This is a story about the environmental clearance mechanism in India. Arguably legally strong, it fails in implementation. The project proponent looks upon the mechanism as a hurdle; for the administrator, it is mere routine. For affected communities, there is only one hope: the public hearing process. But it always fails them, in the end. So where does this mechanism go wrong? What changes are needed? kushal pal singh yadav looks for answers
More than 150 villagers -- from Sanu, Ragva and Joga villages in tehsil Ramgarh in Jaisalmer district-- have gathered here. More wanted to come, but could not, for the meeting is being held more than 60 km from the project area and so from the villages the project already affects (a mine already exists) and will affect (a new one is to come up). Only one bus is available daily from the project area to the public hearing venue. So many arrived the day before and camped in Jaisalmer, to attend the hearing.
They do not want the hearing to take place. They weren't informed of it in advance, nor was a copy of the project's environmental impact assessment report (eia) shared with them in time. The villagers have a clear agenda: give us more time to understand the report and fulfill all the promises you made in the past but have conveniently forgotten. rsmml's agenda, too, is clear: get the hearing over with; after all, it is just another hurdle in the way of getting the go-ahead from the Union ministry of environment and forests (m o ef). Just as preparing an eia report was, or making it available to affected people and gram panchayats, or publishing notices of the public hearing. Too many hurdles.
The public hearing starts at 11 am. Outside the rsmml office, tents accommodate the gathered villagers. The actual venue is an air-conditioned room inside, in which only 30 people can fit. The villagers are requested to select a few among them to represent them, so that the hearing can begin, but they refuse. All of them have come a long way; all want to be heard. Now they cannot be denied simply because the room isn't big enough; so rsmml officials request the public hearing panel to step outside, into the tent. They do, and rsmml officials leave behind the power point presentation they wanted the panel to see, about how good the project is.
For 20 years, villagers have seen how bad the project is. For 20 years, rsmml has been mining steel grade limestone in their area, and now wants a) the old lease -- Sanu i, measuring 1,000 hectares (ha) -- renewed; and b) a new lease granted -- Sanu ii, all of 998.4 ha. Both leases are at Sanu village, but the mining activity affects Ragva and Joga too. For the last two years villagers have made countless complaints to rsmml officials, and the local administration, about the effects of mining, in vain. "Dust levels are so high that a large number of people in the village now suffer from respiratory diseases. They have completely destroyed our khadins (traditional water harvesting structures)," says Kamla Kanwar, sarpanch, gram panchayat, Sanu. Villagers have lost count of their animals that have fallen in the mines and died. Not a single person has been compensated till date. rsmml hasn't levelled the mined areas; thus, villagers say, rainwater does not reach their agricultural land.
The complete apathy led villagers to approach Mine Labour Protection Campaign (mlpc), a non-governmental organisation that works in the area. "We helped the villagers who worked in rsmml form a union," says Rana Sengupta, head of mlpc. These workers, with villagers' support, went on a hunger strike in May this year, to no avail. The brewing resentment got further fuelled when the news of renewal and an additional 998.4 ha being dug out reached them; villagers pledged to fight it out.
As per eia rules, a project proponent has to publish a notice announcing the public hearing's venue and date, at least a month in advance, in two major regional dailies. At least one of these should be a vernacular paper. " rsmml did publish the notice, but in two obscure newspapers which do not even reach the affected area," says Sengupta. Also, the eia report has to be made available a month before the hearing at five designated sites such as the district collector's office, district industries centre (dic) and the regional office of the state pollution control board (spcb). In this case, panchayat members visited the sub-divisional magistrate's office and the dic on June 27, but no copy of the eia report was available. On June 30, Sengupta went to the regional spcb at Jodhpur and was shown a copy. But T S Ranavat, the regional officer, refused to part with it, reasoning that the law only mandated the report's inspection.
That very night, rsmml officials presented copies of the executive summary of the detailed project report and the eia to panchayat members. rsmml had already guessed the villagers' mood. On July 1 they approached Sengupta, asking him to help convince villagers to let the public hearing proceed; they promised to resolve all issues. But the villagers were not convinced.
There are 10 people in the public hearing panel: six representatives, including panchayat members, from affected villages and four government representatives. The hearing begins. A register is passed around, for the panel and the rest to sign in their attendance. The villagers smell something fishy. Local members of the panel then raise their concerns and read out their demands. They object to the public hearing being held in the premises of the project proponent and more than 60 km away from the project site and affected area. They say the eia was not made available to them in time; they are thus not aware about project details. They demand the public hearing be postponed by six months; in this time rsmml should address all long-standing grievances.
Then the local members walk out. The rest of the villagers boycott the hearing. But the "public hearing" continues for another 90 minutes and no one knows what transpires in it.
Within the next 10 days, the gram panchayats of Sanu, Ragva and Ramgarh call a gram sabha meeting. It passes a resolution: no more mining in their area till all their demands are met. It wishes another public hearing; without their consent, no final clearance can be issued.
The gram panchayats have submitted their objections to the local authorities and the spcb. It is not known whether a report of the hearing, to be forwarded to moef as mandated, has been prepared. Villagers have met the sdm who's assured them he has, as yet, not received any report, and that he will inform them as soon as he does.
It is likely the final environmental clearance will be issued without villagers knowing of it. They will be left to fight it out in a forum where their application will be rejected because it would have been filed late. Late, only because they never came to know in time about the final clearance being issued. In this way, another new project will begin. Another crisis.