The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MEF) defines ‘public hearing’ as a process by which the concerns of affected persons and others who have stake in the environmental impacts of a project, in sectors such as hydroelectric, mega power and mining, are taken into account. In reality, this democratic process, an integral part of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) rules, is often conducted in a farcical manner.
Take, for example, the Posco controversy in Orissa. The project has three parts: a 12-million tonne per annum steel plant, captive iron ore mines and a private port. The total investment would be to the tune of Rs 51,000 crore. As for land, Posco gets 4,004 acres for the plant, 2,000 acres for the township, 500 acres for the mines, and 25 acres of office space at Bhubaneswar. And the human cost? Conservative estimates suggest that the plant will directly affect at least 4,000 families. At least, 11 villages in three panchayats — Gadakujanga, Dhinkia and Nuagaon — will be displaced by the steel plant. More will be displaced by the mine expansion, township, port, etc. The area promised to the company is used for pisciculture, fishing, paddy, coconut, betel, cashew, pineapple and other crops.
When so much is at stake, a fair public hearing was expected. Instead, this is how the events unfolded. On April 15, the Orissa State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB) called for a public hearing on the proposed steel plant and the captive port. The hearing was organised at Kujanga block, which is nearly 20 km away from the affected panchayats. The rulebook says that hearings must be held in close proximity to the site so that the affected people can attend. But OSPCB refused to shift the venue despite protests by the villagers, panchayat leaders, NGOs and social activists. In fact, 22 platoons were deployed in and around Kujanga.
When the hearing began, the Additional District Magistrate, Jagatsinghpur, announced that the residents could only put up their environmental objections, overlooking the fact that socio-economic conditions also need to be taken into account. “It is a different story that the survey data provided by the firm to OSPCB gave wrong assessments of the socio-economic situation. It is based on data collected during Census 2001 and some complete lies,” says an NGO worker who was present at the meeting and has a video recording of the proceedings.
The result of this hearing can be seen today: there is tension in the area and the police have sealed off two of three panchayats. “Company goons and police are controlling the area with support from the local administration. The villagers are not allowed to move freely,” alleges Nikunj Bhutia of Orissa Bachao Andolan. “Anyone opposing any project in Orissa is labelled as Naxals. There is no democracy,” he adds.
This is not a one-off case. Similar tactics were used during the public hearing in the Niyamgiri area, which protested against the Vedanta Resources Plc. And on December 24, the National Environment Appellate Authority, the statutory body empowered to hear objections challenging environmental clearances, set aside the nod given to the Polavaram dam in Andhra Pradesh. It noted that MEF clearance was given without conducting a public hearing of people residing in the affected areas of Orissa and Chhattisgarh and, therefore, violated principles of “natural justice”. The project is estimated to affect about 1,95,000 people, substantially more than the 150,000 displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam.
“Originally, the panel for public hearing comprised the collector, or his nominee, an official of the pollution control board, three senior citizens and members of panchayati raj institutions. But post the amendments of 2006, a district collector or sub-divisional magistrate and an official of the pollution control board can conduct the hearing. This way, the State has undermined the panchayati raj institutions, which has so much say in other areas like the Forests Act. Public hearing now is official-driven and has been diluted,” says Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer.
If threats don’t work, then withholding information illegally about the project before the hearing is the next best tactic.
In the Dibang Multipurpose project in Arunachal Pradesh, the EIA report was not made available to the affected people of the Lower Dibang Valley within the stipulated time and no comments were asked for. The advertisement for the hearing also did not mention places where the draft of the EIA report and the summary could be found. “An EIA report is a technical document and difficult for common people to understand it. By not supplying enough copies and that too on time, the authorities made sure that the people were kept out. When firms can spend huge sums on each project, why can’t they be asked to print enough copies for the people?” asks Dutta.
The hearing was stalled after objections were raised. In the Polavaram case, too, the affected persons had no access to the executive summary of the project in the notified area.
“One mandatory aspect of public hearing is that the EIA must be filed in the local vernacular language. In the Teesta III project, the officials filed the report in Bengali, whereas they should have filed it in Nepali, which is the local language. In the Askot mining case, they translated ‘cyanide’ (a residue) just as ‘jhagwala pani’, where they should have mentioned it as ‘poison’. This is how the companies, in connivance with the State, are misleading people,” says Dutta.
“The State’s fundamental assumption considers all resources as commodity and thinks industrial jobs are better than other jobs. This development paradigm is flawed and when a democratic process is undermined, social tension is only natural,” says Shankar Gopalakrishnan, a development economist.