'Environment ministry kept forest clearance to Demwe project in Arunachal secret to thwart legal action'
The National Green Tribunal has directed the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to make public all forest clearances given to projects within a week of grant of such clearances. The order was given in connection with an appeal challenging the clearance to the Demwe Lower Hydro Electric Project on the Lohit river in Arunachal Pradesh. The forest clearance granted to the mega hydel project was not made public, allegedly to thwart legal action. The tribunal rules require that all appeals must be filed within 30 days of a clearance being granted, or within 60 days with an explanation for the delay.
The 1,750 MW Demwe project was granted in-principle (stage-1) forest clearance on March 1 this year. But this was not made public even three months later at the time when environmental activists Bimal Gogoi and Rohit Choudhury filed their appeal before the tribunal on May 29. This was despite a Supreme Court ruling which says all forest clearances must be uploaded on the MoEF website at the earliest possible (although it did not specify the time limit).
The tribunal had summoned the inspector general of forests with MoEF to explain whether the allegations made in the appeal were true. MoEF tried to pass the blame for delay to the National Informatics Centre which hosts its website. The tribunal did not accept this line of argument. In the order dated July 24, the tribunal bench said: “We are not prepared to accept such a plea in as much as the forest clearance granted by the ministry is mandatorily required to be displayed on the website of the MoEF promptly…we feel that the MoEF is dealing with the matter in a casual manner and is not very serious.”
The tribunal then directed MoEF to display all forests clearances granted by it within one week; state forest departments have been directed to display forest clearances on their respective websites within seven days of receiving such information or it being displayed on the MoEF website, whichever is earlier. The project proponent has to publish the order in the local newspapers.
The project had been granted wildlife clearance by environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan, amid widespread protest and opposition from wildlife conservation groups who warn of the vulnerability of the ecologically sensitive area. The project is a threat to Parshuram kund, an important cultural heritage site, the Kamlang sanctuary, Dibru – Saikhowa National park, important bird areas, and the downstream habitat of the national aquatic animal—the Gangetic dolphin.
In a press release dated August 13, the petitioner questioned the delay in uploading the forest clearance letter and wondered if MoEF kept it a secret in an attempt to “thwart possible legal action in light of the strong concerns being raised about the ecological and social impacts of the project, both by the scientific community and civil society groups.” Choudhury one of the appellants, rues the lack of transparency and the role the government has played in withholding information from the public. Choudhury had filed a Right To Information application earlier to access more information regarding the project and its status. He is yet to receive the information sought.
The forest clearance letter had still not been published on the MoEF website on August 14 on the page for 2012 forest clearance letters. The website displayed a sign that read “no records found” when attempts were made to access the clearance letter. MoEF officials were not available for comments.