Monitoring in EIA: A critical step often ignored

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Featured image by: Calistemon

It all began in the 1960s after Rachel Carson’s silent spring was published that altered the course of history. The book highlighted how the delicate equipoise between the anthropogenic activities and nature is shaken to core and with its continuation we are all moving towards the doomsday. Her book planted a seed of thought in each and everyone’s mind that environment is suffering and we need to find a solution before the ‘fable of tomorrow’ becomes our reality. In that effort, let’s take a look at the current EIA practices and Monitoring in EIA.

A look at EIA

Environment impact assessment(EIA) gives a ray of hope in this direction. EIA is a systematic process that tries to unravel the impacts of a planned developmental activity on the environment. One of the most important step in the EIA cycle is, Monitoring. The definition given by Glasson et al (2006) of ‘comparing the impacts predicted in an ES with those that actually occur after implementation, in order to assess whether the impact prediction performs satisfactorily’ sums up the true essence and criticality of monitoring in EIA.

Monitoring in EIA

Monitoring involves taking into account the physical, social, economic, environmental perspectives that come along with the implementation of the developmental project. It involves collection of date over the period of time the project goes on.

nuclear power plant

The aim of monitoring is to focus on only those that have a consequential impact. This allows us to compare the results of the EIS (Environment Impact Statement) with what is seen on the ground once the project kick starts.

Many a times the major developmental projects go on for years. EIA is not just about approving the project. It is management of the environment and project in such a way that the end result is sustainable.

Monitoring: The process

It is done on various levels once the project is approved. Baseline monitoring involves understanding the report inside out in order to be familiar with all the variable like environmental and geographical parameters of the location of the activity. This helps us to analyze the changes that have occurred over the period of time. Impact monitoring is to measure the ecological, socioeconomic and heath variables that are a result of implementation of the project. Measurements during constructional and operational phase play an important role here. Compliance monitoring is the continuous recording of parameters like environmental, socioeconomic, pollution levels etc. It is done to keep a check on whether the mitigation measures suggested in the report are being followed on the ground.

Why is monitoring critical to EIA?

Professional judgment is the backbone to EIA (Therival et al 2006). Impact assessment is based on one’s judgement of the prediction of the outcome that could be unfolded as the project proceeds. It is monitoring that helps us understand this impact.

Chimney smoke, EIA monitoring

Monitoring can act like an early warning system by identifying the trends that can be deleterious to the nature and human population before it’s too late.

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It can also help us find the remedies. It plays a major role in the environment management plan and leads in the environment impact auditing. It also analyses where the responsibility and accountability of the management lies. At the same time strengthens the credibility of the proponents. It gives an assurance to the public that proper vigilance is being kept on the project because public directly does not play a role in monitoring.

Around the world: Provisions for monitoring

The irony in the criticality of the monitoring is the fact that it is not a mandatory step in many EIA procedures around the world. For example, in United Kingdom, monitoring is not mandatory.

On the other hand, in Netherlands, the concerned authority is required to monitor the progress of the project while keeping the details public. If the impact exceeds the permissible or the predictable value, it is the authority’s responsibility to take mitigation measures. Hong Kong has a comprehensive monitoring system in action since 1990. They have put in heavy penalties on those who do not follow the mandatory rules related to monitoring. Penalty is $250000 and six months of imprisonment. The uniqueness of the Hong Kong model is their use of webcams to analyze different parts of the project. They have also given the public opportunity to give their views on performance of the project to the concerned authorities.

In India, it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to conduct the post monitoring. In the draft environment impact assessment ,2020, released by MoEFCC, it is suggested that compliance monitoring frequency to be relaxed from once in six months to once a year.

Challenges in Monitoring

There are many challenges in compliance of monitoring. Some are common across the globe. First, involvement of the community in the monitoring is lacking. It is required as they’re important stakeholders who will be directly impacted because of the developmental project. Second, indirect social variables like employment levels, literacy rate etc. of the people living in the vicinity and that will be impacted during construction and operation of the project. These variables are not taken into account. Third, prediction about a lot of variables takes place but monitoring of only a few happens. Each and every variable having a significant impact should to be dealt with utmost concern. Fourth, lack of strict rules and penalties when required mitigation practices are not undertaken even if they were not mentioned in the EIS but in real time needed. Fifth, lack of a strong administration set up and coordination between various branches.

What is the way forward then?

The very first requirement of the time is to acknowledge monitoring as an unavoidable part of the EIA process. For monitoring in EIA to be a success, Strong political will and institutional capacity is needed. Significant weight should be put in engaging public at all the stages of the process. NGOs and civil groups need to build the awareness and consensus among the local communities to empower them to be able to raise local issues. While they do act as good pressure groups, most often they end up hindering the progress of the project and are seen as the anti-development groups. Local communities led by NGOs and Civil groups can be effective negotiators.

On the administrative side as well, It is imperative that a shift of approach happens. Ideally speaking, there are many projects which require monitoring beyond the EIA process. Therefore, Post project monitoring and analysis must be carried on once the project is in running stage. It will provide timely checks on the operations of the project and will check whether the standards/mitigation measures are being followed in letter and spirit.This must be followed by Stringent norms and penalties for not sticking to the recommended standards/mitigation measures. It will acts as deterrent. With this approach, mishaps can be avoided before they take place. The recent incidents of industrial gas leaks could have been avoided if proper monitoring mechanisms were in place through an efficient institution.

It is therefore aptly said for monitoring that a stitch in time saves nine. Even though it is a task that requires investment of money, expertise and time, the end result is sustainability. Monitoring is that tool which can help minimize the damage to the environment and the communities that are in the vicinity of the project area. It helps us shape our data repository for future use. Hence, it is critical to EIA.

About Author

  • Rashmi is a Master's Student at Department of Environmental Studies, University of Delhi. She has a deep interest in socio-political issues regarding General and Environmental issues.