The Story of Environmental Information Centre in India

It was June 1999. The Chambers at Taj Mansingh in New Delhi was booked for an important meeting. Those present included Mr. K Roypaul, Additional Secretary of Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), Dr Dilip Biswas, Chairman, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Dr Subramanium, Director at MoEF, Richard Ackerman, Sector Director Environment, The World Bank; Hari Sankaran and Mahesh Babu from IL&FS Ltd. It was a small group and I was the presenter. Topic was Environmental Information Centre (EIC). The meeting began at 7 pm in the evening.

For many years, I was stressing the need to establish a national centre on Environmental Information. I saw its need for providing quality data in a comprehensive and timely manner to project proponents and consultants for conducting Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA). The regulators could use the Environmental Information Centre (EIC) to verify the baseline information provided and carry out regional and cumulative impact assessments to come up with recommendations on environmentally sound planning and development. EIC could mosaic the secondary data from key sources including remote sensed imageries and host this data and its interpretation on a WebGIS platform for the interest of all stakeholders including environmental NGOs and communities.  To ensure populating of the primary and current information, the data structures of the EIA reports could be standardized with mandatary data (and maps) uploads. EIC could also do the job of State Environmental Assessment and Reporting.  The ENVIS Centres of MoEF could be “connected” to the EIC to bring in and update thematic information on environment.

I was convinced that the EIC cannot happen solely with the Government. EIC had to be conceived as a Public Private Partnership (PPP). For promoting and operating EIC, private sector was needed and Government’s support was required to hook the data residing with various key ministries and departments and bring recognition. The attendees at the Chambers in Taj Mansingh therefore included Government  (Ministry and CPCB) and private sector with domain expertise and experience on PPP (IL&FS Ltd).  I was keen to involve academia as well such as Centre for Studies in Resources Engineering (CSRE) at IIT Bombay.

When EIC was presented and discussed, the World Bank was working with Ministry of Environment & Forests on the Environmental Management Capacity Building (EMCB) project. I made a plea to the World Bank and MoEF to use resources available in EMCB project to establish EIC in India. Richard Ackerman from the World Bank was present in the meeting for this purpose.

I had a very interesting position in this memorable meeting. I was a “friend” to MoEF, a consultant cum “insider” to the CPCB, and a consultant to The World Bank and IL&FS. I was thus the point of “intersection”. The discussions were therefore very cordial, full of ideas and support. Perhaps it was the best situation for me to make EIC happen.

And EIC happened. It got support of around 1 million USD from the EMCB Project and was installed as a pilot project with IL&FS Ecosmart Ltd.  States of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat were chosen as the focal States for EIC to provide the service. Arc GIS was chosen as the platform. Nearly 30 “layers” of key information were prepared for the three focus States. To understand the “demand” and “supply” as well as commercials, several workshops were held. These workshops led to better understanding on the scope of the services of EIC.

IL&FS Ecosmart started “marketing” the services of EIC and several project proponents and consultants started placing orders for accessing information (as one stop shop) needed to conduct EIAs. Review committees at the MoEF used EIC service for verification of the information stated in the EIA report. The World Bank utilized EIC’s service for its projects, especially for screening and scoping. I was hoping that EIC will now escalate further to cover other States and provides service pan India as an independent institution.

The idea was to move EIC as a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) after piloting for two years at IL&FS Ecosmart. SPV structure was necessary to make the operations autonomous and allow functioning like an independent business organization. Unfortunately, EIC as SPV did not happen. IL&FS Ecosmart could operate EIC only as a project. There were severe limitations as EMCB project got over. Mr. Roypaul had left MoEF by then and so also Dr Biswas at CPCB. The new team (especially Secretaries and Joint Secretaries) had reservations on the SPV concept.  The SPV concept for “servicing information” was perhaps too new or rather early at that time. After 2 years of pilot operation, EIC was shut down. I would squarely blame the MoEF and its bureaucracy for the closure or death of the EIC.

[ Last year the TSR Subramanium report stressed a dire need to set up EIC and to many it sounded as a new idea. Today, I understand that MoEFCC is envisaging a massive 5-year project in this direction with the help of National Informatics Centre (NIC). But I wonder whether such a fully Government owned and supply-driven model will ever work]

I remember I visited State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) in Beijing for the World Bank in 2002. I mentioned about the concept of EIC and its benefits to the Director of SEPA. He was very attentive in listening to me. He called some four senior officials of SEPA immediately and engaged with discussions to get more insight. In the next mission I did to Beijing, I was told that EIC was established in China. It runs as a Government project today and not as a PPP – a structure that I would have ideally preferred. It lacks therefore the innovation element that is essential when you work with dynamic, diverse and BIG environmental data.  The Centre however delivers the data to the stakeholders and supports the EIA process. The Chinese implement, once convinced and not just talk.

Today several countries operate EIC. Most EICs are Government driven and some are Government owned but operated/managed by Private Sector or by Extensions of Universities. The latter seem to work better and are more efficient and effective. EIC in India must look at such hybrids.

My company, Environmental Management Centre LLP, operates a “mini EIC” that provides customized environmental information service to our clients. This service is getting popular. The key is not to provide just the raw data but provide insightful interpretation after application of data analytics as well as modeling. Examples of such applications are change detection to see impact of thermal plumes over time in the coastal areas, district level mapping of water stress that is based on water availability, quality and uncertainty due to climate change and  mapping of diversity indices of birds and bats around the wind farms etc. Operation of this “mini-EIC” helps my team to understand the dynamics of environmental data and importantly its role in decision making.

There have been however considerable improvements in data repositories and sharing of environmental information in India. Right to Information Act has perhaps been one key factor for the “push”.   The websites of regulators like Maharashtra Pollution Cntrol Board now provide considerable information with spatial visualization and the website of National Green Tribunal is rich with regular updates. Bhuvan database is another example that provides map based information. We will soon see dash boards in  smart cities based on real time data – that may contain important environmental information.

I still hope that EIC at national level on an overarching basis happens. Given the developments in IT and operations of several thematic and geographically distributed databases across institutions, its structure will have to be quite different than what I conceived in 1999. It may be in the form of a Mega-Portal sewing several databases for an organized access but with “intelligence”. Creation of indicators will be an important element of the analytics apart from “change detection”. I wish that we book Chambers at the Taj Mansingh once again for a discussion on EIC in this new context.

But if this meeting happens, I will certainly miss the team that was present in the Taj Chambers in 1999. Those encouraging and enriching discussions and the vision expressed on EIC will never be forgotten.

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