New Delhi, October 13, 2011: Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has expressed its strong disagreement with some of the contents of an ‘open letter to leaders’, written recently by India’s top industrialists. In a response to the open letter, CSE’s director general Sunita Narain has refuted the industry leaders’ contention that environmental clearances are delaying projects and hampering growth.
She has also contested the data on which these industrialists have based their position, and has protested the solution they advocate: open auction of natural resources.
The ‘open letter’, which was primarily focused on the issue of corruption in public life, was signed by the likes of Azim Premji, Jamshyd N Godrej, Deepak Parekh and Anu Aga. Says Narain: “We contest the letter’s suggestions on environmental clearances on the basis of our recent analysis of data on forest and environmental clearances granted in the past five years. The assessment shows that the pace and scale of environment and forest clearances have been unprecedented.”
Massive scale of clearances
Between 2007 and August 2011, 8,284 projects were granted forest clearance and 2,03,576 hectare (ha) of forest land was diverted.
This diversion is about 25 per cent of all forest land diverted for development projects since 1981. The pace of forest land diversion, therefore, doubled in the last five years.
In one single year – 2009 – as much as 87,883.67 ha of forest land was granted clearance.
A large proportion of this forest land (50,000 ha) has been diverted for mining and power projects. The maximum amount of forest land diverted for mining in any single year happened in 2010 – about 14,500 ha.
Coal mining accounted for more than half of all the forest land diverted for mining. As many as 113 coal mining projects were granted forest clearance -- the highest number cleared in any five year plan since 1981.
181 coal mines, 200 coal-based thermal power plants, 188 steel plants and 106 cement units have been accorded clearance. This enormous splurge has led to a doubling of capacity in almost all sectors, though the capacity remains unutilized.
Huge capacity generated, but little utilisation
The 11th Five Year Plan projects a target of 50,000 megawatt (MW) of additional thermal power capacity; the 12th plan asks for 100,000 MW. In the past five years, till August 2011, the Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has granted environmental clearance to an astounding 210,000 MW of thermal power capacity -- 60,000 MW more than what has been proposed till 2017. Worse, the capacity actually added in this period is a mere 32,394 MW.
Coal India Limited (CIL) produces over 90 per cent of India’s coal; it has under its control over 200,000 ha of mine lease, including 55,000 ha of forest area. The estimated coal reserves with CIL are 64 billion tonnes, and the company produces 500 million tonnes per annum. Who is then responsible for the shortage of coal in the country, asks Chandra Bhushan, CSE’s deputy director general.
Adds Narain: “We would like to ask why, if there is so much capacity, cleared but not utilised, are companies asking for more clearances? Is this because they are valuing the land and water, and if we may say, asking for the license to pollute?”
Cumulative impact on environment and people ignored
The ministry of environment does not assess the cumulative impacts of the projects on water, forests, air or the health of the people. For instance, all the coal-mining areas are heavily polluted, and most coal mining companies have very poor environment management record -- many of these places fall under the category of critically polluted areas. Monitoring by pollution control authorities shows about one-third of operating coal mines are violating all environmental norms.
It is the same story in the case of coal-based thermal power projects. Of the top 10 districts where environmental clearance has been granted to these projects, six have been declared as already critically polluted.
In the light of this data, CSE researchers say, it is clear that environment is not impeding growth. Chandra Bhushan points out: “In fact, what should worry us is the toxic fallout of this development as clearances have been granted without due diligence of impacts or regulatory systems to monitor compliance.”
Says Narain in the response to the ‘open letter’: “We believe what is needed is to strengthen, not further decimate the system of environmental regulations in the country. We suggest a reform agenda which includes more transparency in project clearances and also much more scrutiny in assessment and monitoring. This we believe will go a long way to protect both the environment and the growth of responsible industry.”