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The Indian Himalayan region needs its own EIA
Context: The editorial with above title was recently covered in The Hindu and it talks about need for reimagining Environmental impact assessment to ensure sustainable development in the Indian Himalayan region.
Need for reimagining EIA in Himalayan region:
• Recent Teesta Dam breach in Sikkim
• Floods and Landslides in Himachal Pradesh and Uttrakhand
• The Himalayan region’s unique ecological importance, serving as a water tower and provider of ecosystem services, is not adequately considered in the existing EIA system
• The construction of dams without proper environmental impact assessment could submerge arable lands, and biodiversity hotspots, and displace villagers, affecting fisheries and fish ecology.
• Above incidents highlight the urgency to reassess our approach to development especially in ecologically fragile areas like the Himalayas.
What is EIA?
• According to UNEP, EIA is a tool used to identify the environmental, social and economic impacts of a project before they are executed.
• In India, the EIA process began in 1976-77 with a focus on river valley projects. Over the years, it has evolved, with the 2006 notification being a significant milestone.
EIA notification, 2006:
• The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006, is the governing legal instrument to grant green clearance for the establishment or expansion of an industry on the basis of the expected environmental impact of the project.
• The EIA Notification 2006 essentially attempted to decentralise power to the State Government.
• For this purpose, the rules categorize the projects into two categories – A and B, on the basis of the magnitude of their scale and impact on the natural and artificial resources.
• Under this Notification, the environmental clearance process undergoes four stages, namely, screening, scoping, public consultation and appraisal stages.
• With further amendments, including in 2020, the EIA Notification underwent several changes with some features meeting the objectives and some diluting the purpose.
Ecological challenges faced by Himalayan Region:
• The Himalayas are young, fold mountains which means they are still rising and are prone to tectonic activities.
• The Himalayas are prone to extreme weather conditions such as heavy rains, flash floods, landslides, and seismic activity. Climate change exacerbates these vulnerabilities. The absence of region-specific standards fails to address these pressing issues.
• Deforestation, construction activities,unregulated tourism and improper land use practices increase soil erosion and the risk of landslides. The loss of vegetative cover destabilises Himalayan slopes, making them susceptible to erosion during heavy rainfall or seismic events.
Consequences of Faulty EIA on the Himalayan region
• The Indian regulatory system employs a graded approach, with environmental conditions varying depending on the type of habitat impacted by a project. This approach lacks differentiation for the IHR, leaving the region without specialized protection.
• Projects belonging to certain categories such as Strategic and Defence Projects, Biomass Based Power Plants, Ports and Harbor dealing in Fish, Toll Plazas are exempted from EIA based on certain criteria.
• Address the needs of mountainous regions like the Himalayas in all four stages of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA): Screening, scoping, public consultation, and appraisal.
• Modify the criteria for projects requiring Environmental Clearance to align with the ecological needs of mountainous regions.
• Utilize the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) diligently as a powerful regulatory tool to promote sustainable development in the IHR and the entire country.
• A differentiated risk management approach for the IHR in the EIA process and the introduction of a national-level regulator are suggested as potential solutions to address these challenges effectively.