An EIA process just for the Himalaya?

In The Hindu today, lawyers Archana Vaidya and Vikram Hegde have written an article asking for a separate environment impact assessment (EIA) process for the Indian Himalayan region. The article begins with a brief history of the EIA, its origins in 1976 in the need to assess river-valley power projects from an “environmental point of view”, the environment ministry’s first EIA notification in 1994, the second notification that followed after 11 years and 12 amendments, and finally the 2020 notification that shifted the burden of proof of impact from industry to the environment. So far so good, especially to indicate that the Indian Himalayan region wasn’t ever on the ministry’s mind as it shaped and reshaped EIA protocols.

Unfortunately, the threshold limits beyond which EIA is warranted for all these projects [mining, extraction of natural resources, power generation, physical infrastructure] is the same across the country. Despite all levels of government being acutely aware of the special needs of the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR), the region’s vulnerabilities and fragility have not been considered separately.

Then begins a section called “Flaws in the graded approach”, followed by the authors’ contention that the EIA’s graded approach – to change the stringency of the project requirements based on the value of the habitat that the project will affect – is unmindful of the special needs of the Indian Himalayan region.

Despite its special needs and as an area of immense ecological importance to the entire country (it serves as a water tower and the provider of ecosystem services), this region is treated like any other part of the country. … Despite [an] understanding of the fragility and vulnerability of the Himalayas, there is no mention of a different set of environmental standards needed if the project is located in the IHR.

This is strange. The article was written in the aftermath of the Sikkim floods (rather, the Sikkim dam-failure) and against the broader backdrop of the Indian government’s dam-building spree over Himalayan and sub-Himalayan rivers rivers as well as work on the Char Dham highway and other road-transport projects. But such systematic degradation isn’t happening only in the Himalaya: across India, both the national and state governments have embarked on projects that will see large tracts of forests, wetlands, and shoreline lose their environmental features, if they haven’t lost them already. Why single out the Himalayan region for special treatment? In fact, it’s trivially easy to argue that every geologic province in the country is different, endangered, and in need of more effective environmental government. So it might be better to modify the EIA to introduce different thresholds for projects situated in different ecosystems – in effect extending the protection the authors are asking for the Indian Himalaya to all the various environmental provinces in the country.

(This is only on paper, of course. Just yesterday, for example, the environment ministry, the Rayagada district administration, and the Odisha State Pollution Control Board organised a public hearing for the Vedanta bauxite-mining project in Rayagada and Kalahandi – a crucial step before the company receives its environmental clearance. But before the meeting, according to social activists and members of tribal communities in the area, the police physically assaulted people in the area and arrested several. District and ministry officials later stated that the public hearing – or a mockery of it? – went smoothly.)

Second, despite the section title, the authors don’t spell out any specific flaws in the EIA’s graded approach that pertains to the Indian Himalaya. So again, it should be easy to see that the Indian Himalayan region doesn’t pose particularly unique problems to the EIA process that other domains don’t; instead, they all pose the same single problem to the process: the EIA overlooks their diversity. The authors write that the Indian Himalayan region “serves as a water tower and [is] the provider of ecosystem services”. The latter can be retained as is and the first feature can be changed to, say, drainage for wetlands, carbon storage for old forests, sustenance for bird and insect species for younger ones, protection against erosion and salinity for coasts, etc. and we’d still be speaking the truth.

That said, the triviality of the alternatives to the authors’ suggestion highlights an important problem with the article’s thrust: that there ought to be a new EIA process for the Indian Himalaya when in fact the existing process has been so diluted, is routinely misapplied, and often has the environment ministry rushing to make excuses for industry actors. In other words, the authors have contended that the existing EIA fails the Indian Himalayan region. This is not true: it fails all Indian regions. And we need to admit that. The reason for failure also matters – that the national government simply isn’t interested in letting an EIA’s requirements get in the way of industrial expansion and ‘development’. If we don’t address this rot, any ‘new EIA’ created to address the needs of a specific region will suffer the same political capture and become worthless.