No lessons from the past

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The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) remains a bundle of convenient contradictions. In its latest decision on the environment and forest clearances for the integrated steel plant and captive port for the South Korean company Pohang Steel Company (M/s Posco), the ministry has listed 28 and 32 extra conditions which the company will need to follow.

According to the ministry’s admission, these conditions, along with their faith in the state government of Orissa to follow the recognition of the forest rights process, will be adequate to make the project benign from an ecological and social point of view. The conditions, it is said, will be closely monitored.

The practice of conditional environmental clearances goes back to the time when projects and activities were being reviewed under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of 1994 (revamped in 2006). This process involved the process of preparing an EIA, a public hearing and review by a set of expert committees housed within the MoEF, which has till date approved over 7,000 projects, now in various stages of implementation. In the last year and a half, the approval rate under the EIA notification has averaged 97 projects in a month for just four sectors under MoEF’s review.

Since 2009, the MoEF has itself acknowledged that its regional offices, which have been entrusted the task of monitoring these environmental clearances, have both humanpower and infrastructure capacities to ensure that the effective monitoring of environmental clearance conditions can take place. This has been stated to justify bringing about institutional reform where the ministry could outsource the task of clearances and monitoring to a seemingly professional body that it seeks to set up.

The current situation is that each project is monitored once in every three or four years by the ministry’s regional offices. With an average of two to three officials each in the six regional offices, ensuring compliance of environment clearance conditions is a near impossibility. Evidence from project implementation across the country indicates a near causal approach to the compliance of conditions by project authorities even though violations are evident.

Yet, mega projects like Posco, despite their irreversible ecological and social impacts, continue to be granted approval. They hide behind the garb of conditional clearances with absolutely no guarantee that these would be complied with. These conditions help scuttle the fact that the setting up of a 12 million tonne steel plant and captive port in the area will dramatically change the landscape of a fragile coastal stretch, which primarily supports agricultural and fishing livelihoods.

Posco’s operations in Orissa had been accorded environment clearance way back in 2007, based on poor and inadequate assessments. However, the company had not been able to start operations due to sustained protests by the people of Dhinkia panchayat in Jagatsinghpur district of the state. It was in July 2010 that the MoEF set up a four- member committee to review the environment and forest clearances (issued under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980) for Posco. Three members of this committee had found a huge list of irregularities in the manner in which approvals were granted and recommended their withdrawal; an opinion that the chairperson of the committee, unfortunately, did not agree to.

The final word from the MoEF’s corridors states the strategic, economic and technological importance of the Posco project. Even though environmental laws are to be upheld, in Posco’s case they only need to be in the form of additional conditions. The rest, as they say, will be history.

Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon are members of the Delhi-based Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group

The article was first published by Hindustan Times.