implemented.

    By considering the environmental effects of the project and their mitigation early in the project planning cycle, environmental assessment has many benefits, such as protection of environment, optimum utilisation of resources and saving of time and cost of the project. Properly conducted EIA also lessens conflicts by promoting community participation, informing decision makers, and helping lay the base for environmentally sound projects. Benefits of integrating EIA have been observed in all stages of a project, from exploration and planning, through construction, operations, decommissioning, and beyond site closure.

    The purpose of EIA is not just to assess impacts and complete an environmental impact statement (EIS), it is to improve the quality of decisions. Through informing the public the project proponent can make environmentally sensitive decision by being aware of a project's potential adverse impacts on the environment. Another purpose of EIA is to inform the public of the proposed project and its impacts. In this context public participation provides crucial information. Through their participation the project proponent will be able to take advantage of the information that citizens contribute concerning values, impacts, innovative solutions and alternatives.

    A few advantages of EIA can be summarized as:

    First, public participation is regarded as proper, fair conduct of democratic government in public decision-making activities (Gelhorn, 1971; Fox, 1979).
    Second, public participation is widely accepted as a way to ensure that projects meet citizens' needs and are suitable to the affected public (Pearce et al., 1979; Forester 1989; Tauxe, 1995).

    Third, the project carries more legitimacy, and less hostility, if potentially affected parties can influence the decision-making process (Chapin and Deneau, 1978; Susskind and Cruikshank 1987).

    Finally, the final decision is `better' when local knowledge and values are included and when expert knowledge is publicly examined (Parenteau, 1988; Webler et al., 1995).

    When governments enable the public to participate in decision-making, they help meet society’s goal of sustainable and environmentally sound development. Public participation in environmental decision-making and, in particular, in EIA, may lead to some benefits in these processes. As a result of public participation, the process of decision-making, up to and including the final decision, becomes more transparent and legitimate. Public debate on proposed activities among all interested groups at an early stage of decision-making may prevent or mitigate conflicts and adverse environmental consequences of the decisions with their impacts.

    International History

    EIA is one of the successful policy innovations of the 20th Century for environmental conservation. Thirty-seven years ago, there was no EIA but today, it is a formal process in many countries and is currently practiced in more than 100 countries. EIA as a mandatory regulatory procedure originated in the early 1970s, with the implementation of the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) 1969 in the US. A large part of the initial development took place in a few high-income countries, like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (1973-74). However, there were some developing countries as well, which introduced EIA relatively early-Columbia (1974) Philippines (1978). The EIA process really took off after the mid-1980s. In 1989, the World Bank adopted EIA for major development projects, in which a borrower country had to undertake an EIA under the Bank's supervision.

    The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (South Africa, 2002) developed further these provisions. The principles promoted by these conferences are fully integrated into the provisions of the UNECE Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment.

    Need for EIA

    Some argue that it is better not to include the public in EIA as it will be quicker and most cost-effective to exclude the public in EIA. Project proponents eager to implement their project may fear that citizen involvement will delay their schedule or force them to revise the project .Public participation may be regarded as unnecessary because citizens lack project-specific expertise and it is just necessary to educate citizens about the merits of the project . To the project proponent, it may look more prudent to push the project through quietly rather than run the risk of a public process. However, excluding the public does not ensure expediency either. Alienated citizens tend to delay the implementation of the project though time consuming legal action if they feel that their rights are curbed through project implementation (example see the case studies on Silent Valley, Tehri Dam, Dahanu in this section). Therefore, the project proponent needs to consider not only the risks of including versus avoiding citizen input, but also the potential benefits of establishing a long term co-operative relationship with citizens.

    There is a need to increase public sensitivity to environment and development problems to find out solutions and foster a sense of personal environmental responsibility and greater motivation and commitment towards sustainable development. Environmental literacy is the key aspect for sustainable development, where in India it should immediately outstrip quadrupling the estimated adult literacy rate for India of 20% (UNESCO : EFA Report 2006). The objective is to promote broad public awareness as an essential part to strengthen attitudes, values and actions which are compatible with sustainable development. It is important to stress the principle of devolving authority, accountability and resources to the most appropriate level with preference given to local responsibility and control over awareness-building activities. Environmental education for all audiences should be based on the best available scientific information, including the natural, behavioural and social sciences, and taking into account aesthetic and ethical dimensions. It can be achieved by initiating discussions and training to mobilize experience in shaping public behaviour and consumption patterns and making wide use of their methods. Such cooperation would also increase the active public participation in the debate on the environment. Social participation should be encouraged to increase their involvement in environmental and development problems, through joint awareness initiatives and improved interchange with other constituencies in society.

