An effective system, working for environmental integrity, will ensure we find a balance between the ecology and development
I wrote last fortnight that the bogey of green clearances feeds the false narrative of environment versus development, whereas the reality is these clearances are meant to put a check on the mindless and senseless development. Let me explain.
A few years ago I was member of a high-level committee, set up to examine the environmental clearances given to hydroelectric projects on the upper course of the river Ganga. You could argue that the projects were held up because of forest and environmental clearances, and thus the clearances were an impediment to development.
But soon it became apparent that all projects had environmental clearance, albeit with some delay. Once built, these countless, back-to-back projects would not only re-engineer the mighty Ganga, but also dry it up in several seasons. This would make the fragile Himalayas, already at risk because of climate change, more vulnerable to landslides and devastations.
The problem was not with hydropower — in fact, this is a clean source of energy, renewable and a huge resource of the Himalayas — but the mindless way these projects were being planned and given clearance, without paying attention to how many should be allowed and in what condition.
So, is this a case of environment versus development, or just willfully bad development?
I write this to also reiterate the need for a robust, credible system of environmental scrutiny, to find the balance between environment and development, and to mitigate harm. An effective system, working for environmental integrity, would ensure these happen, both in design and in implementation.
So, what will make this system more effective?
First, we need to accept that the system has become unnecessarily convoluted and must be streamlined. There is a need to consolidate all clearances — environment, forests, wildlife and coastal — so that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) is comprehensive.
In the Union Budget 2022-23, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a single-window clearance system. But because it is aimed solely towards the ease of doing business, it will further dilute this broken system. Therefore, the clearance system needs to be part of a package that simultaneously strengthens systems of public participation and monitoring.
Second, the process of public assessment must be deepened. I say this knowing that the task of listening to the community and its objections to the project can become as corrupt and compromised as the other parts of the system.
Today, public hearings are held, not heard. We need to see this as a critical process; risks from projects get mitigated when community concerns are heeded and efforts are made to remediate and mitigate fallouts. So, going forward, the mandatory videography of the public hearing should be livestreamed.
The committee assessing the project must be held to account that it has taken these concerns on board. To enable this, the monitoring and compliance conditions must be put in the public domain, and relayed back to the community.
Third, it is necessary to review the role of the environmental assessment committees — at the Centre and at the state. These committees are the weakest link in this process, as they are faceless and are not responsible for the compliance or monitoring of the project.
It is a farce to say that the experts are independent. In fact, these committees make the government less accountable for the decisions that are taken during the scrutiny of the project.
It is time these committees were disbanded and the process of assessment and monitoring be done by the central and state environment departments, which in turn needs to be strengthened in terms of expertise. But with this, the list of projects cleared or rejected and their conditions should be made public.
Then, the fourth and most critical agenda is to greatly strengthen the process of monitoring the project, post clearance. For this, there is a need to integrate the functioning of all agencies — from state pollution control boards to the coastal- and forest-related institutions. Currently, there are many agencies and yet enforcement is weak.
The focus must be on monitoring for compliance. Otherwise, there is no point in this entire effort of assessing the impacts of projects.
But all this will not work unless baseline data about the project is credible and, again, publicly available. For this, the process of collecting updated information on different environmental parameters and on the ecological importance of the project site must be strengthened. This data needs to be publicly accessible so that when it is used in the EIA report, its credibility and scientific rigour can be gauged.
All this, and more, is only possible, if we believe that the process of project scrutiny has a value. Otherwise, these clearances will remain an exercise in futility, and government after government will take it down bit by bit to maintain the charade of environmental protection.
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