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Sreelatha Menon: The right way to do wrong

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

Environment impact assessment and other screening processes have evolved into methods of rubber stamping all proposals, both good and bad.

The Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, met people in 32 villages of Sirmaur district of Himachal Pradesh last year and asked them if they wanted the Renuka dam to come up in the district. Each person knew about the dam and 95 per cent said they did not want the project even if they got land for the land that they would give up for the project. They said nothing could replace their farms.

The exercise was part of the process for preparation of the environment impact assessment (EIA) report for the Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation, which will build the dam with Rs 400 crore from Delhi for the “national’’ cause of providing water to the national capital.

The construction is about to begin and the corporation has issued notices for evacuating the villages. The EIA report does not say that the dam should not come up. It is not its mandate to say so. It is meant to tell the builder, in this case the Himachal Power Power Corporation, how it can circumvent the hurdles and build the dam.

So, of what use are EIA reports? In fact, if one asks the environment ministry for data on rejected proposals, the ministry says it does not keep such data.

An activist tracked the rejected proposals for hydel power projects and found that only 25 have been rejected since 1986. And these too managed to come back after changes, she said.

In the case of the Renuka project, the water that the dam will provide is going into a leaking bucket, as Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network of Dams Rivers and Peoples calls Delhi’s water supply system. The government’s own audit report says 40 per cent of Delhi’s water is lost due to mismanagement and leakages.

The EIA report, for instance, did not refer to this or the fact that the project was identified without examining other options. That was left for NGOs to find out.

The only purpose screening processes end up serving is giving legitimacy to anything that comes under their nose, no matter how irrelevant or harmful to people.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, another panel in the ministry which clears or dismisses proposals for producing genetically modified products, has also rarely rejected proposals.

Manju Menon of Kalpavriksh’s Environment Action Group goes to the extent of saying that the Environment Protection Act has led to an increase in pollution by creating agencies that give legal sanction to pollute.

That is as cynical as an activist can get. But the recent amendment to the EIA rules to be notified this month seems to confirm her fears. The notification seeks to exempt modernisation and expansion of industry from EIA.

The newest clearing agency in the picture is the National Biodiversity Authority. NGOs have demanded the scrapping of its expert committee set up to evaluate applications for access to biological resources and for seeking patents.

The committee has so far granted 335 approvals without the mandatory consultations with the community-level bodies to be set up under the law. It has on its board people from private bodies which are also applying for access or patents. If this is the route development takes, then it cannot be called sustainable.

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First Published: Sun, May 17 2009. 00:40 IST