Thursday, January 31, 2013

India Still Not Serious About Environmental Impact Assessment

Last year I compiled comments made by the then new Minister of Environment and Forest (MoEF) Ms. Jayanthi Natarajan. Here is the list from an article that appeared in The Hindu (emphasis mine):

....Jayanthi Natarajan has assured the corporate world that steps will be taken for promoting growth and “one window” fast clearances for big projects.

at the same time, said she would “do everything” to protect the environment. ...

She said that there will not be “any change” once clearance is given to a project....

Asked whether she could assure speedy clearances for such projects, Ms. Natarajan said she will do so but environment should be protected at “all cost” in all its “dimensions.”  

Dismissing the perception that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed her as a result of a compromise to appease corporate India, Ms. Natarajan said,
“My actions will show that there can be no compromise on either issue that I will always act for the best welfare of the country.

That these supreme examples of fence sitting and contradictions is not just a list to chuckle at but reflects how the MoEF actually takes on the task of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of developmental projects is painfully brought out by Parineeta Dandekar in an InfoChangeIndia article on the ongoing efforts to dam the Chenab river in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

From the article: 

While other rivers like the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi, as well as smaller streams and tributaries in Himachal have been almost completely dammed, the Chenab is the last comparatively free-flowing healthy river in the state.

As things stand now, if all projects are implemented, less than 10% of the river will be seen flowing at all. Dams are being constructed bumper-to-bumper in a very tight sequence, where water from one hydro project meets not the river but the reservoir of the next hydro project in line. This conversion of a living river into a series of puddles, alternating with dry stretches and bypassed by tunnels, will have a profound impact on the ecology, biodiversity, hydrology, sociology and water availability of the region.

And the impunity with which even the most basic norms of a fair and transparent EIA process are being seemingly violated:

The MoEF sanctioned TORs for cumulative impact assessments of the Chenab in February 2012. Surprisingly, this critical task has been entrusted to the Directorate of Energy, Government of Himachal Pradesh. Can there be any agency with greater conflict of interest than the Directorate of Energy for this study? Can we expect this department to conduct the study in an unbiased manner? Even as the directorate put out a request for proposals for contractors to carry out the study, it did not mention that the consultant had to be an independent agency with a credible track record, as specifically instructed by the EAC.

The MoEF seems to have meekly accepted the Himachal Pradesh chief minister's demand for delinking environmental clearances from cumulative impact assessment studies, without any questions asked. Indeed, the EAC and MoEF have been according clearances and TORs to projects on the Chenab with great efficiency....

and this self defeating exercise:

In rare cases where consultants have showed courage and integrity by recommending that certain projects be dropped, their reports have been ridiculed and 'saviour' committees have been appointed to look into the reports again to make 'all ills go away', like the B K Chaturvedi Committee which is now looking at the WII study which recommended dropping 24 projects planned in the upper Ganga. The MoEF decided to dump the recommendation of the Teesta cumulative impact study when it stated that no projects should be built upstream of the Chungthang.

A case where political compulsions are going too far... and here is another study (press release) on the likely impact on ecology and social disruptions due to this frenzy of dam building activity in the Himalayas.

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