Rubber stamp authority

by Ashutosh Mishra, Nidhi Jamwal, Sujit Kumar Singh, Aparna Pallavi and Ruhi Kandhari

Chhattisgarh announced a proposed investment of more than Rs 1,77,000 crore in the state. Until October 2008, it had signed over a hundred MOUs with companies like Jindals, Tata Steel and Essar. After a couple of months of this announcement, a bureaucrat heading the state environment regulatory body resigned.

“Development is the preferred option, provided the carrying capacity is available. There cannot be a trade-off at the cost of the health and livelihoods of the silent majority,” wrote Sardar Amreet Prakash Singh, former chairperson of the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (state EIA authority).

The state EIA authority was formed under the 2006 EIA notification. The Union environment ministry also asked states to constitute a state expert appraisal committee, which would provide technical support to the state EIA authority to grant or reject environment clearances to projects. But Singh’s relations with both the expert committee and the Centre were strained. In a series of letters to the expert committee, Singh pointed how it continued to recommend clearances to industries in the highly polluting Siltara industrial belt, near Raipur, despite the state EIA authority’s decision to disallow polluting industrial activity there.

During his tenure as the chairperson, he had decided to not allow any more polluting industrial units in Siltara where air pollution levels are critical. A 2005 sample study by the Central Pollution Control Board rated the suspended particulate matter (SPM) in two residential areas in Raipur district critical at 317 and 259 microgrammes per cubic metre. For residential areas, the acceptable SPM limit is 200 microgrammes per cubic metre. The study also found that against the acceptable limit of 100 microgrammes per cubic metre, the RSPM (respirable suspended particulate matter) levels in the two residential areas were 207 and 166 microgrammes per cubic metre.

Industrialization in the state hasn’t stopped. Since 2005, the environment ministry has cleared 18 thermal power projects, with capacity to generate over 9,000 MW, and given the terms of reference to conduct EIAs to 48 projects with 37,000 MW generation capacity. Besides, 52 industrial units have been cleared and 57 others handed the terms of reference. Given the statistics, Singh aimed at collecting data on pollution levels in three cities—Raipur, Korba and Raigarh—and study pollution’s impact on the health of the people. His idea was to restrict further flow of polluting industries there. He, however, met with surprising disagreement with the environment ministry.

P L Ahujarai, director at the environment ministry, wrote to Singh that though the carrying capacity study was desirable, his condition of deferring projects till such study was done could not be fulfilled. At the most the state EIA authority or the expert committee or the state pollution control board could impose conditions for environment protection and management, Ahujarai said.

On health, he added, “the aspects related to pollution are important but at present there is no data on this subject to correlate with and draw conclusive decisions.”

He conveyed it to the Chhattisgarh state EIA authority that it might consider projects for environmental clearance on the recommendation of the expert committee, while taking into account possible safety measures.

A member of the expert committee, on the condition of anonymity, said a few of the committee’s members had tried to discourage new industries in the polluted Siltara belt but were left with no choice. “We eventually had to send positive recommendations to the state EIA authority,” he said. On being pointed out about the Central Pollution Control Board’s sample study, he said that was not enough. “To stop industries in an area the environment ministry has to notify the area as critically polluted. That gives it legal validity,” he added.

A former official of Chhattisgarh state EIA authority, who also did not want to be named, said the ministry had entrusted the two state agencies with the job of removing obstacles and facilitating speedy construction of power plants and industries, instead of protecting health and life. Vishwanath Anand, former secretary of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, added that the ministry brought out the 2006 notification because it could not handle the flow of applications seeking environmental clearance.

But clearances have been handed over to state bodies without ensuring a system of checks and counter checks, said Ritiwick Dutta, activist lawyer in Delhi. “This is specially crucial because in many instances the state government is directly involved in seeking new investment. The system of state agencies was designed to fail,” he added.

There is also very little motivation for the state EIA authority members, a former official of Chhattisgarh state EIA authority said. Meetings last a day and are usually held once a month for which the members are paid Rs 1,500. “The authorities, of course, expect us to clear projects for this money. One would not invest time in scrutinizing technicalities of EIAs for a month for this amount,” he said.

Dependence of the two state bodies on state governments does not help either. “They are at the mercy of state governments even for basic logistical support, including accommodation, transportation and office space. Most of them are housed in state pollution control board buildings,” Dutta said.

Absence of guidelines on, say project categorization, from the Centre also causes much confusion and corruption.

The Chhattisgarh expert committee has not set any set criteria for categorizing projects as B1 or B2. A P Rajimwala, member of the state expert committee, said though they had evolved some criteria on categorization, applying them was not easy. He refused to divulge the criteria, which depends on the nature and location of a project.

So far, there has been no case of clearance being revoked. “All projects are granted clearance. Have you heard of any project getting rejected because of the results of EIA study?” asked Shyam Asolekar, professor at Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering at IIT-Mumbai. “No industry ever gets penalized for not meeting the commitments set while giving clearance. Post clearance, there is little assessment,” he said.

As far as the environment ministry is concerned all projects must consult the public and submit EIA reports. “Under the EIA notification, the ministry is required to lay down guidelines on deciding whether a project is B1 or B2, but unfortunately we have not been able to decide the parameters,” a ministry spokesperson said. “We were hoping that once the state authorities are functioning we could use their expertise to finalize parameters but that has not happened. There is no sub-division into B1 and B2. So these projects have to follow the requirements for category B and this includes EIA report and public hearing,” he added. Does that mean the projects categorized as B2 become invalidated?

The 2006 EIA notification has no provision for deemed clearances. It only provides for deemed terms of reference for preparing the EIA— if the expert committee does not give a project developer the terms of reference for EIA within a stipulated period, the developer goes on to prepare an EIA on its own terms. But project developers in Chhattisgarh take advantage of “deemed clearances” without the knowledge of expert committee members. For example, a company in Raigarh considered it got a deemed clearance and applied for air and water consent.

When Down To Earth questioned an expert committee member how the developer could do so, he had no idea that the company, M/s Xangti Enterprise, had used the non-existent deemed clearance clause.

The fallout of industrialization over the past decade in mineral-rich districts such as Raipur and Raigarh are thick black smoke, contaminated and depleted water supply and hundreds of people with skin and respiratory diseases.

People residing in or around the industrial belts of Urla, Siltara, Borjhara and Dharsiwan, home to 46 sponge iron units and power plants, face critical levels of pollution. Dilendra Banchor, a resident of Sondra village in Raipur, suffers from a skin problem, which has turned his knuckles black, along with chronic asthma.

“Every third person in our village suffers from skin ailments and asthma. The industries, chiefly the sponge iron units, have not only polluted the air but also surface and groundwater. They dump their waste indiscriminately, which spoils our farms,” said Banchor adding that even local panchayats are not consulted by the industries before dumping the waste.

A doctor in Taraimal village in Raigarh said he got at least 150 cases of dermatitis, eczema, bronchitis and asthma every month. Nivedita Lakra, medical officer at the Dharsiwan community health centre in Raipur, said she got at least 50 cases of dermatitis and an equally high number of asthma and bronchitis cases per month. “We also come across suspected TB cases. These diseases reduce immunity, making a person vulnerable to other ailments,” she added.

In 2006, BJP MLA from Dharsiwan Devji Bhai Patel carried out ambient air quality tests of certain places in the Siltara belt with Scintilla Analytical Laboratories in Nagpur in 2006. Some of the villages recorded as high levels of air pollution as what people of Delhi face only on the day of Diwali.

Against the permissible limit of 200 microgramme per metre cube for SPM noted by the Central Pollution Control Board, it was 905 at Mundrethi village, 1,117 at Tanda and 1,795 at Siltara village. Delhi recorded its highest SPM level of 976 microgram per metre cube this year on Diwali. “We got a study of the pollution levels done, but nothing carries weight with the state EIA authority or the expert committee or the state pollution control board,” said Patel. “The bodies only believe in giving industries the go-ahead,” he added.

The Chhattisgarh Environment Control Board has asked the National Environment Engineering Research Institute in Nagpur to study environment-related aspects including monitoring and identifying air pollutants industries discharge within 142 sq km area of Raipur. This includes the industrial areas of Siltara, Urla and Borjhara. The results are awaited. 
CSE/Down To Earth Feature Service
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