Environmental Impact Assessment – Making it faster

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, time is a major hurdle for EIA. Considering the number of steps the process has, and the complexity of the ecological, cultural, economical and social integration in a particular site, we cannot expect to complete the entire process in two weeks.

But a minimum of 7 months? That’s too much.

In this post, I’d like to highlight some ways in which I think we can greatly speed this process up, in the present day scenario.

A permanent EIA team

In most cases, EIA studies are conducted by a team of experts (Expert Appraisal Committee or EAC) gathered together on a per project basis. It is highly unlikely that apart from the EAC chairman and a couple of others, the remaining 13-15 members would work together on a project in the coming future. Since this is not a full time job but a contractual assignment, the motivation to meet deadlines is unlikely to be present. Each member will have other commitments to attend to, which is probably higher on their priority list. Further, since it is possible that most of the members on the team are working together for the first time, clash of egos and leadership styles are bound to happen.

A permanent EIA team will solve all these problems, and a gelled, well-knit unit will bring out results faster.

NGO/consultancy working in collaboration with the government

If this permanent EIA team was in the form of an NGO or consultancy that can form multiple teams and take on multiple projects at the same time around the country, it greatly reduces the burden on the govt. The third party would be fully responsible to conduct the EIA study and only go to the govt. for the Environmental Clearance (EC). The third party could be directly paid by the project proponent, or the govt, thereby giving it the impetus to meet deadlines and do a good job.

60 days for coming up with a TOR?

The Term of Reference is a document that highlights all the environmental issues that concern all the stakeholders in a project. Now, the system that is generally followed is this; the Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change already has a list of issues displayed on its website, specific to each project. During the scoping stage, any issue that is site-specific is raised by the stakeholders and added to that list of issues, generating the final TOR. Since the list is virtually present for most projects, 60 days is really too much to generate a simple document such as this.

How can this be shortened?– The entire process can be split into two parts. All the stakeholders can present their issues separately to the EAC, and this can be done online. A separate representative is chosen to survey the rural population and their concerns can also be submitted online via the representative. Before the public hearing, the EAC can weed out any nonsensical issues and release a list of issues they feel needs to be debated among the stakeholders. 2 days are scheduled, where every stakeholder is present and the issues can be finalized (by combing the TOR finalization and the public hearing, we save another 45 days; the time taken to complete an average public hearing). This entire process will not take more than 20 days, if done properly (and this can only be done if we have a permanent team working for EIA studies).

A streamlined, online process

To obtain the EC, a streamlined process for the project proponent will go a long way in shortening the duration. Currently, it takes about 45-60 days to review the EIA report and approve/deny a project. While reviewing of a project does take time, if an NGO has a good track record in conducting exhaustive, accurate studies, the reputation it obtains will help speed the process up. The govt. should try to finish the review under 30 days, unless special circumstances arise. (Edit: this has, in fact, been implemented. There is now a single window portal available on the Ministry’s website, with all documentation procedures being done online. You can check out a step-by-step process to file your EIA report here.)

If these steps are undertaken, out of the current 210-300 days it takes for an EIA study and obtaining the EC, it will be completed in 120-160 days.

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

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