New Delhi: In January 2007, Ashish Prabhu Dessai, along with villagers from Rivona, Goa, opposed the location of an iron ore mining project next to their village. Among other reasons, the villagers argued at the public hearing that they had not received the executive summary of the environmental impact assessment, or EIA, on time.
Their appeals fell on deaf ears and the project’s environmental clearance was given a go-ahead by the ministry of environment and forests.
Similarly, residents of the remote Asali village in Arunachal Pradesh did not get the EIA summary ahead of the 29 January public hearing for the 3,000MW Dibang multipurpose hydro electric power plant, a National Hydroelectric Power Corp. Ltd project, which was instead put on the state pollution control board’s, or SPCB’s, website in May 2007 even though the closest town with community cyber access was about 130km away.
Another public hearing which is required for the clearance has not been held yet.
The issue of lack of proper hearings on projects has shot into limelight following the revoking of an environmental clearance to the controversial 960MW Polavaram multipurpose dam in early January by the National Environmental Appellate Authority (NEAA), on the grounds of lack of public hearings. Approximately 3,000 families were to be affected in Orissa and Chhattisgarh by that project.
While passing the order, reported in Mint on 25 December,?the?authority?had?said: “It’s evident that no public hearing was conducted in the affected areas of Orissa and Chhattisgarh. Neither did the affected persons have any access to the executive summary of EIA, nor did they have any opportunity to participate in public hearing…the question here is not one of majority or minority, but of the issue of enabling all the affected people to express their view/opinion/comment.”
While both the Goa and Arunachal Pradesh examples appear to show a disregard by authorities of due process, the rejection of the Polavaram project illustrates how major investments can be held up because of ignoring local concerns. This despite the fact that public hearings have been designed as an integral part of the process of environmental clearances, which are given by the Union ministry and are mandatory for mining, industrial, infrastructure, thermal power, nuclear power and hydropower projects.
“Public hearings are essential as they record the opinion of the people on the certain project and these are the people who will be affected most” said a government official, who did not wish to be identified. However, environmentalists and activists claim that based on recent instances the process of public hearings has become a mere formality.
“Public hearings nowadays are just lip service to the issue of public opinion being taken into account. They have deleted the word ‘consent’ for ‘consultation’ without any requirement in law for even the consultation to be binding on the government,” said Ritwick Dutta, a Supreme Court lawyer specializing in environmental issues.
According to the EIA notification of 2006, the EIA summary has to be made available by SPCBs at the district collector’s office, pollution control board office, the zila parishad or municipal corporation offices, in both English and the local language.
However, the reality can turn out to be quite different.
In June, at the public hearing for the Kudankulam nuclear power project, the EIA summary was not provided in Tamil and it was only uploaded online. This public hearing, however, was reconvened due to repeated complaints.
In Asali near the Dibang project, residents such as Jibi Pulu sent repeated official complaints to SPCB, thanks to which the authorities changed the dates of the public hearing.
Still, the project was inaugurated by the Prime Minister on 31 January even though it is yet to get the green clearance, as was reported by Mint on 1 February. Indeed, the public hearing notice for the Dibang project did not mention either the time or the place where the hearing would be held. “These problems might seem small, but they undermine the letter and the spirit of the aspect of public participation,” added Dutta.
Signficantly, the Environmental Protection Act, 1986, is not binding on the project proponent or the government, which is why the Rivona gram sabha resolution in Goa opposing a mining project does not affect the future of the proposal in any way. Similarly, the gram sabha of Sarvona village, also in Goa, passed a unanimous resolution to oppose an iron and manganese ore mine.
The unanimous opposition to a project proposal notwithstanding, the government is not bound to listen. Both the Goa cases are currently being heard at NEAA.
“Though these hearings are important, they are not the only aspect we have to lookat. We have to look at environmental and ecological aspects before deciding the merit of a case,” said the ministry official. But some officials concede that judging the merit of objections is tricky.
“It is a very grey area because not all objections are present with the ministry. Standard objections are not given that much importance. But, for 80% bogus objections, 20% are genuine,” said another senior official, who did not wish to be identified.
Official sources point out a potentially riskier aspect of public hearings and objections. According to the EIA notification, written and oral objections are sent to the Union ministry by the project proponent, which has a vested interest in an early decision on the project.
“Project proponent submitting objections is quite pointless. Many a time, objections are filtered and we don’t get all. The objections should be sent by the state departments,” said the official.
The EIA notification was amended in 2006, which effected some changes. On the one hand, compared with the older notification, the newer one mandates only a copy of the draft EIA to be circulated among project-affected parties and not the final EIA. On the other hand, the newer one also directs the organizer of the hearing to read out the minutes of the meeting in English and the local language before signing it.
Officials agree that a few amendments on public hearing regulations can make the process stronger and more effective. The official added: “Widespread knowledge in local dialect is critical. And the public hearing should be held as close to the project site as possible. For a villager, even a bus ride is quite expensive.”