Activists demand mandatory environmental clearance for inland waterway projects
Experts and environmental activists have written an open letter to Union environment minister Harsh Vardhan on January 1, urging him to make prior environmental clearance mandatory for inland waterway projects. Currently, clearances are issued on a case-to-case basis and are not mandatory.
The letter, signed by around 50 experts and activists comes after a National Green Tribunal (NGT) order dated November 1 directed the Union environment ministry to clarify whether environmental clearances are needed for inland waterway projects. NGT was hearing a petition filed by Uttarakhand-based activist Bharat Jhunjhunwala and others in 2015 seeking mandatory environmental clearance for national waterway projects, not just for individual components of these projects, such as dredging.
The petition also pleaded that NGT direct the government to stop the dredging works on National Waterway 1 (Prayagraj in UP to Haldia in West Bengal).
NGT in its final order issued in November said: “There is no dispute about the fact that the project of Inland Waterways is, as on date, not included in the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) Notification, 2006. There is no doubt about the fact that such projects are first of its kind and may increase in the coming days…therefore, we consider it appropriate to direct environment ministry to look into the issue in consultation with the experts in the field, as to whether any environmental clearance is required or not and whether environmental impact assessment is to be done in projects relating to Inland Waterways.”
According to an office memorandum issued by the environment ministry dated December 21, 2017 accessed by Madhya Pradesh based environmental NGO, Manthan Adhyayan Kendra under Right to Information (RTI), the environment ministry stated that inland waterway projects are exempt from EIA and environmental clearances where only “maintenance dredging” is involved. A joint secretary, environment ministry, said on condition of anonymity that “prior environmental clearance is required for inland waterway projects depending on the nature of work required. We will decide on a case by case basis.”
The EIA Notification 2006 makes EIA and prior environmental clearance mandatory for port, harbour and dredging work but not for inland waterway projects. Sanjay Upadhyay, an advocate who represented the shipping ministry in the NGT case said: “Under the law, national waterways don’t require environmental clearance. But since NW 1 is a World Bank project, a number of environmental safeguards were taken, including public consultations. Environmental clearance is required only for large dredging projects for ports and harbours, not for maintenance dredging as was the case in NW 1.”
The experts, including Amita Baviskar from the Institute of Economic Growth, Jagdish Krishnaswamy from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment and environmentalist Ashish Kothari, highlighted in their letter that inland waterways have massive environmental impact. “Waterways involve interventions like dredging the river bed, a highly intrusive activity that can damage the river bed habitats, and river straightening and training works, river protection works, all leading to severe impacts on the river habitat and ecology,” they said in the letter.
“Inland waterways help transport bulk goods which you may not want on your highways. These are goods that don’t need speed like coal, steel, cement, sand etc. Sometimes inland waterways are strategic for industries near rivers. But it’s also true that they cause diesel pollution and impact rivers. There needs to be some balance. We cannot afford to impact water bodies,” said Madhav Pai, Director, WRI India Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities.
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