The double talk

Lip Service To Environment

It’s an irony that the government that first pushed sweeping economic reforms without any regard to the environment is now seeking new equilibrium between man and nature. In his recent address to the state environment ministers, the prime minister surprised everybody by referring to ‘multiple environmental crises afflicting the country’ while stressing the need to make fundamental choices about our lifestyles. The environmental record of the government to the contrary is dismal.

The flurry of clearances to controversial projects has confirmed government’s well entrenched apathy towards environment. Since Sept 14, 2006, the day revised notification of the Environment Impact Assessment came into force, as many as 2,747 projects have been accorded approval at an unprecedented pace of 2.5 projects per day. Considered environmentally benign the shocking list includes: one nuclear power, 134 thermal power, 587 non-coal mining, 952 industrial and 1,073 construction projects. Without any distinction, each of such projects alters land use, clears the green cover and displaces settlements.

Far from computing the subtle but significant transformation of biological and hydrological characters in the project areas, the ministry of environment and forests has been contemplating a self-certification option to project proponents so that project expansion and modernisation proposals can be exempt from seeking environment clearances. The GDP-based obsession with economic growth is clearly reeling under corporate pressure, ready to dilute a legal process that has been our best bet to seek minimisation or mitigation of environment impacts.

Without doubt, industrial expansion is a necessary precondition for enhancing livelihoods and incomes. However, reducing mandatory environment clearance for environment unfriendly projects to an apology is a serious trade-off when the disastrous impact of climate change has only begun to unfold. While the world fights climate change, we seem to have made a mockery of protecting the environment.

Not only has the regulation been deficient in provisions and the consequent environmental clearance process mechanical, the legal procedures too have been found wanting in their commitment to protect the environment. Sample this: The National Environment Appellate Authority, established through a 1997 Act of parliament, to hear appeals against inadequate or incomplete environmental assessments has yet to uphold any appeal in last 12 years. Can it construed that not a single appeal qualified serious consideration?

The murky goings-on in the authority, the only judicial body in the country that hears grievances against environmental clearances given to projects by the environment ministry, have only confirmed that the country is rich in ‘laws’ but poor in ‘compliance.’

Failure
The series of RTI applications reveal that not only have there been irregularities in appointments, desired competencies have been compromised in selecting qualified members for this quasi-judicial body. With the system having being undermined in a vitiated political environment, the appellate authority has failed to serve as effective redressal mechanism for addressing environment concerns.

It does, however, raise serious doubts on accountability with respect to the process of environment clearance as well as its compliance mechanism. At any given time the environment ministry has over 6,000 projects to monitor and file their compliance reports. Needless to say, there have been glaring inadequacies in collating reliable compliance data.

Can EIA mechanism remain unscathed under such conditions? One widely reported case relates to the Ernst and Young EIA for the Dandeli mini hydel project in the pristine Western Ghats in Karnataka in 2000, which had been plagiarised from one for the Tattihalla augmentation scheme of Karnataka Power Corporation Ltd.

Once it was exposed, a hurried, inadequate replacement was filed by then Tata Energy Research Institute. Thanks to public dissent, the project was finally scrapped. Had not the EIA fraud been exposed, the Dandeli wildlife sanctuary would have been submerged, along with local settlements. Without doubt, this is not the only such case of EIA.

The story of environment assessment across all mega projects remains largely wrapped in technical and bureaucratic procedures. Objections from civil society and environmentalists only get factored in when the outrage of affected people turns violent.

The flip side to the story is that while a National Green Tribunal is proposed to be established, a bill to that effect has already been introduced in parliament, the vary basis of environmental assessment (EIA) is simultaneously being made less potent. Setting up of the National Green Tribunal is being hailed, as it will replace the rather non-existant NEAA, but in no way it guarantees that the EIA will be made more effective and transparent. On the face of it, the environment ministry seems to be encouraging litigation at the cost of improving the system.

According to Article 21 of the Constitution, environment protection is the duty of every citizen. Unless community concerns get space in environment assessment and the process made transparent, the rule of law will continue to tilt in favour of the powerful.

And so long the National Green Tribunal remains ‘an old boys club,’ the ghost of NEAA will continue to haunt the environment. The law can only be effective if the system is in order. The challenge is to bring honesty and transparency in the system to mitigate and shape projects to suit the environment — the raison d’etre of EIA.

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