Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh must be commended for his frank comments on the state of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process. Many well-regarded scientists have been making the point that the EIA, a mechanism instituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in the early phase of India's economic liberalisation and amended in later years, has been turned into a joke because it is left to the project proponent to arrange for the EIA report. This dyfunctional system has produced only a thriving industry of consultants. Many of them without the requisite qualifications; some are nothing more than paid pipers. It is no surprise that several reports submitted by these consultants have been exposed as plain cut-and-paste reproductions of other publications. Among the prominent examples of ill-advised shortcuts leading to flawed conclusions is the Kudremukh iron ore mining project in Karnataka, which was eventually ordered closed. In that case, only rigorous assessment by the Indian Institute of Science and other agencies produced evidence of harm to fragile ecology; comprehensive study by the Centre for Wildlife Studies documented environmental damage on account of the sediment load in the Bhadra river. Evidently, the earlier EIA reports based on rapid assessments provided little insight. This experience is not unique and there is a strong case to introduce stringent checks now. Reform should begin with the choice of agency to conduct the impact assessment, and include the setting of wide terms of reference.
The task of reforming the EIA process is a challenging one for Mr. Ramesh, who has initiated welcome steps to introduce transparency in his Ministry. State-level authorities must also be made partners in the effort because some categories of environmental clearances come within their ambit. Independent studies of the working of expert appraisal committees formed under the EIA Notification of 2006 show that the rejection rate for projects in sensitive sectors such as construction, industry, thermal power plants, and mining is suspiciously low. The Union Ministry's discovery that some consultants submitted wrong reports, resulting in penal action, is proof positive of systemic rot. The cure lies in genuine, science-based EIA. All this is not to say that fresh barriers must be erected to development. What needs to be emphasised is the importance of assessing externalities associated with individual projects and consider them in perspective. The loss of ecology has irreversible, inter-generational consequences. The protection of air, water, soil health, and biodiversity should be primary environmental imperatives.