At Devprayag in the Garhwal Himalaya, the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi slam into each other and become the Ganga. Once, both were mighty. The Bhagirathi’s waters poured at nearly 29000 litres per second. Today, it is a trickle: just 56 litres per second.
The cause is man-made. Imagine a body of water a quarter kilometre high, 42 square kilometres in area. Imagine it at an altitude of 872 metres — higher than Matheran or Lonavala. Place it in a major geological fault zone. What you have is the Tehri Dam, the world’s fifth (some say eighth) highest dam, the third at this altitude and the only one in a fault zone. It submerged an entire town, displaced over 100,000 people, destroyed vast forests — all supposedly to provide manifold “benefits”.
For 20 years, Sunderlal Bahugana fought against it. Petitions were filed in the Supreme Court. Repeatedly, its safety was questioned. The dam was built anyway. The Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) of the Tehri Dam say it is “safe”; that its benefits outweigh its risks.
Do they? The dam is in the Central Himalayan Seismic Gap, a fault zone prone to severe earthquakes. Large dams, because of the sheer weight of the water they hold, increase earthquake intensity. The dam is supposed to withstand quakes of up to 8.5 on the Richter scale.
What if it does not? Experts say the consequences would be catastrophic: that mass of water would crash through the Himalayan gorges; Devprayag, Rishikesh and Hardwar would cease to exist; and directly downstream lie the cities of Meerut, Kanpur, Allahabad, Kanpur, Varanasi and Calcutta, all vulnerable.
This is not an isolated case of a dubious EIA. The EIA for the Dandeli Mini Hydel Power Project in Uttara Kannada — a thickly forested region of Karnataka that holds some of the finest forests in the Western Ghats — was entirely plagiarised by Ernst & Young from the EIA the Tattihalla Augmentation Scheme. Only the name was changed and a new cover printed.
Even more egregious was the first EIA submitted in 2005 by Ashapura Minechem Ltd, part of the Rs.1200 plus crore Ashapura Group and an NSE-listed company, for a bauxite mining lease on 100 hectates in Ratnagiri district. Entire chunks of the Ashapura EIA were copied from another EIA for a bauxite mine in Russia. It includes howlers like this:
“The primary habitat near the site, for birds, is the spruce forests and the forests of mixed spruce and birch.”
Spruce? Birch? In Ratnagiri? That should have been interesting to ecologists everywhere — spruce and birch from northern temperate climates suddenly sprouting in the middle of lush mango, coconut and banana plantations. The environment ministry approved the project on the basis of this EIA. It seems that the distance between Alaska and Chiplun is only the thickness of an EIA.
The more recent designer-EIA for a power plant in Sompeta, Andhra Pradesh, is a marvel of linguistic manipulation. By transposing one letter and adding two, it transformed ecologically fragile, biodiversity rich wetlands into wastelands. The environment ministry cleared it. Fortunately, the National Environmental Appellate Authority (NEAA) stepped in and rejected the clearance. 95% of the people at a public hearing opposed the project.
The central Ministry of Environment and Forests first introduced EIAs in 1994. These are supposed to impartially weigh project benefits against social and environmental costs. There is a detailed procedure, including an environment management plan and public hearings. Today, after the plastic surgery of 12 or more amendments, some highly questionable, and a revamp in 2006, the EIA Notification is as close as it is possible for a legislation to get to Michael Jackson’s face. A slew of industries are exempted from some requirement, many from the critical one of public hearings. The 2006 “new” EIA Notification was supposed to be a step in the right direction. It was, in fact, arguably a dilution of the 1994 version and since its introduction has received not so much surgery as savaging in its amendments.
A project proponent chooses its own agency for the EIA report. For a supposedly objective report, this is absurd for the project proponent becomes the EIA agency’s ‘client’; and what agency wants to say anything its client doesn’t want to hear? Often, agencies conduct no independent studies or data collection. They just take what the client gives them and massage the numbers. Even better: the World Bank loves EIA reports, and agencies love the World Bank.
It’s a simple recipe. Ingredients: one used EIA. Method: blend the EIA through a word processor, reformat, and serve garnished with photographs. It doesn’t matter that the report spins yarns about crocodiles in the Kali River which has none.
What does a project proponent do if it accidentally chooses the ‘wrong’ agency (read, one that doesn’t give it a ‘green’ signal)? It just gets another one. That is exactly what happened with the Natioanl Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) EIA report for the Commonwealth Games Village, when it suggested no construction on the floodplains of the Yamuna. The report was withheld. Another one was commissioned. Finally, even the previous restriction of not allowing permanent structures on the riverbed was ‘renegotiated’.
The 2006 version of the EIA Notification has ill-served its primary constituency, the environment. In two year since it came into force, every single project that applied got approval; none were rejected. Here’s a score-card: Industry-952; Environment-nil. In addition, 134 thermal power plants and one nuclear plant were cleared. Over 1000 construction projects applied; only four were rejected. 587 applications were made for coal-mining. Only 10 were rejected. In the tiny and ecologically fragile state of Goa, 160 mining projects have been cleared, including some within spitting distance of wildlife sanctuaries or, worse still, within wildlife sanctuaries. What is this if not a joke?
The fudging has not stopped either. The EIA report for the Dibang Multi-Purpose Project in Arunachal Pradesh lists completely unknown wildlife species plus several endangered species only to conclude that no major wildlife is observed. The JSW Energy Ltd EIA Report from the Konkan is even more bizarre. According to this fine report, “endemic fauna species” in the region are cows, goats, buffaloes, cats and dogs. No mention of mangroves, marine life, mango or fisheries all already irreversibly damaged. The Vishnugad Pipalkoti Hydroelectric Project’s EIA refers to the riverbed of the Teesta, a river in Sikkim. The project is on the Alaknanda in Uttarakhand. EIA are exercises in creative writing. The one for the Lower Subansiri Hydel-Project on the Arunachal-Assam border tell us that the project, which will drown 3500 hectares of pristine old-growth forest in one of the world’s few remaining biodiversity hotspots, will create a waterbody that “will be a happy haunt for aquatic creatures.” The aquatic species of Arunachal-Assam need rivers, not swimming pools.
The law requires public hearings and making the EIA report available. Nothing is easier to arrange. Stuff the hearing with your own people. Make sure the report is hard to get hold of.
There is simply no way to assess the quality or accuracy of an EIA. The State Environmental Appraisal Committees do not have the means to make a studied assessment of EIA report quality. From Himachal to Sikkim in the north, down to the Sethusamudran project, environmental clearance has been granted routinely no matter how shady the EIA, how manipulated the public hearing (examples from around the country abound).
From 1994 to 2006 and now down to 2010, the EIA mechanism has become a perversion, one that caters to industry rather than protects the environment. Fortunately we have Jairam Ramesh, our determined Minister of State for Environment and Forests. He has a quaint notion that befuddles industry, that without environmental protection there can be no real ‘development’. And the NEAA is also beginning to flex its muscles, something it has long failed to do (its track record so far is dismal: in 11 years, all appeals save one were dismissed; for eight years, it had no chairperson).
What we now need is this: guidelines for appointing agencies (these are supposed to come in next year); data collection and reporting norms; mechanisms for independent assessments of EIA reports; and monitoring of public hearings. There’s a reason for EIAs, one that underlies the faceless phrase “costs and benefits”. An EIA tests the genuineness of the public interest in the project. It should not be a device to make dirty projects look pretty.
At Devprayag in the Garhwal Himalaya, the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi slam into each other and become the Ganga. Once, both were mighty. The Bhagirathi's waters poured at nearly 29000 litres *per second*. Today, it is a trickle: just 56 litres per second.