New environmental public hearing policy soon
The Union environment ministry is revising its public hearings policy and is likely to release it by next week keeping in mind the social distancing required in view of the Covid-19 pandemic that has prompted a 21-day lockdown in the country, a top official said.
Public hearings are consultations with local people who are either displaced or affected by any infrastructure project. The local people can object to the project or voice specific concerns at these hearings. Company representatives and state pollution control board officials are present during the hearings and are supposed to record people’s comments. These comments are also considered by the ministry’s expert appraisal committee to clear or reject a project.
CK Mishra, the ministry secretary, said they were working out the policy for the pending public hearings. “...during the lockdown period public hearings should be avoided unless very urgent. A case-by-case approach will be taken. The district administrations have also been informed about not holding public hearings during lockdown. For later, we are deciding on a strategy.”
The Gujarat Pollution Control Board has, for instance, scheduled a public hearing for the expansion of a refinery and petrochemical complex at Vadinagar on May 1. The residents said they may be unable to participate in the hearing amid the lockdown.
Virendrasinh Vadher, a local farmer leader, said he has written to the board about their concerns. “In this situation, it is not possible for most persons concerned to know that the public hearing has been announced because distribution of newspapers is affected.’’ “People concerned have no way to connect with their communities and discuss issues.”
He has not received a response to his letter dated April 6.
Public hearings related to infrastructural projects are pending across the country. Dubna-Sakridihi iron ore and manganese mines in Odisha had started mining without any prior environmental clearance. When the ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) heard this violation case in January last year, it recommended a public hearing, which remains pending.
Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher with the think tank, Centre for Policy Research, said public hearings ought to have been conducted for many more projects. “We do not know how many in total because respective state pollution control boards notify these public hearings.”
Separately, meetings of EAC on mining were held on March 25 and 26 and that of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) on April 7 during the lockdown and decisions on significant infrastructure projects were taken.
The NBWL’s meeting was chaired by Union environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, via video conferencing and wildlife clearances for projects in 11 states were approved.
The EAC on March 25 recommended public hearings on several projects. Kohli said there is a the visible one-sidedness in how the environment ministry is presenting itself during lockdown.