08 / 2011
The Indian environment regulatory system includes the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), an exercise through which an industrial or infrastructure project is to be assessed for the range of impacts it could have on both people and the environment. The reports produced through the assessment becomes the basis on which an expert or appraisal body would give recommendations on the establishing of the project. Ideally only those projects whose impacts are ‘managable’ ought to be given clearance. Therefore it is crucial that the EIA document contains accurate baseline data, facts and conclusions.
However, the quality of these studies leave a lot to be desired. Analyses of EIAs by several groups of people have also shown that facts and figures in the EIA can be chosen to show a lesser or greater degree of impact. It is indeed possible to prove in an EIA that the economic benefits from a project will be far greater than the environmental impacts or that the impacts can be made benign by certain management measures.
The Commonwealth Games village
The first case in point is related to the setting up of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) village in the capital city of Delhi and on the floodplains of the river Yamuna. Following its selection to host the games, the Commonwealth Games Federation identified a site just off the National Highway 24 leading from the city of New Delhi to the large industrial town of Ghaziabad in the state of Uttar Pradesh. This was back in 2003. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) entrusted Emaar MGF to carry out this task through a public-private partnership to construct “purpose-built, self-contained premium residential community” of 1168 apartments. These once used by the participants of the Games, would be sold in the open market.
The above-mentioned site was adjoining the popular Hindu temple, Akshardham that had been constructed on the banks of the River Yamuna. The CWG Games village site was objected to by concerned citizens on the grounds that the construction activity on the Yamuna riverbed would damage the ecology and water recharging ability of the river as well as impact the livelihood of the vegetable farming communities who depended on the floodplain. The environment clearance that was granted to the project by the Ministry of Environment and Forests was challenged in the High Court of Delhi. The course of the legal battle brought to light the problem with using science as a basis for environmental decision making.
The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), a specialised environment agency of the Central Government, had warned against the urban sprawls and construction of residential and industrial facilities on the Yamuna River Bed way back in 1999 and again in 2005. These reports were a part of an Environmental Management Plan commissioned by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) for the purpose of planning the conservation of the Yamuna River. Incidentally NEERI is an institution which regularly carries out EIAs for many projects across the country.
In 2008, NEERI submitted another report subsequent to a site visit by the panel of High Court judges to the CWG village sites and other constructions related to the Delhi Metro. In this report, NEERI changed its stance and said that recent constructions on the Yamuna Riverbed, such as the Akshardham Temple and an adjacent embankment have reshaped the riverbed. Therefore the CWG village is not an environmental threat or impact on the floodplain.
Based on the hearings and NEERI’s report, the final orders on the longstanding court battle that had moved to the Supreme Court of India came in July 2009. The judgment stated, “The High Court disregarded and ignored material scientific literature and the opinion of experts and scientific bodies which have categorically said that the CGV site is neither located on a “riverbed” nor on the “floodplain.” This judgement left the river Yamuna devoid of part of its floodplain. The CWG village was constructed as the flooded Yamuna threatened to swallow the Games site a few days before it was to take place. Both the monsoons and the floods receded just in time for the Games to take place.
Jindal’s thermal power plant
Another case relates to Jindal’s 1200 MW Thermal Power plant located in Jaigad, Ratnagiri district of the western Indian state Maharashtra. The ecologically fragile coastal region is famous for the Alphonso mangoes which are exported from these parts to all across the world. When the project came for approval before the thermal power Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) back in January 2007, the company informed the expert committee members that the impact of the project on the Alphonso mango crop had been raised in a state level litigation and the Dapoli based agricultural university, Konkan Krishi Vidyapeeth (KKVD) is conducting a study to ascertain the impacts from a thermal power plant if it were to be set up in the region. At that point, the committee sought a 16 point response from the project authorities, two of which were about the impact on the Alphonso mangoes and the control measures for sulphur dioxide gas discharge from the plant. The proposal for the project was to be considered only after a study on the impact of the proposed project on Alphonso mango plantations was completed. The timeframe for this study was six months.
However, the EAC did not wait for six months or for a complete report from the KKVD. They instead said that, based on the findings of the EIA report and the predictions of state level pollution authorities, it appears that the activities to be undertaken by the Company for power generation would not affect horticultural plantations, the mango plantation in particular. However, since the Alphonso mango is a premium quality, branded product in national and international market, a four year study would be carried out to ascertain the impacts. The approval and construction of the plant, however, did not need to wait for this to be done. This study was listed as one of the conditions of the environment clearance letter. There was no mention as to what would happen if the impacts were found to be negative or irreversible as was claimed by some mango farmers from the area who had protested against the construction of the plant.
When the environment clearance of the project was challenged before the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA), a specialised court, it was reverted back to the same committee for re-appraisal with the understanding that they are not to be prejudiced and influenced by their earlier decision. The EAC entrusted this responsibility of ascertaining the impacts to its sub committee headed by a reputed scientist of the University of Delhi.
A very critical premise of this sub-committee became the clinching argument that made it possible for the Jaigad plant to get its second approval. The sub committee contended that parallels can be drawn between emissions from thermal power plants and vehicular emissions. Following a visit to the site, they recorded that mango plantations in the vicinity of major roads where heavy vehicular traffic was present seem healthier than those further away from roads. It was felt that the SO2 emissions get converted into sulphate and NOx into nitrate form, which may be good for the mangoes or other vegetation. The study that was at first to be done by the local agricultural university was yet to be carried out or included in the decision making even this second time.
What is interesting is that the India’s regulatory framework for environment clearances i.e. EIA notification, 2006, in its Clause 8 clearly states that deliberate concealment and/or submission of false of misleading data and information makes the application for environmental clearance liable for rejection. As per the notification, this is to be done after giving a personal hearing to the applicant. Neither, the CWG village nor the Jaigad project attracted that provision despite a clear recognition that some of the most critical impacts of the activity to be undertaken were not part of the EIA study on which clearances were granted.
They remind us of the many instances where false, misleading and incomplete information in EIA reports have been accepted and projects have gone through “expert” judgment based on impacts that are unmade or made invisible. The logics of appraisal have tried to undo the existence of entire ecosystems, underplay impacts or regard them as insignificant so that they donot come in the way of the construction of a industry, mine or dam. Once these impacts are made to disappear in the process of assessment or appraisal, it seems impossible to make courts and governments see the effects that these projects actually have on human life, animals and the environment. The EIA based clearances become the baseline against which all future evidence of impacts are measured.
This article is available in French: Les rapports d’évaluation d’impact environnemental : pratiques manipulatoires dans le cas de projets d’infrastructures
Manju Menon is a researcher who has been investigating and writing on the conflicts between environment and development in India. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi. She can be contacted at: manjumenon1975(@)gmail.com