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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Environmental Impact Amusements - Bangalore Mirror

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Gautam Patel when he’s not on Facebook, he claims to be a lawyer

Environmental Impact Amusements

Environmental Impact Assessments for dams and power plants are being used to make dirty projects look pretty

Gautam Patel
Posted On Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 07:38:59 PM

At Devprayag in the Garhwal Himalaya, the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi slam into each other and become the Ganga. Once, both were mighty. The Bhagirathi’s waters poured at nearly 29,000 litres per second. Today, it is a trickle: just 56 litres per second.

The cause is man-made. Imagine a body of water a quarter kilometre high, 42 square kilometres in area. Imagine it at an altitude of 872 metres — higher than Matheran or Lonavala. Place it in a major geological fault zone. What you have is the Tehri Dam, the world’s fifth (some say eighth) highest dam, the third at this altitude and the only one in a fault zone. It submerged an entire town, displaced over 100,000 people, destroyed vast forests — all supposedly to provide manifold “benefits”.

For 20 years, Sunderlal Bahugana fought against it. Petitions were filed in the Supreme Court. Repeatedly, its safety was questioned. The dam was built anyway. The Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) of the Tehri Dam say it is “safe”; that its benefits outweigh its risks.

Do they? The dam is in the Central Himalayan Seismic Gap, a fault zone prone to severe earthquakes. Large dams, because of the sheer weight of the water they hold, increase earthquake intensity. The dam is supposed to withstand quakes of up to 8.5 Richter.

What if it does not? Experts say the consequences would be catastrophic: that mass of water would crash through the Himalayan gorges; Devprayag, Rishikesh and Hardwar would cease to exist; and directly downstream lie the cities of Meerut, Kanpur, Allahabad, Kanpur, Varanasi and Calcutta.

This is not an isolated case of a dubious EIA. The EIA for Dandeli Mini Hydel Power Project was entirely plagiarised from another EIA for a different project. Only the name was changed.

The more recent designer-EIA for a power plant in Sompeta, Andhra Pradesh, is a marvel of linguistic manipulation. By transposing one letter and adding two, it transformed ecologically fragile, biodiversity rich wetlands into wastelands. The environment ministry cleared it. Fortunately, the National Environmental Appellate Authority (NEAA) stepped in and rejected the clearance. Ninety-five per cent of the people at a public hearing opposed the project.

The central Ministry of Environment and Forests first introduced EIAs in 1994. These are supposed to impartially weigh project benefits against social and environmental costs. There is a detailed procedure, including an environment management plan and public hearings.

Today, after the plastic surgery of 12 or more amendments, some highly questionable, the EIA Notification is as close as it is possible for a legislation to get to Michael Jackson’s face. A slew of industries are exempted from some requirement, many from the critical one of public hearings.

A project proponent chooses its own agency for the EIA report. For a supposedly objective report, this is absurd for the project proponent becomes the EIA agency’s ‘client’; and what agency wants to say anything its client doesn’t want to hear? Often, agencies conduct no independent studies or data collection. They just take what the client gives them and massage the numbers. Even better: the World Bank loves EIA reports, and agencies love the World Bank.

It’s a simple recipe. Ingredients: one used EIA. Method: blend the EIA through a word processor, reformat, and serve garnished with photographs. It doesn’t matter that the report spins yarns about crocodiles in the Kali River. There are none.
The law requires public hearings and making the EIA report available. Nothing is easier to arrange. Stuff the hearing with your own people. Make sure the report is hard to get hold of.

There is simply no way to assess the quality or accuracy of an EIA. From Himachal to Sikkim in the north, down to the Sethusamudran project, environmental clearance was granted routinely no matter how shady the EIA, how manipulated the public hearing.

Fortunately we have Jairam Ramesh, our determined Minister of State for Environment and Forests. He has a quaint notion that befuddles industry, that without environmental protection there can be no real ‘development’. And the NEAA is also beginning to flex its muscles. What we now need is this: guidelines for appointing agencies; data collection and reporting norms; mechanisms for independent assessments of EIA reports; and monitoring of public hearings.

There’s a reason for EIAs, one that underlies the faceless phrase “costs and benefits”. An EIA tests the genuineness of the public interest in the project. It should not be a device to make dirty projects look pretty.

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1 comment:

  1. Liked this article. However, I feel that the facts therein are bit outdated. It would have been better if it had the facts correct about the EIA notification.
    For instance, EIA notification of 94 and its amendments mentioned here are not in existence any more. It was replaced by a new and arguably better one way back in 2006 itself.
    Also there is quality control measures such as Accreditation for EIA consultants is being brought in. From next year only accredited agencies can do EIAs.



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