India Court on Dubious Environmental Impact Reports

Ranjit Devraj

HAVANA TIMES, March 11 (IPS) — India’s Supreme Court has questioned clearances to industries on the basis of environment impact assessments (EIAs) carried out by private consultants in the pay of project proponents.

A special bench of the court led by Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia, that is hearing a petition challenging approvals granted to the French company Lafarge to mine limestone, likened the practice to “paying the piper to call the tune.”

Kapadia’s bench noted that every report that had been placed before it was produced by agencies hired by Lafarge. The judge commented on Mar. 4 that it was unlikely that a “project proponent (private company) would pay a packet of money to get an adverse report.”

Kapadia, who is gaining a reputation as an activist judge in an atmosphere ridden with scams and cases of high corruption, kicked up a political storm last week by annulling the appointment of India’s chief vigilance commissioner P.J. Thomas.

The fact that Thomas was the main accused in a case of corruption involving the import of edible palmolein appeared to have been overlooked, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was compelled to accept responsibility for it in
Parliament on Mar. 8.

Kapadia’s views on the way EIAs are carried out have serious implications for investors planning to set up environmentally sensitive industries. Leading environmental activists have welcomed the court’s pronouncements.

“An EIA should be carried out and approved at the planning stage and not after land has been acquired and loans taken from banks, as is being done in this country,” Ravi Agarwal, who leads the prominent environment activist group Toxic Links, told IPS. “But that is not the way they are done in this country.”

M.H. Qureshi, former professor of geography at the centre for the study of regional development at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi told IPS that EIAs are not conducted seriously. “EIAs are seen as a perfunctory exercise,” he told IPS.

Qureshi, who is a member of the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) which monitors resettlement and rehabilitation of tens of thousands of people displaced by the mega Narmada valley project, said it is important to consider the opinions of people from different disciplines before large projects are planned.

“Agencies hired by private players rarely take into account the interests of important stakeholders such as people living close to a planned project,” Qureshi said.

How a project would affect the local population, biodiversity, air and water quality, catchment area and groundwater contamination should be considered at the EIA stage along with detailed studies and public comments, said Qureshi.

The International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) defines an EIA as “the process of identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social, and other relevant effects of development proposals prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made.”

India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh said at a press conference on Feb. 15 that there is a tendency in India to start work on projects without seeking clearances from his ministry or its agencies.

“The attitude is that the system can be navigated and that clearances can be managed even after the project is at an advanced stage or complete,” Ramesh said. “My ministry will decide on each case according to the laws and statutes.”

One of the cases that Ramesh is currently looking into is a controversial 2,010 tonne per day “waste-to-energy” incinerator that is nearing completion in the heart of the national capital, for which the operator had not sought clearances from his ministry.

A right-to-information application to the ministry filed by concerned residents of the area came back with the response that the EIA, to be carried out by Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services Limited, was “not available”. That was on Aug. 16, 2010 when construction for the plant was more than 50 percent complete.

In many cases EIAs have had to be redrawn after staying on the pending list of the ministry for years.

When the ministry, on Jan. 31, finally cleared, a 12 billion dollar steel plant to be built by the South Korean Pohang Steel Company in eastern Orissa state, it demanded the drawing up of a revised EIA.

Among the deficiencies of the original EIA, prepared in August 2006 by the Kolkata-based M. N. Dastur & Company (P) Ltd. was the fact it had failed to mention that the plant was coming up close to a beach where the highly threatened Olive Ridley turtles nest each year.

Kapadia’s court suggested that the “huge sums” being spent on private consultants should channeled into setting up government infrastructure that is capable of carrying out reliable EIAs.