    Environmental education is a must for every human on earth. Environmental impact assessment should immediately be conducted everywhere on earth. Environmental literacy is the only weapon that leads to sustainable development. A rapid growth of human population and consumption, and ecologically incompatible land use decisions based solely on economic considerations increasingly degrade the structure and function of rural and urban -industrial ecosystems. The resultant environmental problems include pollution of air, water and soil, losses of biodiversity and prime farmlands, and fragmentation and destruction of ecologically significant habitats. Local environmental degradation due to urbanization and industrialization, in turn, contributes to undesirable regional and global environmental changes Therefore; there is an urgent need for a holistic approach of urban nature conservation, particularly in rapidly urbanizing areas.

    Similarly the objective is to provide training programmes to promote a greater awareness of environment and development issues as a two-way learning process, and to promote an understanding of the interrelationship between good environment and good human practices and a flexible and adaptable workforce of various ages equipped to meet growing environment and development problems and changes arising from the transition to a sustainable society.

    EIA in India

    The Indian experience with Environmental Impact Assessment began over 20 years back. It started in 1976-77 when the Planning Commission asked the Department of Science and Technology to examine the river-valley projects from an environmental angle. This was subsequently extended to cover those projects, which required the approval of the Public Investment Board. Till 1994, environmental clearance from the Central Government was an administrative decision and lacked legislative support. On 27 January 1994, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MEF), Government of India, under the Environmental (Protection) Act 1986, promulgated an EIA notification making Environmental Clearance (EC) mandatory for expansion or modernisation of any activity or for setting up new projects listed in Schedule 1 of the notification.

    Since then there have been 12 amendments made in the EIA notification of 1994. The MEF recently notified new EIA legislation in September 2006. The notification makes it mandatory for various projects such as mining, thermal power plants, river valley, infrastructure (road, highway, ports, harbours and airports) and industries including very small electroplating or foundry units to get environment clearance. However, unlike the EIA Notification of 1994, the new legislation has put the onus of clearing projects on the state government depending on the size/capacity of the project.

    In India, EIA was made mandatory in 1994 under the environmental protection Act of 1986 with the following four objectives:
    1. Predict environmental impact of projects;
    2. Find ways and means to reduce adverse impacts;
    3. Shape the projects to suit local environment;
    4. Present the predictions and options to the decision-makers.

    Stages In EIA

    The stages of an EIA process will depend upon the requirements of the country or donor. However, most EIA processes have a common structure and the application of the main stages is a basic standard of good practice:
    and Screening: First stage of EIA, which determines whether the proposed project, requires an EIA and if it does, then the level of assessment required.

    and Scoping: This stage identifies the key issues and impacts that should be further investigated. This stage also defines the boundary and time limit of the study.

    and Impact analysis: This stage of EIA identifies and predicts the likely environmental and social impact of the proposed project and evaluates the significance.

    and Mitigation: This step in EIA recommends the actions to reduce and avoid the potential adverse environmental consequences of development activities.

    and Reporting: This stage presents the result of EIA in a form of a report to the decision-making body and other interested parties.

    and Review of EIA: It examines the adequacy and effectiveness of the EIA report and provides the information necessary for decision-making.

    and Decision-making: It decides whether the project is rejected, approved or needs further change.
    Post monitoring: This stage comes into play once the project is commissioned. It checks to ensure that the impacts of the project do not exceed the legal standards and implementation of the mitigation measures are in the manner as described in the EIA report.

    Legal Provisions In India

    A major amendment to EIA Notification was made in April 1997 for introduction of Public Hearing (PH) as a part of assessment procedure for ensuring participation of local people and stakeholders in various proposed development activities. Public hearings are called for in projects involving a large displacement of residents or severe environmental impacts. The decision to hold hearings has to be made within 30 days of receipt of the proposal. If the IAD (Impact Assessment Division) decides to hold hearings, it is required to provide notice in at least two newspapers at least 30 days prior to the hearing. Recent Amendment in the Public hearing notifications is that hearings are now mandatory for all projects to which the EIA notification applies. In support of this new requirement, the process includes provisions for public access to information. Project proponents are required to provide the SPCB with an executive summary of the project "containing the salient features of the project both in English and local languages".

