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Take out those earplugs, please

In its 11 years of existence, the national environment appellate authority has dismissed every single case which was filed before it, except one. Kumkum Dasgupta tells more.

india Updated: Oct 19, 2008 22:16 IST
KumKum Dasgupta

If there is a recurrent theme that marks India in transition, it is the opposition of ‘affected’ people to ‘welfare’ and ‘industrial’ projects. And, no matter which side of the divide you are on, there’s no denying the fact that there has to be an effective mechanism to sort out these disputes impartially. When such a redressal mechanism fails, or the very route to reach it is clogged with unnecessary procedural hurdles, people lose faith in it and take the agitational route. Who do you blame then?

Take for example, the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) that was set up through a Parliamentary Statute in 1997 on the suggestions of the Supreme Court. Its mandate: hear the grievances of affected people impacted by approvals to industries, dams and mines etc by the Ministry of Enviro-nment and Forests (MoEF). The simple rationale behind its formation: reduce the burden on the country’s legal process and ensure that environmental matters are decided by a panel of judicial, administrative and scientific experts. In other words, a one-stop shop for putting up your case.

But trying to find details about the body, or procedures for filing a case or, the simplest of all, where it is housed in Delhi, is a waste of time. The NEAA has no internet presence and is housed somewhere in Bhikaji Cama Place, a commercial complex in the Capital. With this kind of mystery shrouding such a premier body, you can be forgiven for feeling that this is a deliberate ploy by the ministry to keep it out of reach of the complainants.

There are other reasons for people to question the NEAA’s existence: in its 11 years of existence, it has dismissed every single case which was filed before it, except one. In fact, 11 years on, the NEAA is yet to become ‘fully functional’. It does not have a Chairman since Justice N. Venkatachala retired in 2000 and has had no Vice-Chairman since the last three years. At present, the ‘technical experts’ panel comprises retired Indian Forest Service (IFS) and IAS officers, not members with a scientific and technical background. In 2005, the Delhi High Court directed the MoEF to fill the two top posts within 45 days. Today, three years after the ruling, they are still lying vacant. The reason given is that the MoEF officials “could not locate the phone number of retired judges”. On August 6, 2008, the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court directed the MoEF to produce records and files relating to the appointment of its Chairman and Vice-Chairman.

According to lawyers appearing before the NEAA, the functioning of the body has been handicapped because there are no judicial members and technical experts in it. According to an activist, this body has become a ‘parking lot’ for retired babus. There is also the case of a conflict of interest here: the MoEF appoints the NEAA members and also makes all the budgetary allocations. Therefore, it is unlikely that the MoEF will appoint people who will overrule its decisions.

Considering that the fight for resources looks set to escalate, is it prudent to leave matters as they are?

Even if you manage to locate the panel and file your case, chances are the babu will throw the rulebook at you and delay proceedings. Ironically, the NEAA was envisaged as a forum to provide a simplified and liberal procedure. Appeals are routinely dismissed on the ground that the appellants could not file an appeal within 30 days from the approval granted by the MoEF, despite an outer limit of 90 days. “For a grassroots worker in some faraway town, it is not always easy to file within 30 days. For example, if you are in the hilly areas, to get even one signature from an affected party, you need to walk miles. And, yet when you knock at the NEAA doors, after spending considerable time and money, there are procedural hassles,” says Vimal Bhai, a grassroots worker. “This deters villagers from filing cases”.

He narrates an incident when one of the present NEAA officers deliberated for more than three hours on the usage of two words in a case: ‘access’ and ‘provide’. “Non-issues are made issues. All we demand is a fair hearing but they don't seem to see the problems that often crop up due to faulty public hearings and Environment Impact Assessment studies,” he adds.

Transparency and grievance redressal are key to a democracy. But unfortunately, the more doors we open, an equal number get shut elsewhere.