If projects are for people

Then why are their voices being muffled?

Published: Friday 30 April 2004

-- IN INDIA today, there exists a mechanism enabling people to have a say when the blueprint for a new dam, mine or factory -- eminent signifiers of development, all -- is drawn: the public hearing. It is part of the project process, the participatory arm that signs off a project as environmentally viable. Is that why the Centre and state governments are so virulently keen to lop it off?

Consider two public hearings on uranium mines in Andhra Pradesh (AP) and Jharkhand last year. In AP, the high court had to intervene to make the venue accessible to the public. In Jharkhand, people were suddenly made to grapple with the technical minutae of uranium mining, and the hearing ended without a verdict (see also: "RED ALERT in nuclear India"). A similar hearing in Tamil Nadu on a fast breeder reactor two years ago also landed up in court; later, people rejected the hearing as an 'eye-wash'. Indeed, in the last 4 years, about 34 such hearings have been so termed by people, forcing the question: why has a mechanism, meant to be democratic, turned conflictual?

Environmental impact assessment (EIA) for certain kinds of projects was made mandatory a decade ago, via a gazette notification passed on 27 January, 1994 by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Then, in April 1997, a "public hearing" provision was added. This was a step forward, but the main EIA notification has been amended -- softened, regressively -- seven times in the past eight years. Now, industry treats the process as a mere matter of due paperwork. And now, there is talk to further 'simplify' the EIA process by letting state governments manage it.

The fear isn't only that state governments chasing investment may fake the process. It isn't only that more and more projects could be exempted from producing EIA reports, as many already have been. The real fear is that the public hearing mechanism might become totally meaningless. At a time -- this is the root of the fear -- when there is increasing interest, and participation, in public hearings. People know what governments are (in)capable of; they have experienced a lot of corporate responsibility. Today, they turn up at hearings to stake their claim, only to be met with bewildering statistics they see for the first time, development rhetoric they hear for the first time, and a so-called shining future they dimly glimpse for the first time.

The public hearing is a powerful mechanism to create consensus on natural resource use. Here, a company by being forthcoming could gain enormous social credibility. Here, a government could prove 'development' isn't only a slogan. Here, people if honestly consulted would place their stamp of approval. Could this potential not be tapped?

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