Advisory panel members want independent experts to assess large projects
An evaluation report on the Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha by a retired forest official could not differentiate between a tiger and a hyena. The report relates to Vedanta's controversial bauxite mining bid and is one of the instances of shoddy evaluations quoted by three members of the statutory Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) in their letter to environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan. The 10-page letter is filled with scathing remarks about the mode of evaluation and says large-scale approval of most ecologically damaging projects have been based on such shoddy reports.
Citing instances of poor reports over the past two years, the three non-official FAC members say they had made several recommendations to have an independent panel of experts to visit the sites for big projects. “In June 2011, we, the three non-official members, submitted a list of over 160 experts of proven scientific and social scientific calibre, many of whom have been consulted by government, and we still await word of approval. At least in the case of major projects that are of non-strategic or defence importance, the FAC must get these expert assessments done before giving first stage clearance,” states the letter. It is signed by Mahesh Rangarajan, director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, wildlife expert Ullhas Karanth and Amita Baviskar, associate professor with Institute of Economic Growth. Other officials of FAC comprise top officials of the ministry.
The non-official members now state that independent expert evaluation should be made mandatory for projects above a certain size, for example, 150 hectares.
Officials in the ministry never acted on the request for empanelling independent experts to evaluate various projects across the country. The disgruntled members have further stated out of 10 to 12 recommendations made by them about previous evaluations, only two recommendations have been considered so far. On the other hand, the evaluation process due to shoddy reports by former forest officials or unqualified NGOs, places an “unrealistic burden” on the non-official members, which was highlighted previously, according to the letter. “From the bottom up, state forest departments/governments are routinely approving even obviously damaging projects ... We are being forced to take decisions on the basis of inadequate and inaccurate information,” the letter states.
While, Rangarajan and Karanth have been members of the FAC since 2008, Baviskar joined last year. FAC’s agenda has not been spelt out clearly by the MoEF officials in the ministry website, so that complaints from various quarters of the society as well affected parties could be received. “The FAC agenda is not put up on the ministry website in advance, and so we are not able to get timely inputs from independent experts, citizens and NGOs who may have relevant information about a case. This is a standard practice for the Environmental Appraisal Committee (of MoEF) and it has been repeatedly raised by two of us (Karanth and Rangarajan) in June 2008 and by Baviskar (since June 2010), but nothing has been done,” the members state in the letter.
The fact sheet and reports on ecological evaluation submitted by former forest officials or NGO members lack accountability the members point out: “The reports on Niyamgiri in Odisha, on Mahan coal block in Madhya Pradesh or Tara coalfield in Chhattisgarh were shockingly shoddy. In the former, a retired senior official claimed there was an animal with stripes that could either have been a tiger or a hyena (and this on the basis of discussion at roadside tea shops)! In the latter two cases, the on-site inspection team found that forest density figures provided in the Ministry ‘fact sheet’ were completely at variance with those provided by the Forest Survey of India. There is zero accountability for such amazingly inaccurate reportage,” the letter says.
According to media reports Natarajan has taken the letter “very seriously” and is considering “course correction”, if neccessary.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.