Ease of doing business takes precedence over environmental and social concerns in project review process

The office memorandum has taken a very myopic view of any perceived delay in appraisal for environmental clearance

By Anubha Aggarwal
Published: Friday 21 January 2022

Ease of doing business is set to become synonymous with fast-tracking environmental clearance in Indian states. 

On January 17, 2022, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) issued an office memorandum defining criteria for rating of State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities (SEIAA). The evaluation of efficiency of respective SEIAA is premised on the number of days it takes to appraise a project for environmental clearance — the faster the project appraisal, the higher SEIAA score. 

SEIAA is a state agency that reviews specific projects enlisted in the Category B of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006. These projects are considered to have comparatively low spatial extent and potential impact on human health as well as natural and man-made resources. 

There are separate expert committees at the central level to deal with different project domains falling in Category A. But the same 15 experts in SEIAA in a state deal with the entire bandwidth of projects in Category B. 

The wide spectrum of projects in Category B extends from mining of minerals (sand, limestone, bajri), hydroelectric power projects, metallurgical industries, cement plants, chlor-alkali industry, leather industry, distillery, building and construction, among others.

The vast nature of projects, although of comparatively smaller scale, indicate the immense number of applications that SEIAA has to review. Undermining the mammoth task assigned to the state authorities and rushing them to clear the applications faster instead of enabling them to appraise them more efficiently, compromises the principles of the EIA Notification (2006). 

The fine points 

The office memorandum stresses on the ‘ease of doing business’ and listed seven parameters for evaluation of the efficiency of project appraisal by SEIAA. All these parameters hold equal weightage except for the first one. 

Criteria for giving score to SEIAA

Parameter  Weightage  Score
Average number of days for granting EC 0 to 2 0 if >120 days taken 2 if <80 days taken
Disposal of fresh terms of reference (ToR) / ToR amendment proposals awaiting for over 30 days  0 to 1 0 if <80 per cent 1 if > 90 per cent
Disposal of fresh environment clearance (EC) / EC amendment proposal amendment awaiting for more than 105 days 0 to 1 0 if <80 per cent 1 if > 90 per cent
Cases wherein more than one time essential details were sought (EDS) by the MS 0 to 1 0 if < 30 per cent 1 if > 10 per cent
Average number of days taken for accepting the proposals for ToR/EC  0 to 1 0 if < 5 days 1 if > 7 days
Complaints redressed by SEIAA 0 to 1 0 if < All complaints 1 if > 50 per cent
Cases out of total cases placed to state expert appraisal committee (SEAC), for which site visits were carried out by SEIAA / SEAC  0 to 1 0 if < 20 per cent 1 if > 10 per cent

Source: MoEF&CC, 2022

The parameters have oversimplified the law by putting varied projects in the same bracket. It attributes submission of online application as justification for reducing the number of days taken in appraisal of the project from 105 to only 75 days in total. This is irrespective of the quantum of applications and the wide array of businesses or industrial sectors that the state authority has to deal with. 

Average time taken by SEIAA / SEAC for each stage in the appraisal process

Stage Sub-stages Average Time taken (days) as per EIA Notification, 2006  
Grant of ToR 
(if application is accepted)
1. Review of application by SEAC 2. Review of application presentation by proponent to SEAC (to clarify any doubts) 3. Consideration of project by SEIAA based on recommendation of SEAC 4. Grant of ToR to the project (communicated vide SEIAA minutes of meeting) 60 + 5 Essential Details can be Sought (EDS) if it is found that the proponent has missed giving some crucial information.*
Review of Final EIA   (inclusive of public hearing comments) 1. Review of the EIA report by SEAC  2. Review of EIA presentation by the proponent by SEAC (to clarify any doubts) 3. Grant of EC to the project (communicated vide SEIAA Minutes of Meeting) 30 + 5 
Total Time Taken**   100-105 days  

(*) This may alter the time taken in the process. General understanding is that a well-defined application will take less time in getting clearance than an application that is poorly drafted.

(**) Total time taken excludes the 45 days for Public Hearing 

Source: CSE, 2022

Excluding any inefficiency from the system should be welcome. However, the parameters seem to favour the project proponents more by using the number of days as a benchmark for scoring the state authority. The concept of quality appraisal is completely eluded from the methodology.  

Some of these parameters are highly problematic. 

First, the terms of reference for conducting environmental impact assessment by the proponent are determined on the basis of the application. These reference points determine what all environmental streams will be covered in the EIA report and upto what extent.

Any oversight in this process may lead to severe environmental damages. Reducing the number of days for grant of ToR should be undertaken with precision. 

Second, these parameters completely put the onus of the project clearance on the authority, and absolves proponents of submitting quality applications for review. A quick glance at the project applications and minutes of meetings for SEIAA and SEAC shows that a lot of these applications submitted for review do not follow mandatory due-diligence. 

There is a lack of documentation in some cases, and in others information provided is not sufficient to form any decision. In a majority of the cases, the kml-files (with geographic data) required to understand the on-ground topography of the project location, are missing from the online application and wrong documents uploaded in several cases. 

Allocating less score if more information is sought (EDS) from the proponent during appraisal defeats the whole purpose of seeking environmental clearance and safeguarding the environment. 

Third, the low ranking for taking up more field visits is a distorted logic at best. The purpose of the sitevisit is to assess the ground situation and take a more informed decision. Minutes of the meeting for the appraisal committee suggests that these site visits are as it is taken only in a handful of cases.

Undermining the purpose of these visits and simply discouraging them is delusional and obliterates transparency in the environmental clearance process. 

Moreover, equal weightage for criteria outweighs the importance of one parameter over the other. For grant of environmental clearance to a fresh application, an average of 105 days are taken. 

An amendment in the environmental clearance required much less scrutiny. This is because proposed amendments to the project do not have any additional implication on the environment. Therefore, they do not entail revisiting the baseline study for environmental parameters. However, these still have been put in the same category and allotted the same weightage.  

The marks to be allocated for all the parameters also have been kept the same for all the parameters. It ranges from 0 to 1, where the former is an indicator of poor performance. 

It is beyond comprehension how conducting more site visits can earn a state authority not only less marks but a zero score. This will imply that somehow the site visit negatively impacted the appraisal progress. 

Better late than never

The office memorandum has taken a very myopic view of any perceived delay in appraisal for environmental clearance. Inclusion of ‘transparency, efficiency and accountability’ in the process have solely been premised on the number of days taken for appraisal. 

The concept of rating SEIAA to encourage its better functioning is ingenious and should be appreciated. But the parameters considered for its execution only seem to favour the proponent and hardly will have any positive implication on environmental compliance by a project. 

Any undue delay needs to be discouraged but processes that bring transparency in appraisal, such as more site visits, inclusion of more expertise in the committees, development of a granular environmental database and ensuring uniform documentation of environmental impact of the project by the proponent will serve as better indicators for this purpose. 

The criteria defined in the office memorandum for scoring the state authorities dilutes the due-diligence and asserts a preferential perspective on alleged delays in project appraisals. 

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