Shri Bhupender Yadav
Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MEFCC)
Govt of India
Dear Shri Yadav,
Rarely do persons with such credible professional background as you have, especially in the highly specialised field of environmental jurisprudence, are asked to preside over the MEFCC. Let me welcome you to your new assignment, with the earnest hope and belief that you will bring a paradigm shift in the way your Ministry functions.
On the basis of my own close association with the environment issues, I take the liberty of suggesting a few policy shifts that can enhance the credibility of MEFCC as an institution committed to Article 48A of the Constitution. Article 48A not only requires the State to conserve the environment but also to improve it.
Participative decision making in Environment Impact Assessment (EIA):
Decisions on projects are taken more through the “Decide-Announce-Defend (DAD)” approach, rather than the more appropriate “Engage-Deliberate-Decide (EDD)” approach. One of the important stakeholders, namely, the affected community including the local Gram Sabhas, which are Constitutional bodies, is not adequately consulted, as the so-called “public hearing” process is usually reduced to a ritual, with dissent seen as “anti-development”.
Social costs and social benefits are more clearly visible to the affected communities than to a paid EIA consultant. A project that restricts the freedoms of the affected people cannot be termed a “development project”, as brought out in Amartya Sen’s book, “Development is Freedom”.
I have enclosed here a comprehensive Concept Note on this, which draws its strength largely from two examples we have, (i) the participative decision making approach adopted in the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 in the form of “Social Impact Assessment (SIA)” that envisages the affected communities being fully consulted on both the decision to take up the project and the decision on its size, and (ii) the importance of the tribal Gram Sabhas under the PESA & FRA in taking decisions on any economic activity in the Scheduled Areas. I have cited important Supreme Court decisions in support of this.
Biodiversity Assessment as a part of EIA:
I have enclosed here a seminal report on the economic cost of loss of biodiversity (“The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, Feb 2021″ commissioned by UK government (www.gov.uk/official-documents), which quantifies for the first time the social costs of the loss of biodiversity, so aptly described by Mahatma Gandhi in his words, “the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
I have also enclosed the recent guidelines issued by the Singapore government on making “Biodiversity Impact Assessment (BIA)” as a part of EIA.
Even though there is a serious biodiversity loss caused by a project, as for example in a no-go forest area, an EIA report rarely quantifies it. The Godavarman judgment of the Supreme Court, though it introduced for the first time the concept of “compensatory afforestation“, has failed to capture the fact that no matter how much of compensatory afforestation is undertaken, it can never replace the biodiversity loss.
A time has come when MEFCC should enlarge the scope of the EIA to include the BIA.
EIA should also cover “Heritage Impact Assessment”, “impact on Tribal Interests” etc.
Many projects cause irreversible damage to valuable archaeological evidence and, in the tribal tracts, cause adverse impacts on the tribal culture and their livelihoods. An EIA which fails to capture this can result in huge social costs.
Prof Madhav Gadgil’s report on the biodiversity losses in the Western Ghats is an eye opener. There are similar studies needed for the Eastern Ghats. There is a need to notify “Biodiversity Hotspots” in different ecologically significant areas to conserve such precious biodiversity clusters.
CRZ & Climate Change impact:
The latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports suggest a significant rise in the average sea levels across the planet. India’s coastal areas thus face vulnerability. Any major investment made along the sea coast may become infructuous, if it is subject to submergence. However, the CRZ notification, including the latest one, fails to factor this in. There is a need to review the norm of 500 meters (from the HTL) width for the CRZ area in this context.
Cities like Boston are already adapting their urban planning Master Plans to take the likely impact of the sea water rise, whereas India is yet to respond.
Loss of mangroves, mudflats and the associated biodiversity:
I have enclosed here a research paper that has assessed the loss of the mangrove area in India between 1987-2013. A more accurate study needs to be undertaken of this using satellite imagery etc. to assess the loss and take urgent corrective measures. Mangroves act as a buffer to storm surge, the intensity and the frequency of which have been on the increase as a result of the climate changes.
Need for an independent statutory “Environment Regulator”:
There is a need to replace the existing practice of MEFCC deciding on issuing Environment Clearance (EC) on the basis of the recommendations of an ad hoc EIA committee. There have been instances of some members of the EIA committee acting as consultants to the project proponents and some joining as Directors on the Boards of private companies whose projects they have cleared. MEFCC’s monitoring of enforcement of the EC conditions also leaves much to be desired. There are supreme Court directions for the creation of statutory Environment Regulator under the relevant Acts. This is urgently called for.
CPCB & State PCBs:
The selection of persons to occupy the Boards of CPCB and State PCBs has so far been non-transparent. Why should civil servants head these regulatory institutions? That explains why these bodies have lost their credibility.
This is an area in which some fundamental reform is needed.
Role of the EIA Consultant and the need to obviate “conflict of interest”:
The present approach of the project proponent appointing an EIA Consultant and deciding on his remuneration has rendered the EIA process meaningless. A paid consultant cannot be expected to take up a study that is objective. On the other hand, the EIA study is supposed to serve as the basis for informed public consultation.
I have come across numerous instances of an EIA consultant lifting huge sections from some other EIA report and literally pasting it in an EIA study, which amounts to outright fraud. Though such instances have been brought to the attention of the Ministry, no action has been taken.
I suggest that the selection of the EIA consultant be made independent of the project proponent through a random-selection approach in which the accredited consultants are identified by a code. Once a consultant is chosen for a given project, his remuneration should be decided independently on the basis of a set of rules linked to the cost of the project, its nature etc. Payment of the remuneration should be from a special fund created out of a cess collected on projects. If a consultant is found to have provided a report on false data etc. he should be subject to disqualification for five years.
These are some suggestions for your consideration.
E A S Sarma
Former Secretary to Government of India