Cover Story

Licence to plunder

Print edition : February 21, 2014

At Ladapari village in Sundergarh district of Odisha with the Khandadhar falls in the background. The area is proposed to be mined for iron ore by Posco. Photo: Lingaraj Panda

In the Agency area of Visakhapatnam district where the Andhra Pradesh government is planning to undertake bauxite mining through the A.P. Mineral Development Coroporation. Ecologists contend that the fragile ecosystem and the Girijans in the area are at grave risk.

Jayanthi Natarajan. Photo: V. Sudershan

M. Veerappa Moily, who took additional charge of the Ministry of Environment on December 24. Photo: RAMESH SHARMA

In a bid to make the UPA government appear investor-friendly, M. Veerappa Moily gives green clearance to 73 projects, including the controversial Posco steel plant, within 20 days of assuming office, ignoring community forest rights and raising concerns about serious damage to the environment.

THE resignation of Ministers from the Union Cabinet to take up party work should ordinarily invite cursory interest from the public as it is considered a politically correct option to facilitate the exit of Ministers who are perceived to be incompetent, by the public as well as by party leaders. However, in the case of Jayanthi Natarajan, who resigned on December 21 as the Union Minister for Environment and Forests, ostensibly to take up party work, two things made her claim unconvincing. First, even several days after her resignation, she was not given any important party assignment. Second, she received a rare certificate of good performance from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Was the Prime Minister making an exception in her case in order to erase the prevailing impression that extraneous factors were behind her sudden exit?

Subsequent events made this inference seem credible. The portfolio of Environment and Forests was entrusted to M. Veerappa Moily, who was already in charge of Petroleum and Natural Gas.

According to newspaper reports, Moily cleared 73 projects worth Rs.1.8 lakh crore within three weeks of assuming charge at the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The Ministry, however, provides the details of environmental clearances given to only 28 such projects. Whatever the actual number of projects cleared, Moily’s speedy clearances raised eyebrows. The investment figures for most of these projects are available on the website of the Cabinet Committee on Investment. The project details are listed in the section for projects accepted for consideration by the Project Monitoring Group (PMG0. The clear conflict of interest seen in the Petroleum Minister being entrusted with the MoEF cannot be brushed aside easily as environmental concerns have been raised against a number of projects awaiting clearance from the Petroleum Ministry.

However, the process of speedy approval of projects had been set in motion by the Cabinet Committee on Investment in March 2013 as several projects pending across Ministries were listed for consideration by the PMG and, thereafter, fast-tracked. The government tried to make a plea for most of the projects listed citing the massive investment figures involved and the potential economic gains in implementing them.

Several coal mining projects being pushed for by the Cabinet Committee on Investment come with environmental hazards (see story on page 13). The spate of environmental clearances granted by Moily is a continuation of an established mechanical practice without any meaningful regulation.

It is important to examine the larger institutional malaise in the instruments of environmental regulation and governance which facilitates an arbitrary, non-transparent process of speedy clearances. A direct consequence of this pace of development and the rash of clearances is the violation of community forest rights.

A report of the National Level Hearing on Community Forest Rights, released in December 2013, states that the diversion of forest land and community forest resources for development projects without the consent of the gram sabhas was responsible for the poor implementation of the Forest Rights Act, or FRA (see story on page 18). The hearing was conducted by the Community Forest Rights Learning Advocacy Process and the Adivasi Janjati Adhikaar Manch in New Delhi.

In approaching the larger question of regulation and preservation of the environment, it is important to note that there was no massive rejection of projects during Jayanthi Natarajan’s tenure, as is often projected. In an analysis of coal mining and thermal power plants in 2012, the EIA Resource and Response Centre, a national centre which monitors environment impact assessment (EIA) reports to flag off inadequate assessment of the impact of development activities on the environment, points out that 81 coal-mining projects were granted environmental clearance by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC). While 43 of these were approved, additional information was requested for 38 of them. None of these projects was rejected. A total of 98 coal-mining projects were granted clearance in 2013, of which 57 were approved by the EAC and additional information was requested for 41. The terms of reference (TOR) issued by the MoEF provide the format and structure for the EIA. They act as a tool of guidance for the project proponent for planning and designing the EIA.

The list of thermal projects approved in 2012-13 shows that only a small number of projects were rejected and the rate of approval was quite high.

An analysis by Green Clearance Watch, a public information system to track environmental and forest clearance from April 2007, also records a high rate of clearance of projects after Jayanthi Natarajan took over as Environment Minister in July 2011. Green Clearance Watch is an initiative of the Centre for Science and Environment in association with the United Nations Development Programme and the MoEF. The Minister is said to have cleared 61 thermal power plants, 60 iron and steel plants and 53 coal-mining plants during her tenure.

