the Union ministry for environment and forests has recently amended its draft notification putting in place a new regime that will govern environment impact assessments (eias), (see 'Obvious bias', Down To Earth, September 30, 2006). The amendments, finalised after consultations with government departments and industry bodies, have drawn sharp criticism from civil society groups. The principal focus of criticism is a provision that will give the relevant authorities discretionary powers to cancel public hearings, which are mandatory as of now. This provision has stoked disquiet because there are genuine apprehensions that it will be used to muzzle the voice of the people who are affected by mega projects in favour of industry, which anyway finds public hearings an inconvenient hurdle to going ahead with projects that adversely impact the physical environment, and therefore people, and livelihoods.
The dangers of doing away with mandatory hearings were recently brought into high relief in Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy's constituency, where, despite the existence of mandatory public hearing provisions, the state government and the Uranium Corporation of India Limited, a public sector enterprise, have been working overtime to ram a uranium mining project down the collective throats of five villages without allowing them to make their point. And, to be sure, the villagers and a group of activists have a large number of points to make. These include questions of environmental hazards, loss of livelihoods and the cavalier manner in which a flawed eia is being used to justify the project. The modus operandi involved in this throat-ramming operation is, unsurprisingly, the use of muscle -- in this case, the repressive apparatus of the state. At the public hearing that was conducted, the people of the villages to be affected and other critics were not given the opportunity to speak, while residents of villages far away from ground zero were transported in to make up the numbers as representatives of the district administration. Reddy's brother, the pointman who is pushing the project, and an assortment of yes men extolled the advantages of the project. The villagers who would be affected were kept away from the venue by the police.
The point, therefore, needs to be belaboured. Any revision of regulations on eias and public hearings has to tighten the existing regime to obviate such flagrant violations -- not open the door wider for abuses.