The environment`s back in business
Latha Jishnu / Business Standard, New Delhi January 12, 2008
Whether it is quashing the Polavaram dam’s clearance or the CEC asking Posco to get a composite clearance, rushing through environment approvals will no longer be as easy.
When the National Environmental Appellate Authority (NEAA) quashed the clearance granted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to Polavaram, one of the most expensive multipurpose dam projects in the country, three weeks ago, it came as a stunning verdict.
It was the first time in its 10-year history that the NEAA is said to have overturned an environmental clearance given by MoEF, and it caught the Andhra Pradesh government, which is implementing the project, by surprise. For the environmentalists, it was an unexpected victory although it turned out to be a short-lived one. In an appeal to the AP High Court, the government managed to get a stay on the NEAA decision.
Polavaram, with a 150-foot high dam on the Godavari, is a gigantic undertaking. It envisages the diversion of 80,000 million cubic feet of its waters through a 174-km link canal to the Krishna in a project that promises seemingly huge benefits: irrigation for 291,000 hectares, drinking water to 2.5 million people in villages on the project’s route, apart from a substantial part for Visakhapatnam city, and a hydroelectric power station with a generating capacity of 960 MW. All of this is expected to cost over Rs 12,500 crore, up sharply from the initially estimated Rs 9,000 crore.
The bigger cost, however, is the displacement. The project straddles parts of Chhattisgarh and Orissa and around 200,000 — far higher than the 150,000 displaced by the controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam — would have to be resettled. The surprising part about the clearance for Polavaram is that the MoEF did so without holding the mandatory public hearings on the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report in either Chhattisgarh or Orissa, which are dead set against the project because they derive no benefits.
When the Delhi-based Academy for Mountain Environics, a trust promoting sustainable development solutions, challenged the MoEF clearance, the NEAA quashed it. “The question here is not one of majority or minority… it relates to the issue of enabling all the affected people to express their view/opinion/comment etc, whether they reside in one particular state or two or more states,” the appellate authority said in its order of December 19, 2007.
But that decision was challenged by the AP government which said that the NEAA had no jurisdiction over irrigation and power projects, but could only hear appeals against industrial and mining projects. Faced with this entirely new interpretation of the appellate authority’s role, the AP High Court passed an interim order staying the NEAA decision.
It said the issue needed deeper study and would be taken up for consideration at the next hearing in February. The NEAA order had brought work on the Polavaram project to a halt for 10 days before court provided a reprieve, although it is not clear how long. A special leave petition has just been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the AP government’s contention. This has added to the web of legal complexities over environmental policy.
Across the country, a host of big ticket investments in mining, steel plants, ports and hydroelectric power projects among others are ending up in a legal tangle as hasty clearances to major projects are increasingly being challenged by state governments, non-profit organisations, activists and project-affected people.
In fact, projects that try to circumvent the regulatory requirements are finding this could be counter-productive in the long run. Although environmentalists complain that they are getting the short end of the stick, some of the watchdog institutions appear to be perking up as the NEAA’s decision shows.
However, for much of the decade it has been in existence, the appellate authority has stuck to procedural niceties rather than examining the substantive issues brought before it. As such, very few appeals have been brought before it.
The more effective body is the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), set up by the Supreme Court, which acts as a tough custodian of forest rights. In the five years since it was set up, several hundred submissions have been made to it, since the MoEF’s clearances, given on the basis of the report of its Forest Advisory Committee, have been seen as notoriously lax.
It is the CEC that Posco, which is setting up a Rs 55,000-crore integrated steel plant in Orissa, has to contend with. Last week, the five-member committee asked Posco India to come up with a composite application for forest clearance for the project instead of seeking piecemeal clearances. The CEC report says “it would be appropriate that the total forest land required for the (entire) project including mining” is assessed in view of the ecological importance of the area.
Posco needs a total of 4,004 acres of which 3,566 belong to the government. Much of this (3,099 acres) is dense revenue forest. The present proposal submitted by the Korean company is for the diversion of 1,253 hectares of forest land for the first stage of the integrated steel plant and captive port. This alone will require the felling of around 280,000 trees. The CEC’s contention is that “the diversion of forest land for the plant, without taking a decision for the linked uses, particularly the mining project, may not be in order.”
A company spokesman, however, says it is in no position to present a forest diversion proposal for the mining activity since it does not have the prospecting licence. “Our prayer is that we should be allowed to start construction of the first stage of the steel plant.” Getting a prospecting licence could entail huge delays of as much as one-two years.
The CEC, it appears, is being specially cautious after the experience with Sterlite Industries and its subsidiary Vedanta, which had begun construction of its refinery at Lanjigarh without clearances for mining bauxite in nearby Niyamgiri Hills. The CEC had questioned the MoEF’s decision to give environmental clearance to the alumina refinery even before the proposal for the use of the forest land for the Niyamgiri bauxite mines had been filed with the ministry.
In a severe indictment, the CEC observed that “there was no application of mind by the regulatory agency, that is, the MoEF, to find out whether the project could be implemented without the forest land or whether it will affect other issues related to environmental clearance.”
Analysts say there is a tendency by the MoEF to rush clearances because of government pressure to expedite major investments. Handicapped by a lack of personnel, the various committees of the ministry that examine project proposals are under great strain. Says a sources familiar with the working of the MoEF: “You have eight members looking at as many as 20-30 project reports. They hardly glance through the reports.”
Besides, EIA reports are largely cut-and-paste jobs, says R Sreedhar, director of the Academy of Mountain Environics. To prove his point, Sreedhar says the EIA report for a 400-MW hydropower project in Uttarakhand being set up the state-owned Jal Vidyut Nigam claimed that the earthquake intensity in the region was a maximum of 4 points on the Richter scale when a quake of 6.7 had flattened villages in the area in 1991!
“Institutional structures are so weak that you can ram your way through,” worries Sreedhar, “and that is bad news for the country.” Clearly, the government needs to put better processes in place if it is to avoid costly legal delays and to ensure that neither investors nor the country lose.source: