The construction of large dams and reservoirs for the establishment of hydropower projects can alter the natural flow of water in the surrounding areas. This can lead to changes in the amount and timing of water runoff, increasing the risk of landslides and erosion. The weight of the water in the reservoir can also lead to increased pressure on the surrounding land, which can cause cracks in the soil and rock formations.
Furthermore, the construction process itself can also contribute to these environmental impacts. Excavation and blasting can cause significant disturbances to the landscape, leading to soil instability and increased erosion. The removal of vegetation can also increase the risk of landslides and erosion, as plants help anchor the soil in place and absorb excess water. The following blog post closely looks into the environmental consequences of infrastructure projects which have also caused the relocation of entire cities. The author also seeks to analyse the legal lapses in the establishment of such projects, which were a probable cause for all the subsequent disasters. Lastly, mitigatory remedies have also been explained to curb such environmental disasters on land.
The sinking crisis in Joshimath, India, is an example of how infrastructure projects can impact entire cities and lead to the forceful relocation of people. Briefly speaking, the construction of the Rishiganga hydropower project in the Indian state of Uttarakhand triggered a massive landslide and flooding in the region, causing severe damage to infrastructure, homes, and businesses. In the aftermath of the disaster, the government of Uttarakhand declared the area unsafe and ordered the relocation of the affected communities.
Infrastructure projects such as hydropower projects, dams, highways, and urban development can have a significant impact on the environment and the communities living in the vicinity. These projects can cause land-use changes, alter water resources, and disrupt ecosystems, leading to severe environmental consequences. They can also have social and economic impacts on the people living in the area, including displacement, loss of livelihoods, and changes in the cultural fabric of the community.
In the case of the Joshimath sinking crisis, the construction of the Rishiganga hydropower project disrupted the natural balance of the region, leading to the instability of the hillsides and the river. The massive landslide and flooding that followed were devastating to the local communities, causing loss of life and property. The disaster forced the government to consider the relocation of the affected districts, as the area was deemed unsafe for human habitation.
Therefore, it is essential to consider the potential consequences of these projects carefully. Proper planning and evaluation of the environmental and social impacts of infrastructure projects can help minimize their negative effects and ensure the sustainability of the communities and the environment.
Environmental Impact Assessments
Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are an important tool used to assess the potential environmental impacts of projects, such as infrastructure projects, and to identify measures to mitigate those impacts. In India, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (“MoEFCC”) is responsible for overseeing the EIA process and ensuring that projects comply with environmental regulations.
TheEIA process in India typically involves the following steps:
- Screening: The project is assessed to determine whether it requires a full EIA or a shorter environmental screening report.
- Scoping: The scope of the EIA is determined, identifying the potential impacts that need to be studied.
- Baseline data collection: Data is collected on the current environmental conditions in the project area.
- Impact assessment: The project’s potential environmental impacts are assessed, and measures to mitigate those impacts are identified.
- Preparation of the EIA report: The findings of the EIA are documented in a report, which is submitted to the MoEFCC for review.
- Public consultation: The public is given an opportunity to provide input on the project and its potential impacts.
- Appraisal: The MoEFCC reviews the EIA report and decides on whether to grant clearance for the project.
However, despite this well-established procedure, compliance with the EIA process is often poor in India. Project owners may try to avoid or bypass the process, or may even submit incomplete or inadequate reports. This can result in significant environmental damage, such as the destruction of forests, water pollution, or air pollution, which can have long-lasting effects on the health and well-being of local communities and ecosystems.
There have been several instances in India where projects have been allowed to proceed without proper compliance with the EIA process. For example, in 2020, theMoEFCC was criticized for granting clearance to a coal mining project in a forest area in Assam, without conducting a public hearing or consulting with the local communities. This decision was met with widespread criticism from environmentalists, civil society groups, and local communities.
Lapses in conducting the EIAs
The MoEFCC has been accused of being lax in its environmental clearance process, particularly in terms of conducting public hearings and consulting with local communities. This is a crucial step in the environmental clearance process as it allows for the opinions and concerns of the affected communities to be heard and addressed. By not conducting these public hearings, the MoEFCC is accused of ignoring the concerns of the people who will be directly affected by the project.
In addition, the MoEFCC has been criticized for its lack of transparency in the clearance process. The process of granting environmental clearances is often opaque, and the decision-making criteria are not always made public. This lack of transparency has led to allegations of corruption and favouritism, with some projects being granted clearances despite being environmentally unsound.
Furthermore, the MoEFCC has been criticized for not taking a strong stance against various projects which has led to the clearance of several controversial projects, such as thePolavaram dam in Andhra Pradesh and theKen-Betwa river linking project in Madhya Pradesh. Both of these projects have been criticized for their potential impact on the environment and the displacement of local communities.
The construction of a new airport in Goa has been a contentious issue since its announcement in 2019. The proposed airport is set to be built in Mopa, a region located in the northern part of the state. However, concerns have been raised regarding the potential impact of the airport on nearby wetlands and the need for consultation with local communities.
One of the primary criticisms of the project is the perceived lack of transparency and consultation with local communities. According to reports, the project was approved by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) without adequate consultation with local residents and environmental experts. This lack of consultation has resulted in many locals feeling that their voices have been ignored in thedecision-making process.
Furthermore, concerns have been raised regarding the impact of the airport on the region’s delicate ecosystem, including its wetlands. The proposed airport is expected to cover an area of around 2,000 hectares, much of which is a wetland. Wetlands are essential for maintaining the ecological balance of an area, and their destruction can have significant environmental consequences. The construction of the airport is expected to have a severe impact on the region’s wetlands, potentially leading to the loss of habitat for several species of flora and fauna.
The MoEFCC has been criticized for failing to conduct a thorough environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the project. The EIA is a critical process that evaluates the potential environmental impact of a project and suggests mitigation measures to minimize any negative effects. However, it has been reported that the MoEFCC has approved the project without conducting a comprehensive EIA, leading to concerns that the project’s environmental impact may not have been adequately considered.
Overall, the construction of the new airport in Goa has been marred by controversy and criticism, primarily due to the lack of consultation with local communities and the potential impact on the region’s wetlands. The MoEFCC has been criticized for its handling of the project, particularly for its perceived lack of transparency and failure to conduct a thorough environmental impact assessment.
To address these issues, there have been calls for stronger enforcement of environmental regulations and greater transparency in the EIA process. The MoEFCC has also proposed changes to the EIA process, including a requirement for more detailed baseline data collection and the establishment of a national EIA authority to oversee the process. These changes could help to improve compliance with the EIA process and ensure that projects are assessed more thoroughly for their potential environmental impacts.
The Joshimath Sinking Crisis is not an isolated incident, and there have been several similar incidents in India where construction and infrastructure projects have led to environmental damage and public safety concerns. Here are a few examples:
1. Lavasa Hill City Project: The Lavasa Hill City Project is a planned hill station project located in Maharashtra, India, that has faced criticism for its potential impact on the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The project has been accused of violating several environmental regulations, leading to a controversy that has spanned several years.
One of the primary regulations that the Lavasa Hill City Project breached was the Forest Conservation Act (1980). Under this act, any project that involves the diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes must obtain clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The Lavasa project was accused of illegally occupying forest land without obtaining the necessary clearances. The project had reportedly diverted around 141 hectares of forest land, which is a clear violation of the Forest Conservation Act.
Another regulation that was breached by the Lavasa project was the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification (1994). This notification requires projects that have the potential to cause significant environmental impacts to obtain clearance from the MoEF before construction can commence. The Lavasa project was accused of violating this notification by starting construction without obtaining the necessary environmental clearances.
2. Sardar Sarovar Dam Project: The Sardar Sarovar Dam Project is a large-scale development project located in Gujarat, India, that has been controversial due to its potential impact on the environment and the displacement of local communities. The project has been accused of violating several environmental regulations, leading to protests and legal challenges that have spanned several decades.
One of the primary regulations that the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project breached was the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification (1994). This notification requires projects that have the potential to cause significant environmental impacts to obtain clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) before construction can commence. However, the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project was approved without proper compliance with the EIA process. The project was later found to have violated several environmental norms, including those related to the displacement of local communities and the destruction of forests.