It is not as if Moily overruled the recommendations of the EAC or the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) to favour the industry. The environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta observed: “The EAC itself often functions in an arbitrary and cursory manner. When the Ministry just becomes a rubberstamp of the EAC, it is problematic.”

A number of recent judgments of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) have pointed to the arbitrary functioning of the EAC. In a judgment on December 13, 2013, the Tribunal noted the failure on the part of the EAC to evaluate and make a detailed scrutiny of a project before recommending approval for it. The judgment indicates that in this instance the objections raised at a public hearing were not taken into consideration in the minutes of the meeting of the EAC. The NGT further indicts the EAC for giving approval to a huge project spanning 1,675 acres (one acre = 0.4 hectare) of land with an estimated cost of Rs.11,838 crore in a “cursory and arbitrary manner” without taking note of the implications and importance of environmental issues. The NGT was dealing with the environmental clearance granted to Alfa Infraprop Private Limited to set up a thermal power plant at Komarada village in Andhra Pradesh.

In Jeet Singh Kanwar vs Union of India in April 2013, the NGT observed that the EAC overlooked certain material issues regarding the project that were highlighted during the public hearing. It also came down heavily on the MoEF for granting an environmental clearance to the project before the submission of a resettlement and rehabilitation plan. In this case, the NGT quashed the order of granting clearance to Dheeru Powergen Private Limited to set up a power plant in Korba district of Chhattisgarh.

The criticism against the EACs appears valid because it consists mostly of government servants or industry representatives with no experience in addressing environmental issues. For instance, the EAC on hydroelectric power projects is headed by a former Secretary in the Coal Ministry. The head of the EAC on thermal power projects heads the Securities Appellate Tribunal in Mumbai.

A number of projects granted final approval by Moily could pose a grave threat to the environment and the livelihoods of local communities.

Posco plant

The most prominent among the projects to have received a nod is the Posco steel plant in Odisha, which involves the acquisition of 4,000 acres of land. In 2012, the NGT had suspended the environmental clearance granted to the Posco project in 2010, but it did not comment on the clearance given to the project in 2007. The clearance granted by Moily on January 7 has come through a smart manoeuvre which re-validated the 2007 clearance subject to adherence to environmental safeguards, including those recommended by the experts committee headed by K. Roy Paul. The Paul Committee was constituted on the directions of the NGT in 2012.

Some serious concerns over the environmental clearance given to Posco have come to the fore. While the EIA report has been prepared for a plant with a capacity of 4 mtpa (million tonnes per annum), and public hearings have been carried out for a plant of this capacity, land acquisition is in progress for a 12 mtpa plant. The impact on the environment of a 12 mtpa plant is considerable compared with that of a 4 mtpa plant. According to observers, the present EIA does not convey a complete picture of the impact on the ecology following the expansion of the plant.

The environmental clearance for Posco notes that “the original plan of setting up of 12 mtpa steel plant has remained unchanged and intact”. The original plan of Posco in 2007 was to set up a 12 mtpa integrated steel plant on 4,004 acres of land.

Moily has also granted clearance to the 520 megawatt Teesta project in Sikkim and Stage I in-principle forest clearance to the 800 MW Tawang II project in Arunachal Pradesh. This illustrates the drive to clear projects impacting ecologically-sensitive areas. However, the manner in which these two hydroelectric power projects were dealt with also illustrates the limitations of the EAC. In the case of both these projects, the respective expert bodies had already recommended their clearance last year.

Neeraj Vagholikar of the environment and research advocacy group Kalpavriksh said, “While Moily should have waited to address the concerns upfront since the MoEF issues the orders, these expert bodies need to also share the blame for lack of application of mind and shoddy fait accompli-style decision-making. There is a need to make these bodies accountable.”

Teesta project

The Teesta IV project is coming up on the last free-flowing stretch of the main Teesta river between Chungthang in north Sikkim and the Sikkim-West Bengal border. In August last year, a report of the subcommittee of the National Board of Wildlife Standing Committee had made adverse comments on the construction of dams in the Teesta basin while examining the project for clearance. The report has some startling findings. It anticipates that the Supreme Court-mandated eco-sensitive area of the Khangchendzonga National Park along the six-kilometre stretch of the Teesta will be submerged. Nearly 4,000 trees will be felled within the submergence zone alone and another 3,600 trees cut down for the construction of the powerhouse and the tunnels. Fourteen villages, with a total population of 14,291, are likely to be affected by land acquisition and other project-related activities. The report further raises apprehensions about the rehabilitation of the families displaced as a result of the project. The report cautions: “Based on earlier experiences, such as with Teesta V, we apprehend every possibility that land-losers, after displacement, may take the path of least resistance and occupy the surrounding reserve forest.”

