A public hearing that worked

Published: Saturday 15 September 2007

in a country seeking rapid industrialisation at all costs, suspension of an industrial project on environmental grounds is a rarity. But that's precisely what happened to a project of Monnet Ispat and Energy Limited in Chattisgarh. What is even rarer, in this case, is that the much abused environmental clearance process has come to the rescue of the communities fighting against a project whose basis is flawed.

We are so used to hearing about fraudulent environmental impact assessments (eia) and stage-managed public hearings. Project after project is cleared through such hearings. There are umpteen cases where communities are steam-rolled in favour of development projects. Therefore, it is indeed refreshing to hear about a case where issues raised by the communities, based on detailed knowledge and understanding of the project, led to the project getting suspended. And this happened during the public hearing at Raigarh.

Public hearings are, of course, mandatory for environmental clearance. But why are such cases rare? One, because often the communities do not get detailed information about the impacts the project will have on the surrounding environment. Getting access to the eia is difficult. Even when communities get access to it, mostly with support of non-governmental groups and activists, it is nearly impossible to decipher the information it contains. This information is deliberately written in dense jargon that seems Latin to a layperson.

But here, the community got access to the eia and were also explained the intricacies of the project. They understood that not only were their certain legal hassles in the project, the eia also left much to be desired. Impacts of local water resources and biodiversity were very unclear. Empowered with this knowledge they were able to raise concerns and issues to which the project consultants had no answers. Flaws were so evident that suspension was the only option for the local administration officials holding the public hearing.

The project has currently been put on hold and it will be interesting to see how the proponents will "answer" the very valid issues raised by the local people. The reaction of the local pollution board and the union environment ministry will also be interesting.

The case is a perfect example of what knowledge-based activism can do.

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