3. Polavaram Dam Project: The Polavaram Dam Project is a large-scale development project located in Andhra Pradesh, India, that has been controversial due to its potential impact on the environment and the displacement of local communities. The project has been accused of violating several environmental regulations, leading to protests and legal challenges that have spanned several years.
One of the primary regulations that the Polavaram Dam Project breached was the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification (1994). This notification requires projects that have the potential to cause significant environmental impacts to obtain clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) before construction can commence. However, the Polavaram Dam Project was approved without proper compliance with the EIA process. The project was later found to have violated several environmental norms, including those related to the displacement of local communities and the destruction of forests.
The Polavaram Dam Project has also been accused of violating the Forest Conservation Act (1980). Under this act, any project that involves the diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes must obtain clearance from the MoEF. The Polavaram Dam Project was accused of illegally occupying forest land without obtaining the necessary clearances. The project had reportedly diverted around 2,600 hectares of forest land, which is a clear violation of theForest Conservation Act.
In all of these incidents, the projects were approved without proper compliance with the EIA process, and they were found to have violated environmental regulations and norms. The incidents highlight the need for stronger regulations and monitoring to prevent environmental damage and public safety concerns. The EIA process needs to be conducted transparently and rigorously, with a greater emphasis on assessing the potential risks and impacts of projects. The government and regulatory bodies need to take a more proactive approach to ensure that companies comply with environmental regulations, and public participation and awareness are critical in holding companies accountable and ensuring that environmental concerns are addressed.
Strengthening the legal mechanisms
The recent sinking crisis in Joshimath, Uttarakhand, highlights the need for stronger regulations and guidelines to prevent such disasters in the future. The construction of a hydropower project destabilized the surrounding mountains and led to a landslide that damaged several homes and buildings in the area. Various cracks are also emerging within the roads as a result of the power project.
The Joshimath Sinking Crisis was largely due to the lack of proper environmental regulations and oversight for hydropower projects in the region. The project was approved under the environmental clearance process, which requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study. However, the EIA study did not adequately assess the potential risks associated with the project and did not consider the cumulative impacts of multiple hydropower projects in the area.
Specifically, the EIA process for the Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project, which was the main project involved in the crisis, was found to be inadequate in identifying the potential risks associated with the project. The EIA report did not include a detailed geological study of the project area, which could have identified the potential for landslides and other geological hazards. In addition, the EIA report did not adequately consider the cumulative impacts of multiple hydropower projects in the area, which may have exacerbated the risks associated with the project.
The lapse in the EIA process can be attributed to a combination of factors, including inadequate regulatory oversight, limited expertise and resources of regulatory bodies, and the pressure to approve development projects as part of India’s economic growth agenda. In some cases, there may have also been conflicts of interest or collusion between project proponents and regulatory bodies.
To prevent similar lapses in the future, there is a need for stronger regulatory oversight and enforcement, as well as a greater emphasis on independent and rigorous EIA studies that take into account the full range of potential impacts, including cumulative impacts. This will require a commitment to transparency, public participation, and the allocation of adequate resources and expertise to regulatory bodies responsible for the EIA process.
One issue that contributed to the crisis was the lack of proper environmental regulations and oversight for hydropower projects in the region. The project was approved in 2004 under the environmental clearance process, which requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study. However, the EIA study did not adequately assess the potential risks associated with the project and did not consider the cumulative impacts of multiple hydropower projects in the area.
To prevent such disasters in the future, there are several ways in which legislation and regulations could be improved:
1. Improving the EIA process: The EIA process needs to be more thorough and transparent, with a greater emphasis on assessing the potential risks and impacts of projects. This could be achieved through the establishment of a national EIA authority to oversee the process and ensure that it is conducted consistently and rigorously.
Several processes within the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process need strengthening to ensure that it effectively identifies and addresses the potential environmental and social impacts of large-scale development projects. Here are a few examples:
- Scoping: The scoping process is critical for identifying the potential impacts of a proposed project and determining the scope and boundaries of the EIA study. However, this process can be influenced by the interests of the project proponent and may not adequately consider the concerns and perspectives of affected communities and stakeholders. To strengthen the scoping process, there needs to be a greater emphasis on public participation and consultation, and regulatory bodies need to ensure that the scope of the EIA study is comprehensive and addresses all relevant impacts.