The report observes that community representatives had maintained that there were other projects, also within a 10-km radius of the Khangchendzonga National Park and/or the Fambonglho Wildlife Sanctuary, at various stages of construction, in violation of the Supreme Court’s order in Goa Foundation vs Union of India in 2006. Those specifically named include Teesta III, Panan, Dik Chu, Tashiding, and Ting Ting.

Despite such apprehensions raised in the report, the EAC on river valley and hydroelectric power projects recommended environmental clearance for the project. The project now needs a forest and wildlife clearance.

In the case of the Tawang project, the cumulative impact assessment of projects in the Tawang river basin is yet to be completed. The FAC had cleared the project last year. Vagholikar said: “This should ideally have happened for the Tawang II project before Stage I clearance. But the concerns have not been completely bypassed as the assessment needs to be completed before the project is considered for Stage II [final] approval.”

These two cases illustrate the larger issue of environmental governance, a malaise present in the system since Jayanthi Natarajan’s time. As the chairperson of the standing committee of the National Board of Wildlife, she overruled the opposition expressed by seven experts on the committee in February 2012 to grant a wildlife clearance to the 1,750-MW Demwe Lower project coming up in the Lohit river in Arunachal Pradesh. There was opposition to the project in view of the major ecological impact it could have in upstream and downstream areas, including on the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and biosphere reserve in downstream Assam.

Moily also granted clearance for the development of the international deep-water multipurpose seaport at Vizhinjam in Kerala. The local people had opposed the project on the grounds that as it is located just 250 metres away from the Vizhinjam fishing harbour it would affect the booming fishing industry and the marine biodiversity of the region.

Harish Vasudevan of One Earth One Life, an organisation working for environmental protection, highlighted some of the major flaws in the process of granting clearance to the project in complete disregard of the ecological impact it would have. He said the terms of reference compliance table, which was presented for a public hearing, did not match the EIA report.

“An entire section on shoreline changes was deleted from the final EIA report. A report of the MoEF as well as a draft EIA prepared by an accredited agency recruited by the company had stated that the study area of Vizhinjam falls under the high-erosion zone. As per the Coastal Regulation Zone notification, the project is not permissible,” he said.

Lakhwar power project

According to a note issued by the MoEF on January 22, the final clearance for the Lakhwar multipurpose hydroelectric power project on the Yamuna in Uttarakhand is also on the anvil. From an ecological point of view, this is extremely significant as hydroelectric power projects and dams are said to have contributed to ecological disaster, and this was reflected in the devastation caused by floods in June last year in Uttarakhand. Subsequently, the Supreme Court, in a judgment in Alakananda Hydro Power Co Ltd vs Anuj Joshi & Ors delivered on July 13, directed the MoEF and the State of Uttarakhand not to grant any further environmental or forest clearance for any hydroelectric power project in the State until further orders.

In a letter to the Secretary, MoEF, Vimalbhai Puran Singh Rana of Matu Jansangathan, an organisation working for community rights over natural resources, said, “Following the June 2013 calamity in Uttarakhand, there is a need to look into the environment aspects of the region. There is a need to preserve the fragile Yamuna river valley from the onslaught of dam projects. In June 2013, some houses in the Lakhwar region also sank during the floods. The danger to the lives of the local people from the project cannot be ignored.”

The issues discussed here reveal India is at a critical juncture of development where economic growth needs to be balanced with the concerns of ecology and the environment. The role of the environment regulator in robust environmental governance is essential to meet the long-term goals of sustainable development while preserving the essential components of a clean environment. The regulator’s role also becomes vital in promoting a democratic form of development where local communities are made stakeholders in a project of development and their vital concerns of livelihood are not ignored.

The Supreme Court, on January 6, directed the Centre to appoint a National Regulator by March 31 for appraising projects, enforcing environmental conditions for approvals and imposing penalties on polluters. While the new authority may appear to enjoy autonomy from extraneous pressures, the concern that such a body may function outside the public sphere of influence and, therefore, be less democratic in its form and method, with decisions being taken by a few selected experts who are not accountable, also appears genuine. Surely, in its search for procedural efficiency, the court should not be missing substantive justice.

(with inputs from V. Venkatesan)

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