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Environmental and Social Impact Study (ESIS): A Strategic Tool for Sustainable Urban Development in India

With the Honorable Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of constructing 100 Smart Cities, municipal authorities across India are gearing up to re-imagine and rejuvenate urban areas under their administrative control with an aim to be a part of ‘New India’. For many, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the rapid uncontrolled urbanization of the past and lay the foundation for sustainable future.

Nonetheless, given the country’s unique challenges, municipal authorities will have to fight uphill battle to overcome financial, cultural, social, environmental, infrastructural, technological and resourcing hurdles before winning the smart city badge.

In the recently published City Momentum Index (CMI) 2017 by JLL, India topped the chart with 6 metro cities namely Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai joining the club of world’s 30 most dynamic cities. On the contrary, none of the Indian cities appeared in the top 100 in Quality of Living index 2017 by Mercer. While in the United Nations Happiness Report 2017, the country fared poorly ranking 122nd among 155 countries. These numbers, essentially an alarming sign for municipal governments, are reflections of administrative insensitivity to adverse social or environmental impacts of rapid uncontrolled urbanization that has taken place in India over past few decades.

With Smart City initiatives, this situation needs to be changed as a matter of urgency to ensure long term sustainability of Indian cities while promoting economic growth. Smart City should not just remain as a buzz word; it should become a mantra for urban development which follows democratic processes, sound environmental practices and socially progressive perspectives.

Under this backdrop, Environmental and Social Impact Study (ESIS) has acquired a strategic importance like never before in the Indian Smart City context. After all, transformation to New India will be an ‘eco-socio-techno’ systems change.

ESIS along with engineering and economic analysis provides a holistic framework for decision making in urban development context that aims to bring about stable and environment friendly economic growth through participative social change. According to the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA), Environmental and Social Impact Study entails “identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social, and other relevant effects of development proposals prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made”.

Environmental and Social Impact Study is a structured and multi-tier process which follows the principles of participative, open and transparent governance. It provides a decision aid during policy making, programme planning and project management (PPP) activities. When performed in the policy making settings, it helps develop effective central legal standards and statutory requirements for environmental protection. When applied to programme planning, it helps assess collective impact of urban development projects on regional environment and society. When used across development project lifecycle, it helps implement policy complied, locally acceptable and environmentally positive change.

Effective ESIS takes a cross-sectoral approach to problem solving. Generally, it begins by appreciating the applicable policy environment. Policies and laws provide guiding principles for ESIS outcome. Along with the formal policy knowledge, it is also an imperative to appreciate the customary environment in which the development project is carried out. Understanding of local customs helps in developing context aware solutions which are locally acceptable. As a multi-dimensional analysis, ESIS should take into consideration multiple stakeholder views. Different stakeholders have different reservations, expectations and aspirations from the study. As such, it is necessary to perform a stakeholder analysis to balance the needs of different interest groups. Problem prediction and mitigation forms the central part of this scientific inquiry. Both qualitative and quantitative techniques need to be adopted to paint the problem picture, devise measurable mitigation strategies and create an action plan for environmental protection. The final stage in the ESIS is of institutionalization and monitoring of environmental protection plan to enhance positive effects of urban development project.  A care must be taken to ensure that the implementation of environmental protection plan will not become a hurdle in the development process. An optimal trade-off between economic development and environmental protection is a key to sustainable development.

As objective impact assessment is an imperative for impartial and informed decision making, specially trained professional consultants can play a crucial role in helping municipal authorities and urban development agencies incorporate environmental and social considerations into smart city development projects. Such experts would possess expert multi-disciplinary knowledge in urban planning, law, environment management, social economics and data analytics and would have acquainted themselves with local culture and customs.

The time has now come for us to think of the urban as ‘living places planned for sustainability, designed for environment and maintained for social progress.’ By ensuring long term viability of urban infrastructure, ESIS promises to improve well-being in Indian cities cost-effectively. Rightly done, ESIS also opens the door for securing external financing for development projects as leading donors now favor long term viability. The cost of not making ESIS an integral component of development planning is a lost opportunity for gifting us and generations to come a better future.