How Effective are Environmental Regulations to Address Impacts of Industrial and Infrastructure Projects in India

4 November 2016

People around the world live in areas that have been altered for industrial, infrastructure or mining projects. Their lives and occupations are being negatively impacted by problems of access, encroachment or pollution. Though governments in many countries have regulatory procedures for implementing environmental and social safeguards that are applicable to such projects so that problems can be minimised or mitigated, the qualitative difference of such regulatory systems depends on the efficacy of their compliance safeguards.

Typically, in countries where compliance is low, projects meant for development have also resulted in substantial environmental and social costs. Governments and investors fear the implementation of environmental policies and claim that these are bottlenecks or speed breakers to growth. Several new studies show that stringent compliance of environmental policies will neither affect competitiveness nor slow down GDP growth. On the contrary, it may result in bottom line benefits at the level of projects as well as sustain economic growth by enhancing efficiency and innovation.

India promulgated a series of environmental legislations between 1980 and 2005 to ensure that environmental and social impacts of land use change, infrastructure development and industrialisation are kept in check and timely mitigation is undertaken. The laws establish detailed procedures for assessing the environmental impacts of the proposed projects that are likely to cause land use change. The laws also involve the laying of conditions that are attached to the approvals granted to these projects. These conditions are meant to mitigate or prevent damage or impacts to the extent ascertained by the project proponents and the government or regulator.

Since the time these laws were first designed, there have been numerous amendments to them to change the scope of applicability of these laws, the time taken by regulators for decision-making and the sharing of responsibility between state and central governments in implementing these laws. However, one aspect of these laws that has seen minimal change is in their monitoring and compliance regimes. What happens to the projects once they are granted approvals? Do they comply with all the conditions imposed on them for mitigating or minimising environmental and social impacts? Who oversees these processes and what is the extent to which compliance is achieved?

This report is the outcome of a research project undertaken to understand the efficacy of conditional compliance, institutional monitoring and enforcement of environmental regulations to address the impacts faced by communities living around industrial and infrastructure projects. The project identified the institutions responsible for monitoring and compliance under various environmental laws, their procedures and practices by which these roles are realised. While it has been known that government agencies and regulatory bodies hold the formal duties of monitoring, the project also focused on how affected communities engage these institutions for greater compliance and remedies in case of environmental and social impacts of various kinds, such as encroachment or damage to common or private property, loss of livelihoods and loss of access to public spaces.

By analysing the efforts made by affected parties to engage with environmental institutions to craft remedies for existing environmental impacts, this research aims to highlight regulatory ingredients that are necessary for sound environment regulation and better outcomes through compliance. If translated into concrete policy on environmental monitoring and compliance, these lessons could address the chasm between enforcement of environmental regulations and the ever-growing difficulties of meeting environmental challenges.