What is sustainable development?
The oft-cited definition of sustainable development is found in the 1987 Brundtland Commission report ‘Our Common Future’, which reads as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Tilakawardane J. in Watte Gedara Wijebanda v. Conservator General of Forests, described sustainable development as something that “encapsulates the meaning that natural resources must be utilized in a sustainable manner, in keeping with the principle of intergenerational equity.” Therefore, it is evident at the outset that a discussion on sustainable development will inevitably relate to the sustainable utilization of natural resources while protecting them for the enjoyment of the future generations.
Is the EIA Process connected to sustainable development?
Before delving into the EIA Process, it is crucial to look at how the international community has viewed the relationship between sustainable development and environmental considerations. According to Principle 4 of the Rio Declaration, “in order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.” Principle 13 of the 1972 Stockholm Declaration states that “States should adopt an integrated and coordinated approach to their development planning so as to ensure that development is compatible with the need to protect and improve the environment for the benefit of their population.” Principle 14 reiterates that rational planning is an essential tool for reconciling the conflicts between development and environmental protection. Moreover, Target 15.9 of Sustainable Development Goal 15 highlights the integration of ecosystem and biodiversity values into national and local planning and development processes. From the foregoing international conventions and commitments one can deduce that a crucial aspect of sustainable development is the incorporation of environmental considerations, conservation and improvement into the planning phase of a development project.
In light of the above, it can be opined that the EIA process can be one of the most effective tools towards achieving sustainable development. The very purposes of EIA are to ensure that developmental options under consideration are environmentally sound and sustainable and that environmental consequences are recognized and taken into account early in project design, according to the Guide for Implementing the EIA Process, No. 1 of 1998 issued by the CEA. Best-practice EIA identifies environmental risks, lessens conflict by promoting community participation, minimizes adverse environmental effects, inform decision makers, and help lay the base for environmental-sound projects. Since the EIA aims at assessing the viable alternatives for a development project, a combination that will use natural resources more efficiently and will have the least impacts on the human environment can be chosen for the plans and designs.
It should also be noted that achieving sustainable development is largely dependent on the collaboration and cooperation between environmentalists and the decision-makers. The EIA process facilitates this by engaging both sectors at various stages of the process which includes pre-evaluation, mitigation and monitoring. While the EIA is significant since it anticipates environmental damages at an early stage of the development plan, according to the legal provisions on EIA, there is also a possibility to challenge a project at any stage. This should be utilized for constant scrutiny and supervision over development projects using various approaches such as monitoring performance indicators of the project as well as inspection of licenses.
What is Sri Lanka’s approach to sustainable development from an EIA perspective?
Just like any other country in the world, Sri Lanka can also effectively utilize the EIA process to initiate sustainable development activities into its development agenda. At the local level, several legislations and gazettes facilitate this process. Furthermore, as per Amerasinghe J. in the famous Eppawala case, principles set out in the Stockholm and Rio Declarations, even if regarded as soft law’ cannot be ignored by Sri Lanka, especially given the fact that Sri Lanka is a UN Member State. The honorable justice highlights judicial activism as a means to incorporate principles of this nature into the domestic law, which can be achieved through adoption by the superior Courts of record and by the Supreme Court in particular, in their decisions. Therefore, one can opine that, there is scope from a legal perspective achieving sustainable development is perhaps an obligation of the State which can be facilitated through mechanisms such as the EIA process. This line of thinking resonates well with the idea espoused in the case of Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India, where the Supreme Court of India rightfully pointed out that “the traditional concept that development and ecology are opposed to each other, is no longer acceptable… `sustainable development’ is the answer.” A guideline of this nature, emanating from the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor, can provide an impetus to utilize the EIA process to facilitate sustainable development in Sri Lanka, as well.
At this point it is crucial to highlight the Ravindra Gunawardena Kariyawasam v. Central Environmental Authority case which outright stated that the requirement of obtaining prior approval for the implementation of a “prescribed project” with the submission and consideration of an IEER or EIA is designed to enable the CEA and BOI to promote sustainable development. The Kitulgala Kehelgamu Oya case progresses a step further and showcases an instance where EIA approval was obtained but the project was not carried out according to the EIA stipulations. Subsequently, the continuation of the project was challenged and construction was stopped. In addition, it is a known fact that the EIA process within Sri Lanka allows for public participation, and can be an efficient mechanism to understand and respond to the human concerns of a development project, which is also a vital element when deciding on sustainable development.
The foregoing analysis points to several conclusions. Firstly, it is established that as a State, Sri Lanka should look to incorporate a sustainable development agenda, incorporating environmental considerations to development projects. Secondly, in working towards such an end, the EIA process can function as an effective decision-making tool. Thirdly, EIA process in itself becomes a powerful mechanism to monitor the progress and the direction of development projects in all stages, and act as a checking mechanism to align with the sustainability of the proposed project. Fourthly, the EIA process also allows for human considerations to shape the direction of a development project, ultimately working to directly benefit the public and empower their rights. The judicial development points towards instances where the violation of the EIA procedure at any stage may be a basis upon which the development project can be cancelled as well. Therefore, it is evidently manifest that the way forward for Sri Lanka in terms of sustainable development involves the effective utilization of the EIA process. However, for this end, several aspects of the existing EIA process should be revisited, which have been briefly outlined below.
Lessons to be learnt and the way forward for Sri Lanka
Even though EIA has become a salient instrument for achieving sustainability in Sri Lanka, there are a number of issues to be addressed in furtherance of the process in a practical setting. For instance, there is a lack of trained and qualified experts to plan, guide and monitor the methods and technologies that facilitate sustainable development. Further, ineffective and inefficient administrative systems in the country weaken the implementation of sustainable development policies and practices. Thus, to obtain and nurture sustainable development, Sri Lanka should promote a functional and organized administrative system which is responsive towards the evolving environment concerns and capable to adopt legal and policy mechanisms in order to mitigate detrimental impacts. In order to achieve that level of sensitivity, the government must focus on human resource training and developing programs that provide the requisite expertise knowledge.
Additionally, shortage of facilities to promote environmentally friendly mechanisms, unnecessary political interferences, lack of public participation in the process are also issues that need to be promptly addressed. To curb these lacunae, the government can grant sufficient budgetary allocations to purchase the necessary equipment, to assess the potential environmental threats, to follow up mitigatory measures and for monitoring mechanisms. Furthermore, promoting public awareness of the EIA mechanism and public consultation procedure, is a must.
Rio Declaration on Environment and Development UN Doc. A/CONF.151/26 (vol. I), 31 ILM 874 (1992)
Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment, in Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, UN Doc. A/CONF. 48/14, at 2 and Corr. 1 (1972).
Bulankulama and Others v. Secretary, Ministry of Industrial Development and Others (Eppawela Case) (2000) 3 Sri LR 243.
Case on Kehelgamu Oya Mini Hydro Power Project CA/Writ/29/17- 8/05/2020
Ravindra Gunawardena Kariyawasam v. Central Environmental Authority, SCFR No 141/2015
Watte Gedera Wijebanda v. Conservator General of Forests and Others, S.C. Application No. 118/2004
Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India (1996) AIR SC 2715
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