- Baseline data collection: Baseline data collection is critical for understanding the existing environmental and social conditions of the project area, and for identifying potential impacts of the proposed project. However, this process can be rushed or incomplete, resulting in inadequate baseline data that fails to capture the full range of potential impacts. To strengthen the baseline data collection process, there needs to be greater emphasis on independent, third-party assessments and monitoring, and regulatory bodies need to ensure that the baseline data is comprehensive and up-to-date.
- Cumulative impacts: Large-scale development projects, like hydropower projects, can have cumulative impacts when multiple projects are approved in the same area. However, the EIA process often fails to adequately consider the cumulative impacts of multiple projects, resulting in incomplete assessments and inadequate mitigation measures. To strengthen the consideration of cumulative impacts, regulatory bodies need to develop guidelines and frameworks for assessing cumulative impacts, and there needs to be greater emphasis on collaboration and coordination between different project proponents.
- Monitoring and enforcement: The effectiveness of the EIA process ultimately depends on the monitoring and enforcement of mitigation measures and conditions of approval. However, monitoring and enforcement can be weak or non-existent, resulting in the inadequate implementation of mitigation measures and continued environmental and social impacts. To strengthen monitoring and enforcement, regulatory bodies need to develop robust monitoring plans and ensure that there are consequences for non-compliance with mitigation measures and conditions of approval.
2. Better monitoring and proper enforcement: There needs to be better monitoring and enforcement of environmental regulations, with penalties for non-compliance. This could include regular inspections of projects to ensure that they are complying with environmental regulations and that any potential risks are identified and addressed promptly.
3. Greater public participation: The public needs to be more involved in the decision-making process for projects, with opportunities for public consultation and input. This could help to identify potential risks and ensure that the concerns of local communities are taken into account.
4. Cumulative impact assessment: There needs to be a more comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impacts of multiple projects in a region, to ensure that the potential risks associated with these projects are fully understood.
5. Regulatory Framework: A strong regulatory framework is essential to ensure that infrastructure projects comply with environmental and social safeguards. The regulatory framework should include monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance and impose penalties for non-compliance.
- Japan: Japan is a country that is prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. The government has established a comprehensive disaster management system that includes early warning systems, evacuation plans, and disaster response training. This system has been successful in reducing the impact of natural disasters. For example, during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the early warning system gave people in affected areas valuable time to evacuate, which saved many lives.
- United States: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is responsible for coordinating the response to disasters in the United States. FEMA provides financial assistance to individuals and communities affected by disasters and also provides training and support to emergency responders. FEMA has been effective in responding to disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires.
- New Zealand: New Zealand is a country that is also prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes. The government has a strong building code that requires all new buildings to be constructed to strict seismic standards. This has helped to prevent buildings from collapsing during earthquakes and has saved many lives.
6. Independent Oversight: Independent oversight bodies can provide an additional layer of accountability and transparency in the planning and implementation of infrastructure projects. These bodies should have the authority to review and provide project recommendations and ensure compliance with environmental and social safeguards.
7. Emergency Response: In the event of a disaster, the emergency response mechanism must be well-planned and equipped to respond effectively. The response should prioritize the safety and well-being of affected communities and ensure their access to essential services and resources.
The sinking of Joshimath town in Uttarakhand, India, highlights the importance of assessing the environmental impact of infrastructure projects. The construction of the Rishiganga hydropower plant may have played a role in destabilizing the hillside and causing the disaster. Assessing the environmental impact of infrastructure projects should be an integral part of the planning and decision-making process. It is important to involve all stakeholders, including local communities and environmental experts, in this process to ensure that all perspectives are taken into account. Lastly, the financers of these large projects must also take into account the long-term consequences of the establishment of the project and avoid funding such projects which may take a toll on the environment. Sustainable development, quite literally, is important and infrastructure development must not hamper or take a toll on the environment.
About the Author
Ms. Hifza Haq is a Young India Fellow at Ashoka University.
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Preferred Method of Citation
Hifza Haq, “Assessing the Environmental Impact of Infrastructure Projects” (IJPIEL, 10 April 2023)