Brahmaputra: A new dimension to environmental impact assessment

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Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das
(The author is Director, Maritime Research Centre, Pune. He can be reached at director.mrcpune01@gmail.com)

The Government of India has embarked upon an ambitious river-linking project to shore up the broad economic development plan it has formulated under its strategic vision for the nation. The national waterways project has multiple aspects like managing floods and drought, providing cheaper and alternative modes of transportation for the massive logistic network needed to support growth and so on. The government has already announced massive multi-dimensional investment plans for National Waterway No 1 – the Ganga from Banaras to Haldia. It also has similar plans for National Waterway No 2 – the Brahmaputra from Sadiya to Dhubri. These two projects are being pushed on priority with significant policy support and capital infusion, both from the government and the private sector. Such massive investments and ambitious projects are, however, not without their share of flipsides and long-term sustainability concerns.

The Brahmaputra is intrinsic to the socio-economic and cultural evolution of Assam and has an overwhelming influence on the spirit of the people. It has also been a cause of regular devastating floods and calamities, causing immense losses to the people as well as to the economy. It is in this context that reviving the discourse and initiatives to tap the potential of the river for safe, secure and sustainable growth of the entire region becomes critical.

A structured approach is needed to bring together all the forces and resources for a cogent way forward. The geo-politics, socio-economics, cultural heritage, geophysical aspects and more will have its impact on any new initiative and the environment gets defined based on all these factors. The historical perspective of the north-eastern region along the river basin and beyond gives multiple inputs that shape the broader definition of the environment that we refer to. The high flow and recurring floods with devastating consequences has ensured the socio-economic status to remain in an underdeveloped stage for long. The geo-politics has ensured insurgency to remain active, while the cultural heritage gives a lot of complacency to the local population to be anywhere close to being called go-getters.

Geophysical conditions make the region seismic-prone, and decades of neglect have only ensured poor infrastructure and slow economic progress. The unique environmental defined here needs to be handled with significant strategic planning to bring real progress to the region in reasonable time frames.

The river festival did indicate significant thinking through, to include the elements of diplomacy to tackle the geo-politics of the region, given the list of VVIP invitees. The Swachh Bharat aspects do indicate to the cultural shift that we now want to see in our discourse, while the art and culture was to remind the people of the glorious past. The presence of eminent dignitaries and the scale of the event, attempted to erase decades of neglect of the region. The changing face of governance in India and more specifically the outlook towards the Northeast by administrators and policy-makers need to recognize one more aspect in 21st century India. The ambitious river-linking project across north India, particularly in the Northeast, needs to recognize the importance of environmental impact assessment and its dynamics.

Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) as defined by the International Association of Impact Assessment is “the process of identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social, and other relevant effects of development proposals prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made.” It first came into being in the United States with the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act, 1969. Many countries have adopted the EIA concept for measuring the environmental sustainability of a project with varying degrees of success. Funding agencies like World Bank have made EIA mandatory for approvals. It got formalized into the legal framework with punitive action for non-compliance, as also public participation through documentation and judicial review.

In India, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has been striving to bring EIA into a reasonable level of effectiveness through multiple archaic Acts i.e. the Water Act (1974), Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act (1972), Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act (1981), Environment (Protection) Act (1986), and Biological Diversity Act (2002), to name a few. The Central Pollution Control Board being the nodal agency finds itself constrained to even reasonably articulate the broad nature of environmental impacts, given the complex dynamics of infrastructure requirement and technical knowhow. The major limitation is non-availability of continuous primary and secondary environmental data over a reasonable period and also the understanding of parameters required to define the broad environment. Digital India possibly can provide the broad infrastructure backbone for data collection and effective assessment to bring more clarity; this in turn may help counter the development vs environment binary in a fundamentally developing socio-political reality.

While India is emerging as a mature nation to handle complex dynamics of nation building, one must point at a new dimension of EIA that has escaped public attention and needs serious consideration. The river-linking project is also associated with major industrial activities in the water bodies that support underwater animal life that perceives the environment around them through sound. These creatures use acoustic signals for numerous biologically critical functions like foraging, communications, navigation, breeding, etc., and thus increasing noise in their habitat translates to serious acoustic habitat degradation. The most significant species in the Brahmaputra is the fresh-water dolphin locally called “shihu”. Though critically endangered, these dolphins are recognized as the symbol of pride, and declared as Assam’s ‘state aquatic animal’ as also ‘City Animal’. River dolphins are known to be blind and perceive their surrounding through what acoustics experts call Acoustic Vision. The basic reason is that these animals live in muddy waters and have progressively developed their acoustic capabilities to better manage in their habitat.

The river-linking project with its massive infrastructure investment will also bring in significant amount of anthropogenic noise into the acoustic habitat of these dolphins, thereby manifesting as severe acoustic habitat degradation. This fact is yet to be recognized by conservation experts and activists largely lead by biologists. Whatever scant mention is seen in certain literature is largely motivated by foreign literature, but no serious effort is seen on the ground. The numbers continue to degrade and even the population survey is being undertaken using above-water visual surveys that are grossly inadequate given that dolphins mostly remain underwater. Thus, acoustics becomes the primary tool for environmental impact assessment that needs to be recognized and adopted on an urgent basis.

The second aspect is safety of the infrastructure being created with such high investments. The safety is with respect to natural calamities that may not be prevented, but early and automated warning could minimize the damage substantially. Such systems will be effective particularly in such known quake-prone areas. The security pertains to subversive activities and interventions by insurgent groups. Here again one needs to look at acoustic infrastructure that can generate underwater domain awareness to detect developments that may lead to an event. Thus, when one wants to ensure a safe, secure and sustainable growth based on the massive river-linking project, acoustic capacity-building for effective underwater domain awareness stands out as a critical requirement.

Environmental impact assessment will have to be generated with primary and secondary environmental data over a long period using this acoustic infrastructure. The original EIA that was defined only addressed ecological aspects and its impact on socio-economic issues. However, here one needs to propose a more comprehensive environmental definition that encompasses the safety and security aspects as well, along with sustainable ecology to facilitate growth in the real sense. EIA is mandatory for any World Bank-funded project. However, in the absence of a strong legal framework along with lack of understanding of the broad environmental parameters, these critical aspects get lost in the pre-modern governance structure.