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Are the govt’s green clearances a farce?

Are the govt’s green clearances a farce?

New Delhi: On 29 December 2006, the Union environment ministry signed off on the environmental clearance for a bauxite mining project located in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, to be operated by Ashapura Minechem Ltd, a listed Indian firm that is on the verge of starting the mine.

On the face of it, the clearance, given by the ministry on the recommendation of an internal expert appraisal committee on mining, consisting of 11 members, was fairly routine but vital to Ashapura moving ahead on the project.

But, it turns out that the critical environmental impact assessment, or EIA, the basis on which the expert group gave its approval, was based on data simply copied from a Russian bauxite mine report that had nothing to do with Ratnagiri’s vegetation or ecology.

Interviews with activists, officials in the environment ministry and companies, coupled with a review of documents obtained through the Right to Information Act (RTI) suggest that Ratnagiri may be one of many projects cleared by the ministry based on inaccurate environmental assessment reports.

Environmental activists maintain that several other projects have EIAs that are also faulty. Others say that an overburdened expert group and lack of standards for environment consultants who help write these reports is leading to some projects being approved without an accurate assessment of environmental and social costs.

“In the few years that we have started challenging faulty EIAs, we were clear that bulk of the EIA reports by even the most reputed organization are a ‘cut and paste’ job, based on secondary data... Most, if not all, got cleared by the ministry of environment and forests," alleges Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer and convenor of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, or Life, a New Delhi-based non-profit that obtained the Ratnagiri information through RTI.

If true, this would also mean that several ongoing projects could end up in legal jeopardy if environmentalists are able to prove their case.

While there is no independent means of verifying how many EIAs were faulty, in the Ratnagiri mining case, the ministry admits that approval was given without any independent assessment of the “facts" in the report.

Consider what the report said about the environment in Ratnagiri district: “The primary habitat near the site, for birds, is the spruce forests and the forests of mixed spruce and birch."

Turns out, such tree species are found only in northern temperate regions, such as Alaska, Norway and Russia.

“There could be misjudgement on the part of the ministry in this case but the onus does not lie only on the ministry," concedes a member of the expert group on mining that cleared the Ratnagiri project. He didn’t want to be named citing the need to follow the ministry’s protocol.

“The reports are apologies even on the paper they are written on. These reports are mostly written at a very junior level. For instance, statistics are extremely debatable. Information on the 10th page will not tally with the 12th page and so on," admitted another member of one of the expert groups set up by the environment ministry, who also did not wish to be identified. “More often than not, such consultants hardly visit the sites."

Most major projects in India—refineries, mining, thermal power and hydroelectric power—have to submit a comprehensive EIA after a survey and a comprehensive investigation of the project site, including repercussions on the environment and displacement of local people.

Under the Environmental Protection Act, 1986, the EIA then has to be cleared by an expert appraisal committee before a project can get under way. There are separate committees on hydroelectric projects, thermal projects, infrastructure, coal mining, non-coal mining, nuclear and industrial projects, set up by the Central ministry.

But appraisal committees are also over-burdened as each monthly meeting can take up some 50 or more projects for approval, say people involved in the exercise.

The Ratnagiri saga

Ashapura submitted its EIA to the environment ministry in 2005. It was seeking a 74-year mining lease for the bauxite mine, spread over 100ha in Umbershet, a village in Ratnagiri district. The company, which is listed on the National Stock Exchange, has operations in Belgium, Nigeria, Oman and Malaysia. It generated annual revenues through March of about Rs900 crore, out of Ashapura Group’s total revenues of Rs1,272 crore.

The EIA was a critical element of the process of granting the licence to Ashapura. A copy of the EIA, on the basis of which the project was cleared, was then obtained by Life through an RTI filed on 22 August. Life then sent the EIA to E-law, a US-based global network of environmental lawyers that it works with, for comparison with other EIAs.

E-Law discovered that large portions of the Ratnagiri EIA were actually copied from a Russian EIA for a bauxite mine. “The Indian EIA is a pirated version of another one for a proposal by a Russian aluminium company to mine bauxite in the Komi Republic of Russia. It was submitted to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in April 2004," says Mark Chernaik, a lawyer who works with E-law.

Indeed, Rob Hounsome, the author of the original EIA for a Russian mining project, said in a telephone interview: “Clearly there has been liberal and uninformed cut-and-paste of our work."

Apart from the obvious mistakes on vegetation, there are numerous examples in the Ratnagiri EIA of text copied verbatim from the Russian report, including variables in surface water quality, precipitation, bird and mammal densities, number of species and impacts of the project.

According to R.B. Panjwani, vice-president of resource development, Ashapura submitted a fresh EIA in July 2006. The company doesn’t deny it submitted the first EIA and, in two separate communications cited in Life’s RTI request, the environment ministry maintains it based its approval only on the original EIA.

Ashapura’s new EIA, reviewed by Mint, is completely different from the first one though it doesn’t say which consultant had prepared it.

The RTI documents show that the first EIA was done by Yogiraj Industrial Consultant, a Pune-based firm. Speaking to Mint, Chandrashekhar P. Vibhute, an engineer and proprietor of Yogiraj, defended claims made in that EIA. “The structure of EIAs is same all over the world," he maintained. “Moreover, EIAs don’t come under any copyright. Whatever vegetation details are given have been done after site inspection." He said he couldn’t recall the inspection date.

Significantly, the original EIA was also the basis on which the Delhi high court upheld a case in favour of Ashapura after the company filed a petition seeking the court’s intervention in expediting clearance for the project. Similarly, a mandated public hearing in Umbershet village was also conducted based on the original EIA’s findings, such as water quality.

But, “unless, by some amazing coincidence, mineralization in the Barja river in India and the Vorykva river in Russia both peak at 452.95mg/l during the summer months, then the water quality information in the Indian EIA for the Ashapura project in Ratnagiri is fraudulent," says E-Law’s Chernaik.

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