Finding green sense in India’s new environmental regime

The new EIA draft notification leaves a lot of questions unanswered even as India is yet to receive a robust mechanism for performance monitoring of buildings

By Rajneesh Sareen, Mitashi Singh
Published: Friday 10 April 2020
A glass-covered building in Gurugram. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

India will have to build 700 to 900 million square metres — equivalent to two Mumbais — of residential and commercial space every year to meet its urban infrastructure demand, according to a McKinsey report.

The majority of this urban transformation will take place in the Tier 2 towns and below. The scale of building construction projects in these towns will not be extravagant but will be small to medium.

According to the draft EIA notification 2020, projects falling in the category of 20,000 sqm to 50,000 sqm built up area and those with a provisional certificate of green building in category 50,000 sqm to 150,000 sqm are exempted from being placed before the respective expert Appraisal Committee.

These committees always provided a retrospective review of projects and their regulation in absence of cumulative Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) at master plan level. The bulk of construction in India will fall in this category and will require stringent regulation.

Source and sink relationship, assimilative capacities losing base

In the new regime, projects in the 20,000 sqm to 50,000 sqm category need only to prepare an Environment Management Plan (EMP) and can get prior environment permission based on its completeness from the regulatory authority.

The requirements of the EMP report are merely objective and basic. There is no mention of performance standard for the project proponent to follow or to bind them for mitigating the environmental impact of the upcoming development.

An earlier EIA notification released in 2016 brought this category of buildings (20,000 sqm to 50,000 sqm) and above (up to 150,000 sqm) to be regulated by urban local bodies (ULBs).

States were mandated to adopt environmental conditions by integrating them with respective building bye-laws. These conditions stemmed from the Model Building Bye Laws (2016) and promised realisation of environmental safeguards on-ground.

Many states such as Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab etc had notified their building byelaws as well.

The other major concern is that the new draft is internalising green rating systems to fast track environmental clearance. EIA is an extensive and rigorous tool that has been used for environmental clearance in the country.

It comprehensively addresses all the environmental concerns by looking after the design to be in accordance with natural principles and laying great emphasis on project surroundings, super surroundings, their associated interlinkages, impacts, receptors etc.

Green ratings are more like a project efficiency protocol, which is largely disconnected from local environmental context. How will the latter do justice by superseding the former?

Are green ratings adequate?

Different green ratings deliver different performance for the same building, mainly due to their definitions and criteria. Centre for Science and Environment has revealed this in the past.

For instance, few rating systems give high weightage to energy, while others to water. This does not enable a comprehensive and profound cross-thematic environmental management and regulation at a national level.

Standardisation of building performance across all themes – energy, water, air, materials, waste, etc – tricky via green ratings.

A green rating may easily be able to deliver a good performance score because of the weighted evaluation criteria. This cross-thematic address and importance of each criterion is ensured under the terms of reference for preparation of EIA reports and in-depth scrutiny by the respective Expert Appraisal Committee.

In this sense, decentralising environmental clearance through ULBs in 2016 was a more effective way of ensuring environmental safeguards as building byelaws take the local context into consideration, comprehensive in nature and in sync with the vision of the 74th Constitutional amendment.

Environmental risk positioning varies geographically and so do environmental hotspots

Green ratings are more focussed on driving efficiencies of a site and respond less significantly to its surrounding environments, which contrastingly has been the essence of EIA.

The exemption for a project to not being placed before the Expert Appraisal Committee should require a stringent environmental performance regime. Not a performance level that even existing mandatory codes can deliver.

This needs to be addressed to prevent the new EIA regulation from becoming redundant in the long run.

Are green ratings scalable and inclusive?

Green rated buildings constitute less than one per cent of the country’s buildings, while most of the green buildings are commercial or institutional. The draft EIA has indeed increased demand for green ratings, but there is little clarity around its supply.

How equipped rating system agencies are for upscaling and implementation across building typologies also remains a question.

Are green ratings coherent with the latest codes and guidelines?

Green ratings are not yet in harmony with the latest performance requirements. This includes requirement as that of thermal comfort as placed by the India Cooling Action Plan, daylighting by National Building Code and new regulations such as Eco Niwas Samhita, which is the energy conservation building code for residential buildings.

Buildings cannot, by design, be made climate-inappropriate and resource guzzlers and shown efficient by making little adjustments using avoidable technologies. For instance, green ratings promote a misnomer — ‘Glass is green’.

Glass traps heat, which increases the cooling load of the building multi-fold. Further, the embodied energy of glass increases tremendously when used as triple glazing. Still, a glass building can easily get a high green rating.

Does the new regime have monitoring tools to keep operational performance of buildings in check?

According to the new notification, Prior Environmental Clearance or Prior Environment Permission will be given only on the ‘Provisional’ certificate of a green building, which is a certification on design. It is widely known that performance of buildings changes from as-designed to the occupancy phase.

Policies cannot deliver if performance monitoring of buildings remains weak. Buildings can seriously underperform without detection. This has been acknowledged globally and has led to reforms that require buildings to provide energy bills etc for proper monitoring of performance.

India needs buildings to disclose their performance data as well, to enable post-construction compliance, also to see the effectiveness of environmental regulatory tools. Traditionally, most green rating systems have circumvented performance monitoring in absence of a disclosure policy.

The role of QBEAs and ULBs is unfound in the new notification 

The EIA Notification 2016 had called for establishment of an Environment Cell at the local body and empanelment of Qualified Building Environment Auditors (QBEAs) to assess and certify building projects in line with the provisions of the Notification.

The project proponents were to submit Performance Data and Certificate of Continued Compliance of the project after completion of construction from the QBEAs every five years to the Environment Cell. The Environment Cell was empowered to conduct random compliance checks post completion of the project.

States had adopted innovative measures for compliance monitoring. Ring-fenced accounting of projects was started after being asked by the Appraisal Committee in the six-monthly reporting. There is lack of clarity on how such instruments will be continued with the new tools of the regime that give primacy to green ratings.

India is thus yet to receive a robust mechanism for performance monitoring of buildings at a time when climate-vulnerability and resource burden are rising with every change in seasons.  

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