The casual and indiscriminate approach of the expert appraisal committee of the ministry of environment and forest has come under intense criticism after the Uttarakhand floods.
A group of 51 environmentalists, scientists, academics and activists across 15 states — six of them from Uttarakhand — wrote to the ministry requesting that none of the present 14 members of its committee be re-nominated. The committee’s term is over.
“The current panel has had almost zero-rejection rate for the projects it considered during its six years, ending December 2012… Secondly, the committee has been at best inconsistent in applying basic parameters of environment impact assessment, and has been sanctioning projects that have been rejected by other government bodies without providing any reasonable case,” stated the letter, dated June 29.
The 14-member panel has given clearance to 262 river valley projects in six years till December 2012, many of them without “applying its mind” to critically appraise the projects and without undertaking a cumulative impact assessment of a horde of hydropower projects in a river basin, said the letter.
Only two projects were temporarily rejected till their proponents changed some parameters to obtain final environmental clearance. A ministry spokesperson declined to comment on the letter.
The letter has been signed by, among others, noted environmentalists Vandana Shiva and Bittu Sehgal, former secretaries of government of India Ramaswamy Iyer and EAS Sarma, lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan, professor emeritus of Jawaharlal Nehru University Amit Bhaduri and Himanshu Thakkar representing South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People, and over 30 individuals/organisations associated with rivers and dams studies. Bharat Jhunjhunwala, former IIM professor now based in Tehri, leads the organisations from the flood-ravaged Uttarakhand that endorsed the letter.
The panel is chaired by technocrat Rakesh Nath with BB Barman of the MoEF as member-secretary. Nath was chairperson of the Central Electricity Authority. Vice-chairman BP Das is a former engineer. “Both have zero track record on environment or climate or societal issues,” said Thakkar. Before Nath, it was chaired by P Abraham against whom several environmentalists and organisations had petitioned the ministry because he was associated with hydropower project companies. “It was a direct conflict of interest,” they pointed out.
In the context of Uttarakhand, the signatories stated, “It was shocking to see the panel recommending final environmental clearance for the 108MW Jelam-Tamak hydropower project in Chamoli district in Alaknanda basin… in spite of two government-appointed studies recommending that the project shouldn’t be cleared.”
A separate analysis by environmentalists has shown how the panel was not bothered that “the environment impact assessment reports of projects that come to it are shoddy, dishonest jobs”, was not concerned about the lack of “credible public consultation process or serious anomalies in public hearing processes”. The panel, the analysis added, had not sought a cumulative impact assessment even when a large number of bumper to bumper hydropower projects were proposed on several rivers.
The signatories have demanded that the ministry evolve a code of conduct for the panel members, that “they should be held accountable for their actions” and they “should read the environment impact reports and send it written comments”.