Intimidating as it sounds, a multitude of possible human action is actually 'regulated' by formal law. A sub-set of this is presumably designed to stop us from ruining our environment. India has an impressive line-up of such laws that are related to the somewhat uninspired and incongruous term 'environmental clearance'. The environmental clearance process in India itself can be squarely described as a series of mysterious bureaucratic events that mostly arbitrarily, decide the fate of certain environments and communities at the State's stadium of regulation. These episodic relay activities take place each time government officials, either at the state level or at the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), are handed a 'development' proposal from entities legally defined as 'project authorities'.
The legislation that is most closely associated with the 'clearance' procedure and which steers government officials in the clearance exercise, is the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 (first issued in 1994), issued by the MoEF, under the umbrella legislation - the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
Kalpavriksh, an environmental action group, has witnessed the genesis and evolution of this legislation and has employed an approach of research and action to influence the clearance procedure. In the year 2005, its members Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon authored a report titled 'Eleven Years of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 1994; How Effective Has It Been?' This report was a careful compilation of the evolution of this notification and the role it played in environmental regulation and governance. The authors answered the question in their report's title, saying 'The EIA process was introduced with the purpose of identifying/evaluating the potential beneficial and adverse impacts of developmental projects on the environment, taking into account environmental, social, cultural and aesthetic considerations. After eleven years of the notification, citizens' experiences of the EIA notification and decision-making process of development projects is filled with disappointment, anger and frustration.'
There is a beginning and a culmination to the clearance mystery. Crudely put (and why not) if one follows the EIA Notification that Menon and Kohli examined in 2005, it begins with the assembly of an Environmental Impact Assessment Report by the project authority with the aid of 'EIA consultants'; sometimes followed by public hearings; sometimes accompanied by series of dispatches of reports from the state departments and eventually, and most times, a 'clearance letter' is issued by the MoEF. Oftentimes, environmental clearance is granted with an accompanying set of conditions that have to be complied with and monitored by the Regional Offices of the MoEF and sometimes the State Pollution Control Boards and other State Departments. This, it appears, is where the process of worrying about the environment ends.
It is this aspect of environmental clearance - compliance of environmental conditions (hereafter just called 'compliance') and the monitoring thereof, that Kohli and Menon investigate in their latest report 'Calling the Bluff - revealing the state of Monitoring and Compliance of Environmental Clearance Conditions'. From the title of their report, the state of affairs is really anybody's guess.
The first thing that struck us about their report is their predominant data collection method - applications using the Right To Information (RTI) Act. Without the RTI Act, there is little chance that the data that Kohli and Menon unearth could have finally been analysed. Over two years, the authors have displayed the temerity and doggedness to use this legal tool and it certainly has paid off. Data has practically been extracted from the MoEF and its various regional offices and the authors supplement their RTI-obtained information with interviews with officials from the various regional offices of the MoEF, successfully collecting Compliance Reports, Monitoring Reports and related information on monitoring mechanisms and related procedures.
The first thing that struck us about their report is their predominant data collection method - applications using the Right To Information (RTI) Act. Without the RTI Act, there is little chance that the data that Kohli and Menon unearth could have finally been analysed. Over two years, the authors have displayed the temerity and doggedness to use this legal tool and it certainly has paid off.
The 32-page publication is accompanied by a CD containing 5 case studies, 6 fact sheets showing the compliance of projects in the year 2003 for all regions, and their RTI applications and responses they received. The authors qualify their analysis of compliance in the country with some plain acknowledgements - the fact that compliance and monitoring reports are not based on actual site verification; that project authorities don't always report non-compliance in their reports; that regional offices often draft their monitoring reports to mimic the compliance reports that project authorities file; that each project is probably monitored once a year at best; that not all projects are monitored and monitoring is done on priority due to an inadequacy of field staff in the regional offices. The most sobering fact is that indeed not all projects even apply for clearance and simply start construction as in the case of Star City Mall in East Delhi (inset on page 14 of the report).
The report shows that between 1986 and 2006 the MoEF cleared 4016 projects and the new EIA 2006 Notification allowed 2016 projects to be cleared between 2006 and 2008. From this, the authors extract and depict the degrees of non-compliance of clearance conditions; the procedures followed by each of the regional offices for monitoring; the fate of show cause notices and subsequent actions; lack of coordination between monitoring agencies; the obscurity in spelling out conditions; even a section on the absurdity of conditions themselves getting modified to ensure compliance!
The 16 conclusions of the report reveal the farce of the compliance effort and fittingly situate the responsibility with the MoEF. The MoEF has abdicated its responsibility; indeed its officials candidly admit in one RTI response to having no database on the extent of compliance of the 6000-odd projects it has cleared. Neither has the MoEF paid heed to any of the propositions for efficiency made by regional offices (including the frustrated one to stop monitoring projects cleared before 1990!)
The 16 conclusions of the report reveal the farce of the compliance effort and fittingly situate the responsibility with the MoEF. The MoEF has abdicated its responsibility; indeed its officials candidly admit in one RTI response to having no database on the extent of compliance of the 6000-odd projects it has cleared.
Finally who are reports like this intended for? With its carefully prepared tables and tremendously detailed description of procedural lapses and project specifics, the report is not intended for the lay person although this KV publication is shorn of references and heavy footnoting. It will be most useful to those interested in environmental governance in the country, albeit with the stomach and appetite for detail, and a healthy curiosity about the fate of environmental compliance and monitoring.
The data collected through this research and the initial documentation and analysis in Calling the Bluff, could give rise to further series of statistical analyses and comparative studies (between sectors, between conditions, and perhaps even between legislations) that will further illustrate the condition of compliance. How many bar graphs, pie charts, and statistical graphs will convince the MoEF's latest minister?
In conclusion, the authors themselves caution against placing great importance on reforms to the compliance aspect of environmental clearance and liken it to symptomatic fixes. They re-emphasise their earlier views of 'the fallacies inherent in the assumptions and design of the EIA process'. At the time of concluding their report, an MoEF amendment to the EIA Notification 2006 dated 19th January 2009 was introduced seeking to allowing projects to expand on the basis of a self-certification that such expansion will not increase or enhance pollution loads or environmental impacts.
The bluff has been called. Will our environment continued to be cleared?