IN what raises questions of conflict of interest, two PSU officials, one from National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) and one from National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), are working full-time in the Impact Assessment (IA) division of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) that decides on environmental clearance of power projects, including those of these two PSUs.
Manmeet Singh, manager, NHPC, and Prashant Sagar, Manager (civil), NTPC remain on the payroll of their respective PSUs while dealing with appraisals of power projects awaiting the green nod and attending related policy meetings in the MoEF.
Last week, both Sagar and Singh attended at least one of the two meetings of the Expert Appraisal Committees constituted by the ministry’s IA division where three NTPC projects and one project in which NHPC has 49% stake were discussed.
These power projects are 1320 MW (Stage-III) thermal power project in Sonebhadra (Uttar Pradesh); 3 x 660 MW Sipat thermal in Bilaspur (Chhattisgarh), 2x 800 MW Ramagundam Stage IV thermal in Karimnagar (Telangana) and 540 MW Kwar hydel in Kishtwar (J&K).
In the Ministry’s Impact Assessment division, both Singh and Sagar are part of the team that helps the BP Das committee, appointed following a Supreme Court order to examine the feasibility of six proposed hydel projects in the upper Ganga. These include NTPC’s 171 MW Lata Tapovan and NHPC’s 195-MW Kotli Bhel projects.
They also deal with other hydel-related issues in the Ministry including the Bhagirathi Eco-sensitive Zone that bars construction of all dams in the 4179 sq km between Gomukh and Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand.
Minutes of the expert committee meeting on Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive zone on August 31 recorded the participation of NTPC’s Sagar as “Manager (civil), MoEF&CC” – a post that, incidentally, does not exist in the ministry. Nearly half of NTPC’s approved hydel capacity of 1519 MW is in Uttarakhand.
During December 9-11, NHPC’s Singh accompanied an expert sub-group of the Das committee to Uttarakhand and held public hearings. He also attended the Das committee’s two-day deliberations in the ministry on December 19 and 20.
Asked about Singh, Dr B P Das, chairman of the SC-appointed committee said: “Yes, the person from NHPC is assisting the committee on behalf of the MoEF in compiling data etc for a couple of years.”
On the issue of potential conflict of interest, Das said: “He is not advising or influencing our decisions. In any case, it was the MoEF’s and not the committee’s decision to use his services. The ministry officials should be able to say how he is working in MoEF.”
Asked about their role in the ministry and the brief from their respective PSUs, both Singh and Sagar said that only the ministry could comment on those issues.. While Gyanesh Bharti, joint secretary in charge of IA (hydro and thermal) in MoEF, refused to comment, director (IA) S Kerketta said he was not authorised to speak.
A senior MoEF official denied there was any conflict of interest issue. “Singh started working in the IA division about two years ago — Sagar came in later — when the ministry faced a staff crunch and asked the two PSUs to provide manpower on loan. While they have access to files and daily developments in the Ministry, it shows a lack of trust in a government servant to suggest that they could potentially misuse their positions.”
“Sagar is a junior staff member of NTPC. He is working for the MoEF on a temporary loan basis,” confirmed an NTPC spokesperson. NHPC did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls.
“As an independent and impartial institution evaluating projects for their environmental impact, the MoEF should not invite even a shadow of suspicion. Project proponents or their staff have no business coming anywhere close to the decision-making process or the expert committees of the ministry. Shortage of technical hands is no excuse for allowing such conflict of interest,” said M C Mehta, environmentalist and Supreme Court lawyer.
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