India: environment under attack - Praful Bidwai - Saturday, February 12, 2011

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India’s rulers have found a new vocation – maligning environmentalists and questioning the very idea of regulating industry for pollution. Thus, faced with criticism of Lavasa, an artificial gated city of the super-rich near Pune, in which his family has invested crores, Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar, lashed out at well-known activist Medha Patkar and other “vested interests” for obstructing this “pioneering” project.

Lavasa’s promoters built the project without seeking environmental clearance – mandatory for construction at altitudes above 1,000 metres. In the process, virgin rainforests were destroyed, hills flattened, rivers and streams diverted, and non-transferable Adivasi (tribal) land grabbed.

The promoters should be criminally prosecuted under the Forest Act, Environmental Protection Act and laws protecting Adivasis against land-grabbers, and ordered to undo the environmental damage to the maximum extent possible. Instead, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) imposed a laughably low penalty on them.

The normally cautious Reserve Bank of India too blames India’s environmental regulations. It says they caused a 36 per cent decline in foreign direct investment in April-September 2010 over the same period in 2009.

In the same vein, Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, recently warned against creating an environmental “licence-permit raj” through excessive regulation. So loaded is this term in India that it pre-empts reasoning.

The FDI decrease has only a tenuous correlation with environmental regulation. It’s better explained by a downturn in the Indian stock market, core-sector industries’ poor performance, and changes in international capital flows.

In reality, the MoEF has been overly generous in granting environmental approval. This process involves preparation of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), a public hearing, and review by expert committees housed within the MoEF.

EIAs are flawed “almost without exception”, according to Madhav Gadgil, India’s best-known Ecologist. I know this from my experience as a member of the MoEF’s Expert Committee on River Valley Projects in the 1990s. Most EIAs are hurriedly approved under promoter pressure.

In the past 18 months, almost four proposals were approved every working day! This shows slipshod scrutiny. Of the 769 projects proposed between August 2009 and July 2010, only six were rejected.

Some “conditions” are added to the clearances to save face. But compliance with them isn’t monitored. MoEF Minister Jairam Ramesh admits: in the past decade, “we must have approved about 7,000 projects ..., each [with] conditions .... But unfortunately, we do not have a system of monitoring compliance ....”

Most “conditions” don’t address the approved project’s basic flaws. For instance, asking Nuclear Power Corporation to study biodiversity around the Jaitapur nuclear station site won’t prevent biodiversity loss. “Conditions” won’t remedy nuclear power’s inherent hazards, including radiation releases, potential for catastrophic accidents, or dangerous long-acting wastes.

Ramesh has been on a project clearance spree: Navi Mumbai airport, Lavasa, mining in forests in Orissa and Jharkhand, and a ropeway in a Gujarat sanctuary, the only place in the world where the Asiatic lion survives.

Now comes South Korean-origin Posco’s giant 12-million-tonnes-a-year steel mill, with a power plant, and a new port in Orissa.

This project will directly uproot 22,000 people. It will destroy 3,096 acres of forest, a prosperous agrarian economy, fish-breeding grounds, and the habitat of endangered turtle species. It will fell 2.8 lakh trees, and make the coast more vulnerable to cyclones.

The MoEF granted Posco three clearances (environmental, forest and coastal regulatory zone-related) by rejecting the recommendations of its own committees and going against its own past orders.

Two committees were established under former civil servants NC Saxena and Meena Gupta to investigate compliance with the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) 2006 Act (FRA), and on Posco-specific issues. Their reports were examined by the MoEF’s statutory Forest Advisory Committee. All three recommended that the project be refused environmental clearance.

The MoEF was even more obnoxiously wrong on forest clearance. The FRA is one of India’s best recent laws, which transfers forest land titles to Adivasis and others who have lived there for 75 years, are dependent on forests/forest land, and were in occupation of the land before December 2005.

The FRA gives gram sabhas (village assemblies) veto power over diversion of forest land. The Saxena and Gupta committees conclusively state that the FRA has not been implemented in the project area, and the Orissa government has failed to furnish certificates from gram sabhas stating that they have consented to forest land diversion.

One of the MoEF’s 60 “conditions” for clearance is that the Orissa government should offer a “categorical assurance” that none in the area is eligible under the FRA. But the state government has no role in this-the FRA stipulates a three – step process, at the village, tehsil and district levels.

The Orissa government has openly lobbied for Posco and started taking land for it last July in contravention of the MoEF’s orders. The Gupta committee called its conduct “criminal” and recommended that clearance must be refused on this ground too. The committee also explicitly warned against clearances with “conditions” which obviate “hard decisions on crucial issues”.

The MoEF thus became complicit in the state government’s plan to obliterate the existence of 22,000 flesh-and-blood people in the project area. It also legitimised a bad, illegal EIA public hearing, which was vitiated by intimidatory police deployment and held far away from the affected villages.

The Coastal Regulatory Zone-related clearance is equally farcical. Large segments of the project fall under CRZ-III, where industrial activities are prohibited. The new port will damage the coastal ecology and endanger an already cyclone-prone region.

Here too, the MoEF overruled the Gupta committee. The “conditions” it imposed are pure “greenwash”. This subverts the Indian state’s authority and its obligation to protect vulnerable people and the environment.

The Posco project will impose a heavy burden on the exchequer through tax concessions because its plant and port are located in a Special Economic Zone. Posco has been allowed to extract 600 million tonnes of the best-quality iron ore available in India.

This alone will give Posco annual super-profits of Rs 6,500 crores for 30 years. It will recover its entire investment of $12 billion in the first eight years alone.

The project area has a flourishing agrarian economy. People earn as much as Rs 40,000 per one-hundredth of an acre through betel-leaf cultivation. The government has offered a one-time compensation of Rs 11,500 for this land. The project will create only 7,000 jobs directly, most of which won’t go to the local people because they lack industrial skills.

The people understand this and have waged a resolute and peaceful struggle against Posco for five years. The government has repressed it by brutal methods, including slapping trumped-up charges against Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti activists, attacking them with goons in November 2007, and opening fire upon them in May 2010, injuring more than 200. PPSS leader Abhay Sahu has 44 cases against him.

Posco was cleared because it is India’s largest FDI project and the South Korean government lobbied for it. Such things usually happen only in Banana Republics, which put “investor confidence” above protecting livelihoods and the environment.

India will pay a high price for subverting its own laws and undermining the public interest, including loss of global stature.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email:

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