Blaming public representations for making “sweeping statements” and having “an anti-development attitude”, the expert appraisal committee (EAC) on river valley and hydel projects of the Ministry of Environment has decided “not to take any cognizance of such representations” received by its members. In its December 30 meeting, the committee concluded that once a project proposal reaches the EAC for appraisal, it has crossed the stage of public consultation and “the EAC should not go back in time, and should not reopen it, by entertaining unsubstantiated representations received from the people”.
In case of any clarification regarding action taken on such representations under the RTI Act, the EAC prescribed that a standard reply — “action has been taken in accordance with the decisions taken in the 1st meeting of the EAC for River Valley and HEP on 30.12.2016” — should suffice.
“It was also felt that many of the objections raised are repetitive. Many such kind of representations have an anti-development attitude so that the projects are kept on hold or delayed. This has financial implications to the developers in particular and to the nation in general,” the EAC noted.
The committee emphasised that relevant ministries scrutinised every aspect of a project and proposed it for final appraisal only when all details were in place. If not satisfied that public consultation had been completed properly, the EAC said it could ask the project promoter to do the needful. The committee also made allowance for representations with “new points” and “grave consequences” on which comments from project proponents could be sought.
Environmental activists, however, pointed out the impracticality of the contention that representations should be restricted to the 30-day public consultation window.
“Public hearing is limited to only the state where a project is located. But many projects impact larger populations. For example, downstream impact of hydel projects in Arunachal Pradesh on Assam. Moreover, public hearings are seldom publicised widely or conducted fairly. If a submission has no merit, the EAC can record it as such but there is no justification for barring it altogether,” said Neeraj Wagholikar of Pune-based Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group.
Environmental lawyer Ritwik Dutta argued that expert appraisal committees rarely scrutinise proceedings of public hearings. “The EIA notification of 2006 requires that public hearings be video recorded. The purpose is that the members of the EAC view the video and form an opinion. But there is hardly any time for that in the rapid appraisal mode necessary for bulk clearance of projects,” he said.
In the landmark November 2009 judgment in Utkarsh Mandal vs Union Of India, the Delhi High Court observed: “The unseemly rush to grant environmental clearances should not be at the cost of the environment itself. The spirit of the EAC has to be respected. We do not see how more than five applications for EIA clearance can be taken up for consideration at a single meeting of the EAC. This is another matter which deserves serious consideration at the hands of MoEF.”
The EAC considered 13 projects in its December 30 meeting and cleared eight of them.