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Karnataka High Court stays accreditation of consultants who assess environmental impact
THE accreditation scheme for environmental impact assessment consultants has hit a roadblock after the Karnataka High Court stayed it on January 19. The scheme launched in December 2009 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) requires EIA consultants to get accredited with the Quality Council of India (QCI).
The single-judge bench order came under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution, which allows high court to order a stay without granting the respondent (MoEF in this case) an opportunity to present its case. Such orders are rare.
“The petition was filed by two residents from Bengaluru who apparently have nothing to do with EIAs,” says A K Ghose, advisor to QCI. They allege the accreditation scheme is against Article 21 of the Indian Constitution (which ensures personal liberty). The other contention is the scheme is being carried out on the basis of office memorandum and not notification, he says.
Taken aback by the High Court’s order, a highly placed official in MoEF asks, “Why were we not served a notice?” Besides, there is no clarity on whether the stay is for Karnataka or pan-India. The ministry is seeking legal opinion on the issue, he says. The next hearing is on March 13.
EIA report is a mandatory study done by industries listed under the Category A (highly-polluting industries like thermal power plants) of the EIA notification of 2006 to assess the possible environmental impact of a project and the suggested ways to mitigate the impacts. Project proponents usually hire EIA consultants to prepare the report, which forms the basis of the environmental clearance granted by MoEF. “The consultants’ job is often focussed on enabling procurement of approval (from MoEF),” says Kanchi Kohli, environmentalist with Delhi non-profit Kalpavriksh.
The scheme was thus introduced to improve the decision-making ability of the consultants and enhance the quality of EIA reports. MoEF had asked QCI and the National Accreditation Board of Education and Training to develop a framework under which the consultants would be registered. MoEF also fixed June 30, 2010, as the cut-off date for accepting EIA reports prepared by non-accredited consultants. But QCI failed to process all the applications within the stipulated period and MoEF extended its cut-off date. MoEF has extended the cut-off date four times before the court put the process on hold. Ghose says, “We are concerned about the future of the scheme. It is a good endeavour which should not get wasted like this.”
Scope for improvement
The accreditation scheme has been criticised by some civil society activists and EIA consultants, though for different reasons. A leading consultant who does not wish to be named says, “We had high expectations.” But the scheme has had no significant impact on the quality of EIA. Besides, the cost of an EIA nearly doubles because of the extra data generation mandated under QCI, he adds.
Leo Saldanha of non-profit Environment Support Group says the accreditation scheme is of little help in addressing the corrupt clearance mechanism. Kohli explains: the main concern is that QCI is steered by industry organisations and is extremely non-transparent and disconnected with the impacts of environmental clearances. After all several consultants who have a record of preparing faulty EIA reports are getting accredited. A case in point is the Hyderabad consultant Vimta Labs that carried out EIA for Niyamgiri project in Odisha. The environmental clearance granted to this project is on hold.
Ghose explains, “While we have accredited 129 consultants till date, we have also rejected 88 applications.” The main reasons for the rejection are insufficient in-house experts and misleading information to QCI. Another 44 applications were delisted due to inadequate information. “The scheme is first of its kind. It needs to be given time before we start criticising or praising it,” he says.