Two years on, project caught in green knots

Two years on, project caught in green knots

New Delhi: In a setback to the Andhra Pradesh government, the environmental go-ahead for a large multi-purpose dam has been set aside, two years after work had begun on the project.

The Polavaram dam, also known as the Indira Sagar project, is located in the northern part of the state and would straddle portions of the adjoining states of Chhattisgarh and Orissa.

In its order issued on Monday, the National Environment Appellate Authority, the statutory body that is empowered to hear appeals challenging environmental clearances, maintained that the clearance given by the Union environment ministry was done without giving an adequate hearing to all the people likely to be displaced, the largest in any similar project in the country. The order was passed by a bench comprising J.C Kala, I.V. Manivannan and Kaushlendra Prasad.

Under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, all major projects, in sectors such as hydroelectric, mega power and mining, have to get an environmental clearance, which is based on an environmental impact assessment.

The petition challenging the environment ministry clearance was filed by Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, a non-profit agency based out of the Capital.

To revive the project, Andhra Pradesh will now have to get approval for a fresh assessment.

“It is now the state government’s prerogative to decide future action. We had done the EIA and the management plan," said Dharma Reddy, project director, of the state’s Agricultural Finance Corp. Ltd.

Conceived in 1982, the project, which requires the concurrence of Chhattisgarh and Orissa, both vehemently opposed to the project, languished until it was taken up in earnest in 2002 by the Telugu Desam-led state government. The environment ministry gave its clearance to the project in 2005.

The project cost, which was initially estimated at Rs9,000 crore, has since risen to Rs12,591 crore and involves the use of 3,834ha of forest area. It is designed to provide irrigation facility to 291,000ha, generate 960MW of hydro power, divert 80,000 million cubic feet (tmc) of water from the Godavari to the Krishna River and provide 23.44tmc of drinking water supply to Vizag city.

The project is estimated to affect about 195,000 people, substantially more than the 150,000 displaced by the building of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river.

The authority observed that the environment ministry clearance was given without giving a public hearing to the people residing in the affected areas of Orissa and Chhattisgarh and therefore violated the “principles of natural justice."

“Neither did the affected persons have any access to the executive summary of the project in the notified place, nor did they have any opportunity to participate in the public hearings… the question here is not one of majority or minority but it relates to the issue of enabling all the affected people to express their views, whether they reside in one particular state or two or more states," the order stated.

According to Ritwick Dutta, counsel for the petitioner and coordinator of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, “This is the first instance in the 10 years of the working of the NEAA that an environmental clearance granted by the ministry has been quashed and, therefore, is truly a historic decision."

The fate of the multi-purpose dam has also been uncertain due to opposition from governments of Orissa and Chhattisgarh, who cited “zero benefits." They had also filed a suit in 2006 in the Supreme Court, petitioning that work on the project be stopped.

“This is very welcome news," said J.P. Agarwal, additional secretary, department of water resources, Orissa, on hearing about the order.

“The government of Orissa wants the whole plan and design to be reformulated in a manner that no land in Orissa is submerged. Most of the submergence area in Orissa is Naxal-affected and extremely sensitive. The original design was conceived in 1980s and it has lost its essence now."

“At the last meeting of the three states, it was decided that all three will conduct a new survey and investigation together," added a senior official in the Chhattisgarh water resources department, who did not wish to be identified.