MAC: Mines and Communities

Missing the woods, trees and forests

Published by MAC on 2010-11-22
Source: Financial Express (2010-11-04)

India's precarious balancing act with the biosphere

Recently we reproduced a public address, delivered by India's minister of environment and forests (MoEF), which sought to "balance development with environment" (See: "Costing Nature" reaches take-off point).

Now, two members of one of the country's leading environmental action groups have published a cogent summary of the real situation at India's ground levels.

They point out that more than 7,000 mines, dams, thermal power stations and highways have recently received conditional approval by the MoEF.

Yet, India's six regional MoEF compliance monitoring offices are able to visit each site only once every 3-4 years.

The MoEF recognises this deficiency - and deliberates at length over largescale, and highly controversial mineral projects, such as those proposed by Vedanta and POSCO.

Nonetheless, the ministry pays scant attention to the likely consequences of hundreds of other projects; it's not uncommon for a hundred of these to pass under the radar every month.

Granting clearances is the "prime intent" of the regulatory committees - which they do by "creating conditions that make up for the shortfall in project EIAs".

But  the process is effectively  back-to-front:  often, vital social and environmental impact studies are often undertaken as part of the initial assessment.

Ask the authors: "What if the study indicates that the impact will be irreversible? Will the project authorities be willing to undo their projects?

"MoEF's note on monitoring issues requires us to believe that environment protection and development can happen simultaneously and the trade-offs needed to make this possible are benign.

In an allusion to the rapidly-growing belief that loss of bio-diversity in one place can be offset by compensatory protection undertaken elsewhere, the authors say: 

"Such a conviction... allows us to undertake activities that cause environmental damage as we achieve high rates of growth and generate finances. Once there is sufficient amount of money created, it can be used to rectify the damage."

However, "[t]he crucial thing to understand is that many affected people cannot afford to await the day when this shift takes place."

Nor, as we pointed out earlier this month, can Nature itself. See: World's biggest miner knocked back in Australia

[Commentary by Nostromo Research, 19 November 2010].

Missing the woods, trees and forests

By Manju Menon, Kanchi Kohli

Financial Express (India)

4 November 2010

Recently a coal-based power plant in Gujarat got environment clearance from the state approval agency under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006. This clearance letter ran into nine pages and listed 121 conditions that the company is expected to follow to keep its permission valid.

Many of these relate to controlling the impacts on air, water, land, noise as well as allowing local fisherfolk access to their fishing space. Ironically, while appraising the environment impact of this proposed plant, the concerned regulatory body concluded that such power generation in a fragile marine habitat will have negligible impact. This logic made it possible to grant clearance.

This project is an addition to the 7,000-plus set of mines, dams, thermal power stations and highways that have received conditional clearances from the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF). While the onus lies with the project authority to comply with these conditions, their monitors are the regional offices of the MoEF or relevant state agencies. At present, six such regional offices of the MoEF monitor over 7,000 projects. A simple calculation reveals that the regional offices are able to monitor each project, with a site inspection, once every 3-4 years.

The MoEF has acknowledged this to be a problem. Their position and proposed solutions are articulated in a note that was put out for public comment in late August, 2010. But the note seems to fail to identify the root causes of the monitoring menace. MoEF's road forward circumvents two critical issues that make the compliance an impossibility.

The first is the nature of the conditions themselves. With the grant of clearances being the prime intent, clearance procedures result in creating conditions that make up for the shortfall in project EIAs. The conditions require studies, which should have been part of the initial assessment, to determine if the activity is environmentally viable. However, approvals are granted with conditions such as studying the downstream impact of a dam alongside the construction of the project.

Similarly, is it viable to allow the construction of a thermal power plant with ex post facto assessment of how it will impact the alphonso mangoes that are the livelihood of the region? What if the study indicates that the impact will be irreversible? Will the project authorities be willing to undo their projects?

The second issue is the sheer number of projects that have been granted approvals. The MoEF simply fails to accept this as being the core of the problem of non-compliance. While the clearances of new projects such as POSCO and Vedanta are deliberated upon extensively, little attention is paid to the environmental performance of the projects that were cleared in the past and that lack any consistent attention, either from regulators or environmental groups.

This high rate of clearance of high impact projects is not about to change because we seem to have more public hearings or because we now have a pragmatic ministry that speaks of finding a balance between environment and development. Over the years, the regulatory processes that govern environment clearances have been 'streamlined' for efficient functioning (granting clearances).

With 10 expert appraisal committees meetings every month and reviewing an average of 40 projects in each two-day meeting, the clearance rate of about 100 a month is not uncommon.

MoEF's note on monitoring issues requires us to believe that environment protection and development can happen simultaneously and the trade-offs needed to make this possible are benign.

Such a conviction relies on the Environmental Kuznets curve, an econometric tool that allows us to undertake activities that cause environmental damage as we achieve high rates of growth and generate finances. Once there is sufficient amount of money created, it can be used to rectify the damage.

The crucial thing to understand is that many affected people cannot afford to await the day when this shift takes place.

MoEF's new note also envisages the determination of penalties as an important deterrent for non-compliance. While some might consider it a useful addition to monitoring system, the Indian experience of penalties through the 'polluter pays' approach has only been a partial disincentive at best.

It is not a surprise then that the Compensatory  Afforestation Planning and Management Authority today boasts Rs 11,000 crore in its coffers, almost all of which has been collected from forest loss and related penalties.

While the MoEF states that these funds will be used to regenerate forests, the performance on compliance so far offers no confidence that this will be done.

The country's vexed problems of environmental on-compliance will not disappear once monitoring becomes remote sensing compliant or self-assessments of project authorities are available online.

A turn around to review the established ways of thinking about the environment clearance process is needed.

Else, we will continue to suffer absurdities like the grant of clearance to a polluting industry with 121 conditions, most of which may never be monitored.

The authors are members of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group

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