Monday, October 24, 2011

Do Impact Reports Really Impact?

Environment Impact Assessments is now a travesty of original intent, says Sreedhar Ramamurthi

It was first in 1994 that the Environment Impact Assessment notification was put really into orbit by the government. It was meant to ensure that projects in industrial or manufacturing sectors pass the very basic muster of how much negative impacts such projects bring on the environment, or on people living in ‘affected’ areas.

There were procedures that were established with high diligence. Public hearings as a protocol was established with a proper ear given to communities on such EIA’s as they came to be called. The EIA’s also had to be commissioned among professionals who had expertise in the domain and who would offer objective dispassionate analyses and assessments with objectivity, for the appropriate ministry of the government to decide whether the clearance ought to be given or otherwise.

In the 16 years since, the EIA has become a sad parody of what it was meant to be. Applicant companies have decided to get a ‘dummy agency’ most often. The government has made this part of a mechanical process. It is now seen to be one of many hurdles that need to be overcome to get any project cleared by the government. Even the government’s own machinery has begun to see the EIA as another irritant in the process of getting a project cleared. Adjudicators from within the government who form members of ‘approval committees’ that are intended to understand the import of such EIA’s and the hurt it brings to the ecology and people of an affected area, are themselves people who have looked the other way in many cases over the years where there have been fragrant violation of the basic spirit and purpose of such EIAs.

There have been EIAs that are filed with the government and its various departments including the environment ministry which have been cut and paste from other assessment reports of other projects with not even the basic courtesy of reading it to make the EIA relevant for its own project! For instance, an EIA of a project in Russia has been taken by a consultant for a project in Maharashtra! The EIA Report for the Pala-Maneri Dam prepared by RITES contended that the maximum credible earthquake in Uttarkashi was merely 4.2 in the Richter scale!

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry has itself been guilty of releasing environment clearances with the document being a crude cut-and-paste of paragraphs from previous such clearances.

The mindset is clear. Projects have to begin regardless. The EIAs and all that the checks and balances created to ensure that good governance is achieved while industry secures new projects are mere ‘procedural constraints’ that the government and the industry-applicant have to find ways to overcome.

None of them in the entire chain of custodians who are supposed to ensure that responsible diligence is conducted before a project is given clearance is bothered to see whether there is a human face to the damage that would be created in an area. A coal mining project is cleared without any thought to the impact it makes on the people living in that region or the millions of flora and fauna that will necessarily die when such a project is created.

Whether it is a Niyamgiri and Vedanta’s brazen disregard of every people need and of the deeply permanent damage to natural resources, or hundreds of projects where there has already been reported evidence of shocking damage to either people’s health or to forests and soils [and therefore the multitude of rivers and streams], the government and, of course, the culprit company do everything they can to sweep the horrors under the carpet.

From about the time the RTI came in, which was a blessing for all the well-meaning voluntary groups and activists in the non-government sector, there has been even more resistance from the government to offer information of records and evidence gathered by its own departments in the case of such projects where there have been extensive damage to either the environment or the people of the region.

Suppressio Veri Suggestio Falsi

So you have the cruel ironies of a reputed institution of the Government reporting on a project for the exploitation of Coal Bed Methane and on the impact of very deep aquifers of over 20,000 meters of ancient waters from under the complex sub-players of the earth. The report says that the exploitation of water under these deep surfaces does not in any case impact the shallower aquifers between 15 and 300 meters that humans have been using for drawing water! What it does not say is that the earth has taken over a million years to form such ancient waters and we take no more than a few hours to draw them out. What they don’t tell us is that the financial cost of pumping such waters from the far deeper layers of the earth is nothing, but the ecological cost of such upsetting of sensitive ecobalances of the earth will have a deep and profound impact in us in just the next 80 years—let alone the far term future of our civilisation. It seems to be beyond their comprehension, either deliberate or out of ignorance, that those longer term consequences into the next 20 years or 1000 years, are so far-reaching.

For most of these officers in industry or government who are on the ‘other side of the table’ and not of the people or for the people, the scenario is getting to be ‘difficult’. There is a strong icy unwillingness to see beyond the really short term, and the money that they will grab, or a project they will clear.

Many officers and even ministers have gone on record asking for scientific evidence and direct correlation between an action that is taken now to damage an ecosphere while it is so obvious to even a schoolchild that the impact can be horrendous over such long terms of time, of the destruction of a forest or of any ecosystem.

The National Institute of Occupational Hazard is another case in point. It is supposed to be another sentinel offering research evidence that will enhance people welfare and ecological welfare. Recent reports and facts show it to be, sadly, otherwise. In a recent instance, the NIOH is reported to have stalled and blockaded the offering of evidence on the extensive incidence of asbestosis that has occurred in many projects.

They are aware of the damage but do not want to be seen to have been culpable in the clearance of such projects in the past. There are unwritten commands and instructions that come from senior officers, from within the institute or from outside which hamstring the institute from speaking the truth on asbestosis. No amount of RTIs have helped in getting them to behave. They have come up with reasons as flimsy as ‘These are personal health records of individuals, and we cannot give it to activist organisations’. When a voluntary group got afflicted individuals of one area—some 150 such patients who had suffered for some years from the aftermath of the project, with the worsening disease —to put in their application asking for records, the NIOH found another excuse to not offer information.

The RTI has often been called by people to secure startling revelations. The question is, why should there be startling revelations if the government has done its job responsibly and for the people. Why is the government not of the people and by the people?

Sample this: in the 24 years since 1986, the environment ministry cleared over 6,500 projects. After the Environment Impact Assessment notification of 1994, some 3000 projects were cleared.

The story also has been one of complete lack of coordination between the multiple monitoring agencies. There is also an absurd drama of terms of reference themselves being modified much after a project has started, simply to ensure compliance on paper!

The environment ministry officials themselves have admitted in some RTI responses that there is no database on the extent of compliance achieved with the thousands of projects the ministry has cleared over all these years! So what purpose has the MoEF served?

No comments: