Arvindbhai Padhiyar of Mujpur village in Padra taluka, Gujarat, was worried when another chemical company was planning to set up a factory near his village. “There were about 300 chemical and dye factories in our taluka. Our crops got destroyed, there are health and pollution problems, we did not know who to get help from," says Padhiyar.

This was in 2002. He finally got in touch with Mahesh Pandya of Paryavaran Mitra, an Ahmedabad-based not-for-profit, which helped organize a public hearing in his village. The factory project got clearance eventually but Padhiyar is happy his concerns on environment and health were looked into and some changes were implemented accordingly.

Getting environmental clearance for industrial projects is a mandatory step in the schedule of the environment impact assessment (EIA) notification, 2006. Studies are carried out to examine the feasibility of the project and its impact on water, soil, air quality and socio-economic conditions. Based on these findings, suggestions are made on the measures to be taken to reduce the adverse effects on the environment and the community.

Environment public hearings (EPHs) are a part of this process and provide a space for people to come face-to-face with the project proponent in the presence of regulatory bodies and express their concerns.

“The process of public hearing is conducted once the draft EIA report is completed by the project proponent. It is one of the four stages of the environment clearance process and the only stage where people can participate. Our main work is to empower people to participate in EPHs," says Pandya, the man largely credited with making environment public hearings of industry projects “public".

In 1997, public hearings as part of the EIA were made mandatory by law. “They were held at the district collector’s office with little public participation," says Pandya, who graduated as an environmental engineer in 1992 from the LD Engineering College in Ahmedabad.

In 1995, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed against a chemical company, for emitting fluoride gas that affected 8-10 villages in the Panchmahal district of Gujarat. An expert committee was to be formed and Pandya, who was then working in the enviro-legal department of the Centre for Social Justice, an NGO in Ahmedabad, was a part of this committee. “The court ruled in the company’s favour due to lack of evidence. That’s when I realized that baseline data showing details of water quality, agriculture yield, land quality, etc. was missing for rural areas of Gujarat. So, say if some area was found to be polluted, an industry there could wash its hands saying that the area was affected before they set up their project," says Pandya.

Paryavaran Mitra was formed in 1997 with the help of two other NGOs, Janpath and Janvikas. Both these organizations work across Gujarat with a focus on integral development of those underprivileged and marginalized. Currently Paryavaran Mitra is associated with Janvikas.

Pandya had filed a PIL in the Gujarat high court for better proceedings of EPHs in 1999. The court gave a judgement the same year to facilitate increased public participation in the environmental clearance process.

“We worked at forming teams consisting of paralegals and local villagers in about 15 districts of Gujarat," says Pandya. The aim was that these teams would study the details of the EIA report for each project and explain them to the people in the “impact area" before the matter came up for the public hearing. Pandya says he wanted to strengthen public participation in the decision-making process.

“The idea was to make people aware of development projects and work towards protecting their environment and surroundings." Now, the organization also acts as a watchdog in EPH procedures.

After organizing a meeting with the local people with the help of voluntary organizations, Paryavaran Mitra sends its suggestions and observations about the draft EIA report to the EPH committee, Gujarat Pollution Control Board and the Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF). It also uses the Right to Information Act to monitor environmental laws. Pandya has a team of seven, including environmental engineers and social activists, who attend meetings with villagers, translate and simplify the project details and their socio-environment impact.

A protest in 2008 against Nirma’s cement plant in Mahuva that snowballed into one of the biggest movements in the state in the last decade has its roots in a public hearing that was backed by Paryavaran Mitra. “The villagers at this hearing said the site where the factory was being built was a check dam meant to give water to their fields," says Pandya. The farmers approached the Supreme Court in 2010. In December 2011, the MoEF told the apex court that the environment clearance for the cement plant had been revoked. Nirma moved the National Green Tribunal, challenging the MoEF’s decision. A final verdict is expected in a month.

Paryavaran Mitra is also monitoring the progress of the Gujarat Pipavav Port Ltd’s expansion in Amreli district, controlled by the Netherlands-headquartered APM Terminals. Based on an appeal filed by the NGO, the green tribunal, in its order in August, put a six-month stay on the environmental clearance the project had obtained last year. The order highlighted several issues, like the adverse effect of the project on villagers and their livestock, raised during the public hearing and asked the port operator to find a solution to them, says Falguni Joshi, programme officer at Paryavaran Mitra, Ahmedabad.

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10,000 can help them to

• Restart the lecture series on climate change, discontinued in March due to financial constraints.

• Take student interns and give them projects.

If you volunteer, you will

• Write a research report which helps the advocacy effort.

• Use social media and sensitize online communities to become a Paryavaran Mitra (a friend of the environment).

Recent donors

• Christian Aid

• Swiss Development Cooperation

• Janvikas Bridge Fund

To contact Paryavaran Mitra, visit paryavaranmitra.org.in

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