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Is there really no alternative?

By Milind Wani

If we want economic growth, ‘there is no alternative’ to nuclear power and to the displacement of 1,000 farmers and 6,000 fishermen in Jaitapur. When Lavasa builds over hundreds of hectares, overlooking environmental norms, then too there is no alternative but to appraise the project post-facto! Milind Wani on the mysterious compulsions of the MoEF

Governments around the world started rethinking their nuclear policy following the Fukushima tragedy in Japan. In India too, Minister for Environment and Forests (MoEF) Jairam Ramesh raised several red flags over India’s nuclear programme, including the safety of multi-reactor nuclear parks like Jaitapur (six plants).

Then there was a sudden volte-face: it seems that if we want economic growth then ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA). Ramesh has acknowledged that there were “strategic, economic and diplomatic concerns” that influenced his decision to clear the Jaitapur project.

It is a well-known fact that the Jaitapur nuclear plant is in an earthquake-prone zone and that the French EPR reactors have not yet been tested anywhere in the world. The project will deprive 1,000 families of their farmland and 6,000 who depend on fishing for their livelihood. Will the setting up of an “independent and autonomous” Nuclear Regulatory Authority of India (announced post-facto) set right the original sin committed by the government when the freedom and autonomy of people -- the hallmark of any true democracy -- have been given such short shrift? Hasn’t the constitutional imperative of the people’s consent been ignored when Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan says: “The question of pausing or halting work at Jaitapur does not arise”? This, despite wide protests by local resident and fishing communities based on very real fears of a nuclear disaster, on the one hand, and the more immediate threat to their livelihood, on the other.

The latest word is that compensation for affected families has been raised from Rs 4.5 lakh per acre to Rs 10 lakh per acre, besides the promise of investment in infrastructure projects for community development in the fields of health, amenities, and education. But one may well ask: don’t education, health and civic amenities constitute the basic rights of any citizen? How can these be handed out in a compensation package when they are promises made to us in the Constitution?  

Lavasa Corporation Limited (LCL) bent the rules, overlooked regulations and ignored environmental statutes while building Lavasa township. This has jeopardised the ecology of the Sahyadri hills. Lavasa will occupy around 5,000 hectares along the edges of seven hills in the Sahyadri range of the Western Ghats. The MoEF issued a stop-work order and notice to LCL, as the company had failed to obtain environmental clearance from the Union ministry. An Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) constituted in March 2011, whilst acknowledging violations of environmental norms, observed that substantial development had already taken place on around 700 hectares and “in view of this and considering all related consequences, there is no other alternative before the EAC except appraising the project post-facto”.

No marks for guessing that this is in the face of vigorous protests by local farming communities. The TINA factor at work here too! Since substantial development has already taken place over 700 hectares, the project is being appraised post-facto and certain conditions are being specified by the EAC, with a view to minimising future damage. What’s the guarantee that this will not become a precedent for future projects? It’s easy to first break the law, then pay a fine, and then get post-facto clearance.

April 2011 saw completion of the first year of the MoEF’s promise to ensure green justice for all. Last year, the MoEF promised effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection, conservation of forests and other natural resources, and access to specific biological material. We were looking forward to the setting up of a National Green Tribunal (NGT) with circuit benches across the country, headquartered in New Delhi and empowered to settle disputes under seven environmental statutes. Enforcement of legal rights related to the environment and relief and compensation for damage to people and property and related matters were part of its mandate. But the promised forum for green justice delivery is still not in place even as environment clearances continue to be granted to the tune of 100 a month. It then comes as no surprise that Ramesh has given final clearance to South Korean steel major Posco to divert 1,253 hectares of forest land for its iron and steel project in Jagatsinghpur district in Orissa. And that he reposes “faith and trust in what the state government says is an essential pillar of cooperative federalism” in the state government’s assertion that no violation of forest laws was taking place at the project site. This, despite an observation to the contrary by the Forest Rights Committee that was set by the same ministry to investigate the status of implementation of the Forest Rights Act. If the minister cannot repose “faith” in his own committee’s observation, why should the thousands of tribal people who have been opposing the project for so many years matter? Clearly the MoEF not only lacks the political will to implement the Forest Rights Act, it doesn’t seem to want to do so!

The trick, it seems, is to glibly invoke a vocabulary consisting of high-sounding terms like TINA, post-facto, cooperative federalism, etc, that obfuscate the real issue at stake.

It’s not as if everything is bleak though. After all, the new Critical Wildlife Habitat (CWH) guidelines released in February 2011 did get recalled the very next month after protests by civil society groups; and the harvesting of bamboo (owning, cutting, using and selling) has been legalised by declaring it a minor forest produce (Mendha Lekha in Gadchiroli has become the first village in India to get bamboo rights). The Union minister for environment has also announced that the “bhayanak (draconian)” provision of registering an offence under the Indian Forest Act against villagers entering the forest would soon be repealed as “it is based in the British era understanding that villages and forests can’t co-exist”.

So here we see the Janus face of the Ministry of Environment and Forests -- one face towards nature and the other towards corporate-industrial interests. In simpler language, it’s called running with the hare and hunting with the hound.

What will happen if thousands of hectares of land are sacrificed at the altar of the god of development? What will become of Lavasa’s farmers? Jaitapur’s fisherfolk? And the adivasis of Jagatsinghpur district in Orissa? Where will these natural resource-dependent communities go?

(Milind Wani works with Kalpavriksh environmental action group)

Infochange News & Features, May 2011