Ritwick Dutta, environmental lawyer

‘Quality of EIA reports a major concern’

Print edition : February 21, 2014

Ritwick Dutta. Photo: H. VIBHU

RITWICK DUTTA, an environment lawyer, has been fighting for the rights of local communities displaced by mega development projects. He has represented people agitating against the Posco steel project and the Vedanta aluminium project, which have been mired in controversy on account of their adverse impact on the tribal populations. In an interview to Frontline, he talks about the institutional problems in environmental governance and the government’s approach to problems relating to the environment. Excerpts:

What are the problems highlighted by the recent spate of environmental clearances granted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests? Is there a larger institutional problem?

There are three different views on the issue of clearances. Industry bodies seem to think that this is the best thing to have happened for them. Concerns have been raised by environmentalists over the speedy clearances granted by [M.] Veerappa Moily. The third view, held by some environmentalists, is that the issue should be viewed on a case-by-case basis and one must not go by numbers alone. Strictly speaking, it is not the Minister who is the approving authority. It is the expert appraisal committee [EAC] that rejects or recommends a project. With respect to [diversion of] forest land, it is the forest advisory committee [FAC] that makes the recommendation. The Minister normally does not overrule the recommendations of the EAC or the FAC. The final decision of approving a project, however, lies with the Minister. However, even if the EAC makes a recommendation, the Minister should apply his mind before granting a final approval. It is impossible to scrutinise so many projects within such a short span of time. The majority of the EAC members are not experts on the environment; some of them are associated with industry. The EAC sometimes recommends approval in a cursory and arbitrary manner. The National Green Tribunal judgments have criticised the manner in which the EAC functions. The committees have been accused of taking the words of the project proponents as gospel truth.

Is there a problem with the environment impact assessment [EIA] process?

The quality of the EIA reports is a major concern. It has been proved that a number of EIAs are based on wrong secondary information and not on primary study. The EIA law does not require a comprehensive assessment. A single-season assessment is enough. The assessment can be carried out in the season that is likely to give favourable environment indicators for the project. Public accessibility of the EIA report is also an issue. People only have access to the draft EIA report. In case of thermal power projects, the coal quality will not be given in the final report. The problem is that even a minor change in the coal quality will change the ash and sulphur content vastly. The area that will be required for dumping ash changes phenomenally with a small change in ash content. These details are never provided in the draft. Again, the longitude and latitude, the exact location of the site, will not be given. The final EIA is shared only with the EAC. There is no mechanism to check if the EIA is actually in accordance with the terms of reference of the Ministry.

The EIA is carried out by private consultants engaged by the company. None of the EIA reports present a true picture of the environmental impact. Not a single EIA report has ever said that a project should not come up. It is not an objective decision-making tool. There is concealment of information. The EIA reports routinely give wrong information with respect to locational aspects. They will not disclose if a national park or a monument is located close by.

Is there a conflict of interest in the same Minister holding the portfolios of Petroleum and Environment?

It is a good thing that a Cabinet Minister has been given the Environment portfolio. A lot of environment-related decisions are taken by the Cabinet. Hence, it is critical to have a Cabinet Minister in charge of the Ministry. But a full-time Minister is needed for the Ministry. The appointment and the subsequent work of Moily is reflective of the way in which the government looks at the environment. It is only seen as a resource to be utilised. The entire focus is on granting environment clearances ignoring critical issues of conservation and protection of the environment.

In the ongoing coal block allocation case, the government has informed the Supreme Court that four-six weeks’ time has been given to some companies that do not have environment and forest clearances to get the necessary approvals. Your views on this.

In the case of coal mining, at least three months are required to carry out a study and one month to hold a public hearing. To prepare a proper EIA report, some more time is required. The time frame given by the Centre is too short.

Sagnik Dutta

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