The written code
The first United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972 led to a spate of comprehensive legislative measures for protecting the environment. India being one of the signatories to the Stockholm declaration enacted several laws and also amended the Constitution in 1976. Two important changes were made, which made the state and the citizenry responsible for protection and improvement of the environment. In the 1970s-80s, five major acts were enacted by the Indian Parliament, which included the Environment Protection Act (1986). This was to be the umbrella legislation designed to protect the environment as a whole.
But environmental concerns in development were expressed for the first time in the Fourth Five Year Plan (1969-70 to 1973-74) in the section on "long term perspectives", where the need to introduce environmental aspects into development planning was recognised. The Fifth Plan and the Seventh Plan took some concrete action to incorporate these concerns while assessing the economic and technical feasibility of a project, but there was still no legal requirement for eia s on major projects. eia s for large-scale projects were made compulsory only in 1984. But implementation took a long while.
Ten years later, in January 1994, mef issued the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, which made eia clearances mandatory for "expansion or modernisation of any activity (if pollution load is to exceed the existing one) or a new project listed in Schedule I of this notification". Schedule I listed 29 industries, including mining, construction of highways and chemical fertilisers.
The notification includes a provision for public hearings to be held before a project is given environmental clearances. The notification was further amended in April 1997.
The process of hearing: Under the notification, the company seeking environmental clearance has to submit to the concerned state pollution control board ( spcb ), among other things, an executive summary containing the salient features of the project both in English as well as local language and details of effluent discharge.
The spcb will then fix the time, date and venue and showcase a 30-day notice for environmental public hearing. This should be published in at least two newspapers widely circulated in the region around the project, one of which should be in the vernacular language of the locality concerned.
The notification states, "All persons, including bona fide residents, environmental groups and others located at the project site/sites of displacement/sites likely to be affected can participate in the public hearing. They can also make oral/written suggestions to spcb ." "Person" means anyone who is likely to be affected by the grant of environmental clearance; any person who owns or has control over the project with respect to which an application has been submitted for environmental clearance; any association of persons whether incorporated or not likely to be affected by the project and/or functioning in the field of environment; any local authority whose limit is within the neighbourhood, wherein the project is to be located.
The composition of the public hearing panel, as laid down in the notification, should consist of:
representative of spcb;
district collector or his nominee;
state government representative dealing with the subject;
representative of the state environment department;
not more than three representatives of the local bodies such as municipalities or panchayats ; and
Not more than three senior citizens of the area nominated by the district collector.
The public, meanwhile, is provided access to the executive summary of the project at the district collector's office; district industry centre; in the office of the chief executive officers of zila parishad or commissioner of the municipal corporation/ local body as the case may be; head office of the concerned spcb or its regional office; or in the environment department of the state government dealing with the subject of environment. Based on the public hearing, the spcb gives a No Objection Certificate ( noc ) for air and water to the company concerned.
Getting clearance: As per the January 1994 notification on Environmental Impact Assessment of Development Projects, the application made by the company concerned for environmental clearance should be accompanied by a project report which should, among other things, include an eia report or environmental management plan, details of the public hearing and noc from the pollution control board.
In the case of site specific projects -- such as mining, pithead thermal power stations, and hydropower -- project authorities have to intimate the location of the project site to mef while initiating any investigation and surveys. The mef then takes a decision regarding suitability of the proposed site within a maximum period of 30 days.
The reports submitted by the company concerned is evaluated and assessed by the Impact Assessment Agency ( iaa ) and if deemed necessary it consults a committee of experts, constituted by iaa or any authorised body under the Central government.
The iaa then prepares a set of recommendations based on the assessment of documents and data furnished by the project authorities supplemented by data collected during visits of sites of factories, if undertaken, and details of public hearing. Regarding submission of eia s, the notification says that "as a comprehensive eia report will normally take at least one year for its preparation, project proponents may furnish Rapid eia report to iaa based on one season data (other than monsoon), for examination of the project. Comprehensive eia report may be submitted later, if so asked for by the iaa ."
According to the law, the assessment is to be completed within 90 days of receipt of the required documents from the project promoters and completion of the public hearing. The decision is conveyed within 30 days thereafter. Till the environmental clearance is received, no construction work, preliminary or other relating to setting up of the project or site clearance is to be undertaken. However, if no comments from received from the iaa within the time limit, "the project would be deemed to have been approved as proposed by project authorities" (see diagram: The route to environment clearances ).
The notification ends on a note on the need for correct information. "Concealing factual data or submission of false, misleading data/reports, decisions or recommendations would lead to the project being rejected. Approval, if granted earlier on the basis of false data would also be revoked. Misleading and wrong information will cover the following: false information, false data. engineered reports, concealing of factual data and false recommendations or decisions," it states.
Is the law enough? At the first instance, the laid down procedure may seem to be a transparent, ideal and effective method that takes people into confidence vis-a vis the grant of environmental clearance to a proposed project. However, point out experts, few experiences of such hearings have made it very apparent that the government machinery and industrialists very well know how to make this seemingly ideal method hollow and ineffective.