    They must also provide copies of all application forms relating to the project that were submitted pursuant to other environmental approval processes and "any other document necessary for the Board to dispense with the application". Twenty copies of each of these documents must be provided to the SPCB. Public access to executive summaries is available at District Collectors' Offices, District Industry Centres, the office of the Zila Parishad or Commissioner of the municipal corporation/local body, and SPCB state and Regional offices. The hearing process also contains provisions for public notice. SPCBs are required to give notice in at least two newspapers widely circulated in the region around the project, mentioning the date, time and place of public hearings. Suggestions, views, comments and objections of the Public shall be invited within thirty days from the date of publication.

    Local residents, environmental groups and others located at the project site likely to be affected can participate in the hearings or submit oral or written briefs to the SPCB. The new hearing process also contains requirements regarding the composition of hearing panels. Panels also include a representative of the SPCB, the District Collector, a state government representative for the relevant sector under investigation, a representative of the central Ministry of the Environment and Forests, not more than three representatives of local bodies such as municipalities or panchayats, and not more than three senior citizens nominated by the District Collector. For time bound processing of proposals for public hearing submitted to various State Pollution Control Boards, the EIA Notification was amended in November, 2001 and a time limit of 60 days has been laid down for completion of public hearing.

    Areas of Improvement
    However, a close look at the EIA in India reveals that some improvement is needed in the following aspects. EIA's are controversial in India because of little participatory democracy in the formulation and implementation of environmental legislation. There have been cases where, more than one EIA for the project has been approved by an authorized agency and subsequently revoked by judicial action initiated by public interest litigations (The Hindu Survey of Environment). A fresh outlook at the EIA requirement is essential, especially a public review, which would help in the development of a sound normative framework for guiding the entire process. It is also unclear as to how an EIA is to be prepared, what norms it must satisfy how it is to be approved. The requirements for EIA in India are generally comprehensive and include information on land use pollution sources in air, water and solid waste quality. But the problem arises here because of no proper set of guidelines for project types covered by the rule.

    With the promoter's own assessment, the regulatory authority is to make a judgment if EIA is complete and if the project meets the environmental standard. It is quite essential that the regulatory authority periodically review the norm with scientists, NGOs and industry. Measurement techniques and location where the standard is to be met are not specified, leaving it for interpretation from both, the plant engineer and government inspector. This makes the project promoter to adopt the lenient interpretation of the norms during EIA preparation. The EIA and environmental clearances fall within the power of the Centre but the implementation of pollution control is with the states. This leads to a scenario where multiple agencies sharing similar responsibilities without well defined roles. Some cases of plagiarized reports by the consultants have been reported in India (The Hindu Survey of Environment).

    Another major improvement required is in the area of public involvement. There has been dilution of previous notifications especially regarding public participation. For instance, a recent amendment to the EIA requirements that was notified on 13 June 2002 exempts pipeline projects from preparation of EIA reports. This has further weakened the process of environmental clearance. It also violates the basic premise of authority granted by the Environment Protection Act, 1986. Yet, public hearings need to be conducted in all the districts from where the pipeline will pass. This poses two problems: firstly, it is not clear how an EMP (Environment Management Plan) and Risk Mitigation measures can be formulated when the developers have not studied the potential impacts of a proposed pipeline through preparation of an EIA report.

    Secondly, on what basis would persons attending a Public Hearing relating to a pipeline project voice their concerns? Both the routing and the construction of pipelines can have severe consequences on people and their environment. Pipeline projects may create unnecessary hardship to local people due to construction work, and pipeline leaks are a potential hazard. Both routing and construction can cause unnecessary and severe damage to sensitive ecosystems. But if these projects are exempted from the EIA process, no other mechanism ensures adequate review of these potential consequences. Curiously, the June 2002 amendment reconstitutes the requirement that EIA reports must be made available to the public prior to the Public Hearings, a requirement that was done away with earlier.

    The article, demonstrate that substantive, early investments in public participation can benefit the project proponent, the public and the final plan. An effective public participation programme does not happen by accident; it must be carefully planned. A proactive effort will lead to a more effective process and outcome than a reactive, minimalist approach to public involvement. We draw upon the results of the case studies to provide suggestions for improving public participation programmes in EIA. First, public involvement needs to begin before project planning and decision-making are too far along to be influenced.

    The decision to participate must be genuine. Otherwise, public participation becomes a procedural exercise rather than a substantive democratic process. Second, public involvement can be used to create a project that is more suitable to, and accepted by, the public. Suitability should depend on public opinions and needs (rather than the technical feasibility of the project). Third, public input can be a crucial and valuable source of expertise before, during and after project planning and decision-making. Moreover, based on the case study experiences it can be seen that the EIA legislation must be more explicit in defining the affected area according to potential socio-economic impacts. Only the authority competent in evaluating socio-economic effects should be given the responsibility.

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