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How the govt lets green sinners judge themselves

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:34 IST

The process

  • Any project with a possible environmental impact needs clearance
  • The proposer has to commission an impact study by a recognised expert
  • This is then sent to an expert appraisal committee for approval

The flaws

  • The studies are paid for by proposers, so they are often fudged to favour them
  • Most EACs don\'t notice these manipulations and give clearances
  • There are conflicts of interest too - sometimes expert agency members sit on EACs

How would you judge your own sins? Reasonably speaking, you would probably underrate yourself.

Now the shocking bit - this is also the basis for all environmental clearances granted in the country.

Self-determination or false information

Corporates and governments pushing for projects with environmental consequences hire experts, who study such impacts. Since field visits by the ministry are rare, clearances are granted based exclusively on data from such experts.

Over the years, examples of studies with false information, plagiarism, and deliberate underestimation of impacts have become common. These studies, called environmental impact assessments (EIA) are also often marred by conflicts of interest.

Environment activists and lawyers are used to taking EIAs with a heavy dose of salt. But little seems to have changed.

The environment ministry, under the NDA government has, instead, changed the law to make the process weaker. A committee it formed to study environmental laws recommended, in a remarkable twist of logic, to simply trust project proponents with the information they provide.

The scale of the problem

Last month, the environment ministry granted clearance to an irrigation project in Maharashtra. The Krishna Marathwada Lift Irrigation Project aims to quench the thirst of the drought-prone Marathwada region in Maharashtra.

The Maharashtra government engaged Science and Technology Park, which is under the Savitribai Pune University of Pune, to do the EIA.

The project has three phases, but sample this: the study ignored the third - which plans to submerge 1,068 hectares of land (about 1,500 football pitches) in five villages of Beed district, according to analysis by the South Asian Network for Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).

This was despite the fact that work on this phase had begun in 2010 itself. In fact, the study begins by mentioning the third phase, but does not include it in its analysis.

Environmental impact studies are often littered with false information, plagiarism and underestimation

The study, which also doesn't mention any impact on livelihoods, is a "completely misleading document," according to Parineeta Dandekar of SANDRP. "I have seen bad EIAs but this is exceptional."

The organisation flagged the issue to both the environment ministry and the expert appraisal committee looking at the proposal, but none responded. Instead, the project received environmental clearance on 24 July.

It is another matter that this clearance now stands cancelled because it was based on a ministry directive from 2012 that the National Green Tribunal quashed in early July.

Inherent flaws in the system

The case highlights the challenges and contradictions faced in the EIA process, many of which are built into its very genesis - the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006.

The law describes the kind of projects that need environmental clearances. Before work can begin, these projects need an environmental clearance.

They approach the environment ministry's expert appraisal committee (EAC), a group typically consisting of bureaucrats and scientists), which issues a broad outline of what impacts should be studied (called terms of reference). This is where the project developer engages an independent agency to conduct the EIA.

But since these 'independent' agencies are in fact paid by those proposing the project, it creates an incentive to botch the study. These manipulations typically go unnoticed by the EAC, as in the Krishna Marathwada project.

Stories abound of EIAs in mining projects not mentioning water sources near sites, since mining near them is banned by law; of studies reporting no forest cover where forests abound. This was in the EIA conducted for mining in the forests near Lanjigarh in Odisha, home to forest-dwelling communities.

One of the well-known cases is from 2006, when it was discovered that the EIA for a bauxite mining proposal in Maharashtra was copied from a similar study done in Russia. Attention was drawn by it mentioning the presence of birch and spruce forests, which are native to Alaska, Russia and Norway.

But the company, Ashapura Minechem, got the environment clearance anyway as the ministry's expert body did not spot these faults.

Conflicts of interest

In fact, many such expert bodies are found to consist of scientists who belong to the organisations doing the EIA.

For example, when the Shivaji Memorial off the coast of Mumbai was granted coastal clearance by the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority, its member Babanrao Ingole also happened to be chief scientist at National Institute of Oceanography, which conducted the marine EIA for the project.

Similar instances are found in Gujarat, where the Gujarat Maritime Board conducts marine EIAs for projects cleared by the Gujarat coastal body, which has a GMB representative on it.

It all means little

A Human Rights Watch study of green clearances given to mining projects found that EIAs consisted of little more than some 'paragraphs of boilerplate text' on such impacts.

"Even on paper, this process does not treat the potentially severe human rights impacts with the seriousness they require," the report said, adding that "in practice, it is often a farce,

grounded in superficial consideration of data that is often inaccurate or deliberately falsified."

The EIA notification, too, says that the EIA should include all "material environmental concerns", which could potentially exclude local livelihoods.

171 consultants recognised by the govt are mostly based in places like NCR and Mumbai, far from the ground

It isn't surprising that EIA studies are disconnected from ground realities. A cursory data of the 171 EIA consultants recognised by the ministry (as on 6 July) shows that these are predominantly urban outfits.

Half of the consultants are in large cities - National Capital Region, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chennai and Ahmedabad. Almost a quarter are based just in the NCR.

In comparison, just two consultants are based in Vapi, which the government has termed a "critically polluted area".

NDA govt diluting it further

The issues have spanned across governments, ever since the notification was first brought out in 1994. The last one year with the NDA government at the helm has been no different.

In fact, here are some of the important changes it has made that have weakened the process.

  • In December 2014, the government excluded schools, colleges, hostels and industrial sheds from going through the EIA process, setting conditions instead for "sustainable environmental management, solid and liquid waste management, rain water harvesting and may use recycled materials such as fly ash bricks".
  • It further excluded such projects, along with township and area development projects, from "general conditions" of the notification. Any project that comes within 10 km of a protected or critically polluted or eco-sensitive area and state or international boundaries, will be treated as Category A. This means it will have the strictest assessment under the EIA. A category B project, instead, is cleared at the state level and has weaker conditions for approval.
  • On 30 March 2015, the ministry issued an office order clarifying that a mining company need not get a fresh environmental clearance upon renewing a mining lease. While an EC is valid for seven years, the order allows such a clearance to hold for a total of 30 years.
  • On 7 October 2014, a notification allowed coal mines under 150 hectares of area to be studied at the state-level, i.e. as 'Category B'. The earlier limit was 50 hectares.
  • On 17 March 2015, another memorandum excluded diesel generator sets used by industries from the purview of EIAs.
  • On 9 October 2014, a notification also widened the scope of selecting a chairperson of the expert appraisal committee, which is supposed to check the EIAs for errors, give comments or even ask for a fresh EIA. But the amendment changes the qualification of the chairperson from belonging to a "relevant development sector" (environmental impacts) to "various development sectors" - which could mean anything.

What does the future look like?

A high-level committee engaged by the environment ministry to review all green laws recommended a reworking of the way EIA consultants are empanelled.

It recommended prosecuting those giving false information, and blacklisting them from such activities for up to 10 years.

But the same report also advises allowing project proponents to self-declare information on environmental impacts on the principle of "utmost good faith".

Almost 170 clearances have been awarded since May. There are about a thousand proposals pending for environmental clearance, already anticipating achhe din.

First published: 8 August 2015, 10:17 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.