THREE MONTHS after an expert panel of the Environment Ministry cleared the Ken-Betwa river-link project of the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), the panel’s chairman, Sharad Jain, was appointed the director-general of NWDA. Jain pointed out that the Ken-Betwa link project was cleared “long before” his NWDA appointment. In its first meeting on December 30, 2016, the reconstituted Expert Appraisal Committee for River Valley & Hydroelectric Projects (EAC-RVHP) chaired by Jain,
In its first meeting on December 30, 2016, the reconstituted Expert Appraisal Committee for River Valley & Hydroelectric Projects (EAC-RVHP) chaired by Jain, professor at the National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee, recommended the NWDA’s Ken-Betwa river-link project for environmental clearance. Jain was given additional charge as D-G, NWDA, on March 29, 2017.
Calling it a “clear case of conflict of interest”, a group of experts and activists wrote to Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan on Monday and sought Jain’s resignation from the expert appraisal committee (EAC). “The reconstituted EAC headed by Dr Jain cleared the Ken-Betwa link project, overruling the issues that four earlier meetings of EAC had raised about the project. We have written to the minister for a review of the EAC’s decision and (sought) Jain’s removal as EAC chairman,” said E A S Sarma, a former central government secretary and one of the signatories.
Jain told The Indian Express, “To suggest that I was rewarded for clearing a project is ridiculous, as this is anyway an additional charge for which I am not paid. And how can we be faulted for clearing the project in our first meeting? Evaluation is an ongoing process, and every (EAC) meeting builds on the progress made in the previous meetings.”
In their letter, the group of experts and activists referred to the “precedent” when “in 2009, the then chairman of the EAC (RVHP), Dr P Abraham was asked to resign since he was also director of hydropower companies whose projects came before the EAC headed by him” to back their demand for Jain’s removal. “A number of NWDA projects come to EAC for approval. How can one expect that the EAC chairman would be able to objectively, independently and scientifically appraise a project of the organisation of which he is the director-general,” asked Himanshu Thakkar of South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
Dismissing the precedent cited for his removal as “incomparable”, Jain said, “You can’t compare a private company with NWDA. As far as the issue of conflict of interest goes, no NWDA project has come up before the EAC since my appointment as director-general. When it does, I may abstain from the meeting, or from the discussion on the specific item on agenda.” Jain also rejected the perception of potential bias in experts from government institutions clearing government projects.
“If we don’t want experts who draw salaries from the government to evaluate government projects, then we cannot allow private experts to assess private projects either. So let’s import foreign experts then,” he said. Sarma reiterated that the government should not have appointed Jain as the NWDA D-G after appointing him EAC chairman. While top Environment Ministry officials refused to comment on the issue, Jain chaired the EAC meeting as scheduled in Delhi this Tuesday.