Public hearings on crucial infrastructure projects compromised due to pandemic
A public hearing, which was conducted by Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) authorities via a video-link last week amid the raging coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak, for a sand mining project in the state’s Vidarbha region is among many such hurriedly-done exercises where local representations, who are critical in making interventions for the adverse environmental impact of a venture, are getting short shrift because of the pandemic.
Around 14-15 representatives, mainly from the civil society and industry, took part, but there was no representation from the villages that could be adversely impacted because of the project, according to some of the participants in the public hearing.
Another MPCB public hearing is slated to be held on Tuesday to discuss a proposal on sand mining in Bhandara.
An MPCB official said locals are being represented by gram panchayats via a video-link, but they are also allowed to submit their objections in writing.
“In the July 7 meeting, there was a participant from Hyderabad, who had a pro-sand mining stance. He has nothing to with the villages that are likely to be impacted. We are trying to understand how such public hearings are being conducted. If locals are called, at least 2,000-3,000 people would like their voices to be heard,” said Yash Marwah, a Maharashtra-based environmental activist.
Public hearings, which give an opportunity to the community to make objections and suggestions on large infrastructure projects, are suffering because of the raging Covid-19 pandemic.
Contentious projects with a large environmental footprint usually have a wide participation of over a thousand people during public hearings.
The Union Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) said respective state pollution control boards could determine the need for public hearings on a case-by-case basis.
“Public hearing is decided and conducted by a state pollution control board or a district magistrate (DM). Depending on local conditions and the place of hearing, they may take a call. However, they have to ensure social distancing norms because of the pandemic,” said RP Gupta, secretary, MOEFCC.
The Union Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) guidelines under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, state that the public must maintain a six-feet distance from each other and large gatherings such as wedding receptions must not exceed 50 guests, and at a funeral, not more than 20 people are allowed to participate.
Activists and community members, however, argue that allowing only 50 people to attend a public hearing compromise the rights of villagers to understand the project and make informed submissions.
The Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) has issued a notice recently about a public hearing on Nayara Energy Limited’s proposal to expand its refinery and petrochemical complex from 20 million metric tonne per annum (MMTPA) to 46 MMTPA to be held on July 28 at Nayara Energy Limited on the Jamnagar-Okha highway.
However, the notice doesn’t put a cap on the number of participants, despite the viral outbreak.
“Nayara Energy is committed to strictly complying with all the regulations and directives of the public health authorities and government to combat Covid-19. The health and safety of our employees and communities are paramount for us. The upcoming public hearing is being organized by GPCB in consultation with district collectors (DCs). As directed by DCs/GPCB, we are taking appropriate precautionary measures that will enable compliance with Covid-19 norms,” said a Nayara Energy Limited spokesperson while responding to HT’s query on the public hearing.
Karnataka and Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Boards have also announced a number of public hearings in July and August.
Experts warned against these hurriedly conducted public hearings.
“Public hearings are not a one-time event, which needs to be managed by the government. They are central to democratic decision-making, which is
embedded in the environmental clearance processes,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher, Centre for Policy Research.
“Making social distancing norms applicable to a maximum of 50 people to gather is a poor replacement for the process, which requires full access to documents and fair, transparent circumstances under which the public can understand an environmental impact. This is the minimum requirement for ensuring maximum participation during public consultations and consent seeking provisions in any law. However, unfortunately, the Covid-19 outbreak and the attendant restrictions have robbed of the due diligence of public consultations,” she added.