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Fragility of Indian Himalayan Region

  • 21 Oct 2023
  • 10 min read

For Prelims: Indian Himalayan Region (IHR), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Teesta River, Environmental Clearance (EC), EIA 2006 Notification, Draft EIA 2020 Notification.

For Mains: The dangers mismanagement of the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) poses to India’s environment and ecology.

Source: TH

Why in News?

The Teesta dam breach in Sikkim led to floods and also the recent landslides in Himachal Pradesh are stark reminders of the toll our development model is taking on the environment and ecology, especially in the mountainous Indian Himalayan Region.

The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR):

  • It refers to the mountainous area in India that encompasses the entire Himalayan range within the country. It stretches from the northwestern part of India in Jammu and Kashmir to the northeastern states along the border with countries like Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet (China).
  • It covers 11 states (Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, all northeast states, and West Bengal) and 2 UTs (Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh).

What are the Issues in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR)?

  • Flaws in Graded Approach:
    • Specified flaws in the graded approach of the Indian regulatory system, such as Ministries and Departments emphasise that the IHR is not given special consideration, despite its ecological significance.
    • The Himalayas are prone to extreme weather conditions, seismic activity, and the effects of climate change, yet there are no differentiated environmental standards for projects in this region.
  • Issues in Implementation of Different EIA Stages:
    • There is a profound lack in addressing the IHR's needs at all stages of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process, from screening to appraisal, by aligning project requirements with the region's ecological needs.
    • The inclusion of clauses in the EIA notification to account for specific characteristics of projects in mountainous areas so as to elevate their liability is also lacking.
  • Lack of National Level Regulator:
    • One significant issue in the EIA process is the absence of a national-level regulator, which was suggested by the Supreme Court in 2011 in Lafarge Umiam Mining (P) Ltd. and T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India,1995
    • Currently, EIA processes tend to favor project proponents, and there is a lack of comprehensive consideration of cumulative impacts, especially in mountainous areas like the IHR.
  • Issue of Uniformity in EIA 2006 Notification:
    • The EIA 2006 notification categorizes projects based on sectors like mining, power generation, and infrastructure, but the threshold limits for requiring an EIA remain the same across the country.
    • This uniform approach fails to consider the unique needs and vulnerabilities of the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR), despite its ecological importance and fragility.
  • Issues in Draft EIA 2020 Notification:
    • The EIA process has evolved with several amendments over the years, with a draft EIA in 2020 raising concerns about being perceived as pro-industry and neglecting ecological considerations. The EIA, when used diligently, can be a potent tool for environmental governance and sustainable development.

What are the Steps Required to Safeguard the Ecological Fragility of IHR?

  • Differentiated Environmental Standards:
    • Differentiated environmental standards should be established, taking into account the region's fragility and vulnerability.
      • These standards should be incorporated into the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process, ensuring that projects in the IHR are subject to more stringent regulations and scrutiny.
  • Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA):
    • Policymakers should consider implementing SEA, which assesses the cumulative impact of development in an area.
    • Integrating SEA into the clearance process can provide a comprehensive view of the potential consequences of development activities.
  • Local Community Involvement:
    • These communities often have a deep understanding of the region's ecology and can provide valuable insights into the potential impacts of development.
    • Ensuring their participation can lead to more ecologically sound and socially responsible projects.
  • Ecosystem-Based Approaches:
    • Implement ecosystem-based approaches to development. Recognize that the IHR is not just a source of resources but also plays a critical role in maintaining regional and national ecological balance.
    • Policies should prioritize the protection and restoration of ecosystems, including forests, rivers, and biodiversity.
  • Rethinking Infrastructure Development:
    • Infrastructure projects in the IHR should be planned carefully. Projects like dams, roads, and hydropower plants should undergo rigorous assessments to minimize their impact on the environment.
    • Consider alternative technologies and routes that are less disruptive.
  • Cross-Border Cooperation:
    • The Himalayan region extends across several countries, and ecological challenges are not confined by political boundaries. India should engage in regional cooperation to address shared environmental issues.
    • Collaborative efforts can help in mitigating transboundary challenges such as air and water pollution.
  • Public Awareness and Education:
    • Raise public awareness about the ecological significance of the IHR.
    • Education and advocacy can lead to more responsible behavior and choices among individuals, corporations, and policymakers.
  • Nature-Based Tourism:
    • Develop sustainable and responsible tourism practices that generate income for local communities while minimizing negative impacts on the environment.
    • This could involve promoting eco-tourism, enforcing carrying capacity limits, and raising awareness among tourists.

What is Draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020?

  • About:
  • Post-facto Clearance:
    • The draft notification introduced the concept of post-facto clearance, which would allow certain projects to seek environmental clearance even after they had begun operations without clearance.
  • Reduced Public Participation:
    • Critics argued that the draft notification weakened the public consultation process, making it more challenging for concerned citizens and communities to voice their opinions and objections regarding proposed projects.
  • Exemptions for Certain Projects:
    • The draft notification proposed exemptions for certain categories of projects, allowing them to bypass the EIA process.
  • Extension of Project Validity:
    • It suggested extending the validity period of environmental clearances for various projects, potentially reducing the need for frequent re-evaluations of environmental impacts.
  • Dilution of Compliance Reports:
    • There were concerns about the dilution of compliance reports, which are meant to ensure that projects adhere to environmental conditions and standards.
    • The draft notification generated dubious standards, with environmental activists, experts, and concerned citizens voicing their objections.

EIA in India

  • About:
  • EIA 1994 Notification:
    • In 1994, the then Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, under the Environmental (Protection) Act 1986, promulgated an EIA notification making Environmental Clearance (EC) mandatory for expansion or modernisation of any activity or for setting up new projects listed in Schedule 1 of the notification.
  • EIA 2006 Notification:
    • The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) notified new EIA legislation in September 2006.
    • The notification makes it mandatory for various projects such as mining, thermal power plants, river valley, infrastructure (road, highway, ports, harbors and airports) and industries including very small electroplating or foundry units to get environment clearance.
    • However, unlike the EIA Notification of 1994, the new legislation has put the onus of clearing projects on the state government depending on the size/capacity of the project.

UPSC Civil Services Examination, Previous Year Questions (PYQ)

Prelims

Q 1. When you travel in Himalayas, you will see the following: (2012)

  1. Deep gorges
  2. U-turn river courses
  3. Parallel mountain ranges
  4. Steep gradients causing land sliding

Which of the above can be said to be the evidence for Himalayas being young fold mountains?

(a) 1 and 2 only
(b) 1, 2 and 4 only 
(c) 3 and 4 only 
(d) 1, 2, 3 and 4

Ans: (d)


Mains

Q 2. Bring out the causes for more frequent landslides in the Himalayas than in Western Ghats. (2013)

Q 3. Describe the various causes and the effects of landslides. Mention the important components of the National Landslide Risk Management Strategy. (2021)

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