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EIA's see-no-evil policy

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

The system of monitoring the environmental impact of projects has failed and so there is little hope for the self-certification process.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests clears 80-100 projects every month. According to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2006, activities such as mining, power generation, construction of roads and setting up of various industrial projects need to be preceded by a process of assessing their environmental impact and a public hearing.

It is after these steps and appraisal of documents by an expert committee that a project is granted environmental go-ahead. The ministry is supposed to get monitoring reports from its units every six months, besides compliance reports from project authorities.

According to a study by NGO Kalpavriksh, non-compliance does not lead to clearances being revoked.

The study has come at a time when the ministry, under its dynamic new leader Jairam Ramesh, is set to amend the EIA notification to allow self-certification to project authorities.

The prime minister recently complained that the environmental clearance process was fraught with corruption. What he could have added was that it was not serving the purpose it was set up for.

When regional units send non-compliance reports to the New Delhi-based monitoring unit of the ministry, the latter is supposed to study the issues involved.

But these data are not used for analysing problems or inadequacies in the system and to find ways to improve it, says Kalpavriksh.

In fact, though the ministry keeps a record of the number of projects it has cleared, there is no data to show the level of compliance achieved by these projects.

It says projects that are cleared are monitored once in three to four years. The ministry had issued monitoring reports for only 50 per cent of the projects cleared in 2003, its study found. And only 150 of the 223 projects cleared had at least one compliance report submitted by the authorities.

What happens when there is non-compliance? Nothing. Take the example of the Sterlite Copper Smelter plant in Tuticorin which was asked to develop a green belt. Kalpavriksh found that it did so only partly.

The 2006 monitoring report said that six hectares of land was developed into a green belt in 2004–2005 while two hectares was proposed to be covered in 2006–2007. The clearance letters related to the original plant and the subsequent expansion had said that 29 hectares were to be developed as a green belt.

The ministry official in the regional office said he had no record of any green belt being developed, though the compliance report of the company claims so.

Says Kanchi Kohli, a co-author of the report, called Calling the Bluff: “If there is no compliance even with monitoring, what can be expected with self-certification? She cites the example of the Environment Protection Agency of the United States which she says has powers to revoke clearance and penalise project authorities.

Kalpavriksh concludes that the vexed problems of monitoring and compliance are symptomatic of a fallacious process.

The ministry has promised an environment ombudsman. NGOs are sceptical, but a fresh start cannot be ruled out, especially when the government is hearing all sides before finalising the controversial self-certification clause.

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First Published: Sun, September 06 2009. 00:00 IST