Selling out to development

By Manju Menon

While attempting to simplify the environmental clearance process, the ministry of environment is watering down the few norms that question the long-term environmental, social and economic viability of development projects

There appears to be a coup being driven by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF). At least that's what it looks like to groups involved in environmental struggles across the country. Moving in line and pace with the development juggernaut led by powerful government sectors like the ministry of power, private investors and international advisors such as the World Bank (they funded the MoEF to study possible reforms in the environmental clearance process), the MoEF is playing its part well by watering down the few environmental norms we have -- the only ones that question the long-term environmental, social and economic viability of development projects.

At a meeting of state environment ministers in New Delhi in September, Union minister of environment and forests Thiru A Raja "underlined the need for changing the outlook and approach of the officers in the MoEF dealing with the clearance process, along with changing the procedures". Environmental groups would have agreed with this completely, but for the fact that the changes are all headed in the opposite direction. An example of this is the MoEF's press release dated July 21, 2004, titled 'Simplification of Environment Clearance Process'. Although the objective of the exercise was to "streamline and simplify the environmental clearance procedure with a view to promote time-bound and transparent decision-making," what has actually happened is that the process has become redundant for several developmental activities and projects.

By this exercise, small scale industries (SSIs) in industrial areas/estates, the widening and strengthening of highways, offshore exploration activities beyond 10 km from the nearest habitat, mining projects of major minerals with leases of above 20 ha, modernisation of existing irrigation projects and units to be located in export processing zones (EPZ) and special economic zones (SEZ) now do not need to conduct environmental public hearings as was earlier mandated by the EIA (environmental impact assessment) notification of 1994.

A public hearing is the only step in the decision-making process of a developmental project where local communities and ordinary citizens can be involved. It is the event that communicates the impact of the project to people and seeks their opinion. Without this process, decisions about the project would take place only in closed-door meetings, thereby negating the principles of transparency, right to information and participatory decision-making.

The simplification exercise also dispensed with the need for an environmental impact assessment report for pipeline projects. This report is expected to provide detailed information on the project's environmental impact, on the basis of which impact management is worked out. The EIA report is also the only document, among the many other project documents, that gives information about the project's impact on people in and around the project site.

Earlier, projects with investments of over Rs 50 crore needed to get environmental clearance from the MoEF. Now, only those above Rs 100 crore have to apply for environmental clearance. The logic of using investment limits rather than the proposed location of projects to decide whether it requires clearance is fundamentally absurd. Even if one were to accept it, was the new limit introduced because the MoEF found that projects less than Rs 100 crore are all environment-friendly?

One wonders if this was an exercise to streamline the clearance process or whether the MoEF had itself found a way around laws meant to protect the environment. It is obvious that the simplification process was driven by the needs and priorities of the development sector rather than environmental considerations.

Exactly a month prior to this news, the MoEF released a list of good practices to follow while granting clearance to projects. Some practices identified as 'good' clearly demonstrate a willingness to give project proponents or investors maximum opportunity to get clearance for their projects. The most telling of these is: "No application will be rejected on procedural grounds alone, unless the application has deliberately not followed the prescribed procedure in order to realise some unwarranted benefit." The MoEF brings this in at a time when the experience of several local NGOs and community groups is that project developers have no regard for laws. On September 25, 2004, over 5,000 tribal people were not allowed to enter the premises of TISCO, in Noamundi, Jharkhand, where an environmental public hearing for a mining lease was being held.

There are numerous examples of fraudulent environmental impact assessment reports submitted by consultants and project proponents, most noteworthy being Ernst and Young's fudged report for the Dandeli mini hydel project in Karnataka. Such agencies need to be taken to task rather than given the benefit of the doubt!

The increasing space and attention given to developers, and the constant shrinking of space for citizens in the MoEF's laws and practices, speaks volumes for its intentions. There are glossy, published investor's-guide-to-the-clearance-process kind of manuals explaining the clearance process to developers. But there's no such effort to make citizens aware of their right to participate in the decision-making process. Project proponents are invited to explain/clarify their position by the MoEF's expert committees that analyse the projects for clearance. We are yet to hear of a case where local community representatives or an environmental NGO was invited to explain why they feel a project may negatively impact them. So it's no surprise when they resort to dharnas, public declarations and protest marches.

From now on, the MoEF will give a developer the precise reasons for its rejection of a project. We've lost count of the number of projects that have been cleared despite stiff and vocal opposition from local people. Local communities that opposed the Bodhghat hydel project, the prototype fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam, or uranium prospecting on the borders of the Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve never got to hear the MoEF's reasons for clearing the project, overruling their collective opinion.

May we urge the MoEF to at least be neutral if not biased towards the environment?

(Manju Menon is a member of Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group)

InfoChange News & Features, November 2004