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Project developers made responsible for data and content in environmental impact assessments
The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has issued an order which aims to prevent project developers from furnishing shoddy environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports. The order makes project developers directly responsible for the content and data they submit in the EIA reports, which are mandatory for obtaining environmental clearances for projects.
In the office memorandum dated October 5, the ministry has ordered that project proponents will have to submit an undertaking, owning the contents of the EIA reports. These reports are prepared by independent private consultants who are hired by project proponents. Till now the responsibility for the contents in the EIA reports rested with EIA consultants.
The decision of shifting responsibility to the project proponent has been taken in the wake of numerous instances of poor quality EIAs submitted by project proponents and their non-adherence of Terms of Reference (ToRs)—guidelines specifiying what aspects should be studied while assessing the environmental impact of a particular project. “This (order) is in addition to the previous memorandum which says that not only EIA consultants but project proponents will also be held responsible for incorrect data and both will have to give undertaking. Project proponents can no longer wash their hands of EIA reports,” says a senior official of MoEF.
What prompted the decision
The ministry had expressed its concern over processes of granting clearance for development projects and poor quality of EIA reports and Environment Management Plans (EMPs) way back in 2009. This was after many cases of fraudulent EIA reports with erroneous data came to MoEF's notice. The ministry then issued a few instructions for project proponents and consultants to follow. In a memorandum issued on August 4, 2009, the ministry made it mandatory for the EIA consultant as well as the project developer to explain a project to MoEF's Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC).
The 2009 memorandum also made it mandatory to mention full details of the EIA consultant along with information pertaining to their accreditation, which is given by the Quality Council of India (QCI). The Government of India has mandated QCI to accredit EIA consultants to keep a check on the quality of these reports. An EIA report submitted to the ministry is entertained only if it is prepared by an accredited consultant.
According to the new memorandum, in case of any discrepancy in the EIA report, the proposal will be rejected. These rejected projects will have to apply afresh for environmental clearance and initiate the entire process again, including public hearing. Public hearing is a mandatory step for obtaining environmental clearance, in which interested parties or affected people get the opportunity to ask questions, voice objections and express views on a proposed project. Those projects where clearances have already been granted and the discrepancy of the EIA report is brought to the notice of MoEF, will also be required to carry out the entire process afresh. “This was always a part of the EIA notification. There is nothing new the ministrty has announced,” says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Delhi non-profit Centre for Science and Environment.
In the memorandum, the ministry has also decided to take action against consultants who prepare fradulent EIAs by initiating the process of delisting them from the list of accredited consultants. “The fate of EIA consultants remains the same in both memorandums. In fact the pressure has now mounted from both the sides,” claims an EIA consultant. The best way forward is to build a liability cost, which would mean introducing a fine or a non-compliance fee on the project proponent in case of faulty EIAs, he adds. The consultant claims that the fear of financial risk may ensure that project proponents do not take clearances for granted.