The incident that happened in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu just before World Environment Day reminds us of the necessity of strong enforcement of environmental rules and regulations to promote cleanliness of air, water and soil. The brutal killing of 13 people compelled the Tamil Nadu government on 21 May to issue a closure notice to the Sterlite Copper factory in Thoothukudi, leading to unemployment of 3,500 people directly and many people (vendors and contractors) indirectly.

The government order endorsed the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s directive to close the unit citing constitutional provisions to “protect and improve the environment,” and “in larger public interest.”. The permanent shutdown of the country’s largest copper smelter may have wide-ranging repercussions on domestic copper consumption, which was estimated to be growing at a compounded annual average rate of 5.9 per cent in the last 10 years. Thereby sustainable development as promised by Government of India has been endangered.

The environment is one of the major components of sustainable development. This incident clearly exposed that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) were not practically devised to maintain environmental sustainability through scientific assessments and proper public participation. On the contrary, this EIA was outweighed by economic and political concerns leading to legal disputes and public contestations surrounding the project.

Generally, before issuing environmental clearance, development practitioners rely upon public participation with the aim of more adequately responding to local people’s needs and stakeholders’ concerns. But in practice, these eforts frequently become mechanisms of co-optation, through which the projects of more powerful political and financial actors are projected and the logics of project success are promoted.

Not only in India but in other developing countries as reported by researchers, the procedure and processes being adopted to prepare EIA for environmental clearance has already eroded the trust of common people in regulatory agencies leading to loss of democratic accountability. In India, numerous procedural and bureaucratic challenges, as well as powerful political leaders exert pressure to reform EIAs through streamlining and simplifying EIAs and environmental licensing processes.

The project proponents create a perception of necessity for intervention based on discourses about regional poverty, the need for more investment, and the supposed sustainability benefits of a project. Generally, EIA de-politicises developmental interventions by positioning project evaluation within bureaucratic and institutional logic of technocratic management but in practice there is little scope to address corruption, larger territorial transformations, and human rights violations.

Despite stipulating industry-specific standards and strong guidelines to carry out EIAs, enforcement is poor, corruption is rampant, and the justice system is slow. But revelation of corruption or manipulation in EIA is tricky and difficult to prove because it is a practice inherently subtle, hidden or not evident though its existence seems certain. The manipulation depends on the interests at stake, and political or lobby pressures.

The independence of evaluators depends on their professionalism and ethics, but also on the criteria for the assignment of positions; the greater the political influence in the designation of positions, the less independent the agencies are. A clear case of EIA manipulation is the premeditated use of false information. False information may include, for example, fraudulent use of baseline monitoring data of ambient air, water (river, drain and groundwater) and soil. Such data, in many cases, is undervalued to lessen the expected impact on environmental components, lest the concerned committee refuse to recommend issue of the EC. Therefore, the project proponent or consultant does not feel any need to monitor the actual status. But critical appraisal will clearly reveal the flaws in the data.

Similar false information has been provided in many cases to present the flora and fauna in and around a project site to facilitate approval. Sometimes part of the information that supports a project is not false but exaggerated. An example is the exaggerated emphasis on the economic advantages of some activities (employment, vendor, contractor etc.) or infrastructure (school, hospital, road, auditorium etc.) or social welfare (water supply, education, afforestation etc.).

Developers promote projects and are obviously interested in their success. When these projects are subject to EIA the first step is to obtain a positive resolution. Consequently, developers have a personal interest in a favorable EIA and will try to achieve it through manipulation, a tempting shortcut. Administrative manipulation of EIA process, EIA experts and evaluator, bribes and kickbacks also play crucial role in facilitating approval.

Another typical manipulation that is diffcult to detect is to hide information. For example, the emphasis on industrial development and export-oriented growth overshadow the environmental and social risks particularly by industries importing raw materials and/or extracting raw materials from the earth leading to dumping of hazardous solid waste on land and emission of toxic particulate matter and gases.

If project proponents do not comply with the conditions stipulated in environmental clearance, those conditions frequently get carried forward as conditions of subsequent EC. The regulatory agencies with political support demonstrate economic growth and neglect environmental protection and human rights concerns. EIA study is inevitable in law but toothless in practice. Scientific and technical rigour requires the use of expert language and statements, but this may hinder understanding of environmental problems to be created by the project.

The Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change has developed a comprehensive process to address legal, technical, environmental and social issues, including social welfare, compensation, safeguards and corrective measures. The aim is to ensure social, economic and environmental benefits to all, particularly local communities and fauna and flora. Even governmental agencies and public participate in the EIA, but their input is not included in the process.

In the Sterlite case, concerned citizens set up a parallel EIA that projected different and more negative impacts from those in the official EIA study. According to them, EIA did not assess impacts of industrial activity on indigenous communities living around the project. It may be apprehended that the approach to EIA presented to MOEFCC also pointed to the problems of projects being treated as isolated from other activities in that region causing pollution problems despite having inter-related affects on the population and ecology of that region.

In addition to these, political and economic factors helped to obtain the EC based on the discourse that the project would create wealth and jobs neglecting a host of relevant social concerns. Finally, the technical management and procedural issues of EIA and EC procedures created an impression that the project was “theoretically” compliant with legal frameworks.

Local people reported that the plant that was in operation for 20 years caused severe environmental pollution as reflected from the gas leakage in March 2013 and the suffering of the people from respiratory diseases due to air pollution. The then chief minister ordered closure. The company managed to continue its operations because of a favourable National Green Tribunal order. The state government moved the Supreme Court and the petition is pending there.

Frustrated with the impassivity of authorities including failure of legal challenges, people turned agitational and this was capitalized on by political parties for their vested interest. This led to death of innocent people.In this context, the EIA and environmental licensing processes obfuscate the economic and political motives behind this type of project.

This incident shows that local resistance and legal action may involve prolonged and often costly engagement, and that even after projects are in operation, many risks will remain in play. Ignoring these factors at the start, and intentionally turning a blind eye to them despite the opportunity to incorporate them in the EIA study and address them at the initial stage is risky.

This case may offer a new way to think about project licensing processes and how to avoid such flaws in future. EIA processes could meaningfully inform more accurate economic indicators, as well as social and environmental points of concern, and could lead to decisions that avoid environmental harm, human rights violations, and costly work stoppages.

The writer is former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board.