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The entire process of preparing environment impact assessments has been corrupted

The entire process of preparing environment impact assessments has been corrupted

Inept and dishonest environment impact assessments tip the scales against Nature. Not only are there numerous many instances of faulty environment impact assessments, but the routine manner in which the government clears them is also alarming.

Today, Mastan Aiyya is a content man. The six tonnes of tiger prawns he harvests from his 10-acre aquafarm at Krishnapatnam, Nellore district, on the Andhra Pradesh coast, fetch him Rs 6 lakh a year.

Tomorrow, Aiyya could well see his business, as well as the landscape around him, devastated. One source of his likely doom - and that of Nellore's 5,000-crore aquaculture industry - is already visible on the horizon: the 1,600 MW Sri Damodaram Sanjeevaiah Thermal Power Station being built by the state-owned Andhra Pradesh Power Generation Corporation, or APGENCO. Aiyya can also see coal dumps in the distance. Trade in coal is to be the new-found wealth of Krishnapatnam, about 200 km north of Chennai. The region has a deepwater port designed to handle imports of coal to feed the 24 thermal power plants which are to come up on a narrow strip of land 20 km long.

 Believe it or not
Extracts from some EIAs

From the EIA for Ashapura Minechem's bauxite mining lease in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. Large chunks in the report plagiarised from an EIA for a project in Russia. There are no spruce or birch forests in tropical regions
"The primary habitat near the site... is spruce forests and forests of mixed spruce and birch"

From the EIA of the 3,000 MW Dibang Multipurpose Project, Arunachal Pradesh. In different places it refers to the presence of tigers, Himalayan tahr, rare birds and snakes. Yet it also says:
"No major wildlife is observed"
PROJECT STATUS: Public hearing proposed

From the EIA of Crux Biotech's ethanol plant and power plant in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. Kagna is in Karnataka
"The ethanol plant requires 642 cu.m/day of water… Water requirement... will be met from Kagna River/groundwater"
PROJECT STATUS: Public hearing on September 27

The total capacity of all the plants planned is 27,115 MW, or a little over a quarter of India's current coal-fired power capacity. Each year the plants will need a total of 150 million tonnes, or MT, of coal. Burning this will produce 65 MT of ash, which will be dumped nearby. The air will gain 340 MT of carbon dioxide and 10 MT of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, Cerana Foundation, a Hyderabad think tank on energy, environment and development, has estimated.

The plants have completed the formality of getting clearances from the Ministry of Environment and Forests , or MOEF. So, how did the ministry approve projects that may cause an ecological disaster in Krishnapatnam? It did so on the basis of environment impact assessments, or EIAs, submitted by those proposing the projects.

Therein lies the key: the entire process of preparing EIAs has been corrupted. Again, despite so many power projects coming up at one narrow strip, the government never sought a cumulative assessment of their impact.

Across the country, EIAs are under scrutiny with Jairam Ramesh, one of the most proactive environment ministers the country has had, having rejected quite a few substandard ones during his tenure. Today, Ramesh is in another ministry and his successor at the MOEF, Jayanthi Natarajan, declines to comment on the subject. She has also forbidden her bureaucrats from speaking on any aspect of the issue.

Sagar Dhara, who heads Cerana, was among the first to sound the alarm bells about EIAs. He has prepared a report after getting hold of EIAs for eight of the 24 projects coming up in the Krishnapatnam area. The EIAs were prepared by various accredited agencies, but commissioned by the companies setting up the projects. (Watch: Sagar Dhara sounds alarm bells about EIAs)

Sagar Dhara, Head, Cerana Foundation
Due to high momentum and heat fluxes, power plant air emissions rise high into the upper atmosphere and get carried with winds over large distances, even up to 1,000 km in a day: Sagar Dhara
Sitting amidst piles of documents in his apartment in Hyderabad, Dhara explains the devastating cumulative impact these projects can have. An environmental engineer from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, he worked 15 years for an EIA consultancy before setting up Cerana.

Dhara and his team discovered that first, every agency from the MOEF to the state pollution control board to those which prepared the EIAs ignored the impact of such a massive concentration of coal-fired power plants. Next, he says, the EIAs carried out air quality modelling using models not validated in India. Third, the meteorological details in different EIAs do not match one another or that of the Indian Meteorological Department, or IMD, because the EIA consultants concerned did not check the data they collected against IMD's data. Wind directions shown in some EIA reports are just the opposite of those shown in others. Lastly, neither the regulatory authorities nor the consultants carried out much due diligence. For example, none of the EIAs with Dhara has data on metal composition in the coal that will be used, and in the ash that will be left after the coal is burnt.

What is an EIA?

An Environment Impact Assessment spells out in scientific terms whether a project will have any adverse impact on the environment, and how, if at all, this can be mitigated. The steps:

  • Project proponent selects site, commissions EIA
  • Proponent also applies for no-objection certificate, or NOC
  • State pollution control board arranges public hearing
  • Proponent files for environment clearance, with EIA and NOC
  • Ministry approves the application, rejects it, or suggests changes

Krishnapatnam's air pollutants will affect human health and waterbodies up to a radius of 25 km from the source, crops and monuments to a distance of 80 to 100 km, and forests up to 500 to 1,000 km away, reckons Cerana. "Due to high momentum and heat fluxes, power plant air emissions rise high into the upper atmosphere and get carried with winds over large distances, even up to 1,000 km in a day," says Dhara.

Mastan Aiyya
Grim future: Mastan Aiyya, 62, prawn farmer, could soon lose his livelihood to pollution
For the past two decades, Nellore has been feeding the world's appetite for the 15- to 20-cm-long prawn and American white shrimp that Aiyya and others like him farm. "If the ash ponds are located in the acidic soils of these villages, heavy metals from the ash may leach into groundwater," Dhara says.

Industry's response is far removed. Vijay Anand, CEO of APGENCO, sitting in his office in Hyderabad, is surprised to learn that there are aquafarms bordering his project. Anand says the aquafarms do not come under the APGENCO area. APGENCO, he says, has not faced any local opposition. "We are not foreseeing any problems with the locals at Nelaturu," says Anand. "We are also taking all measures to see that the environment is not affected." Nelaturu is a village in Krishnapatnam.

E.A.S. Sarma, former Union secretary, Department of Economic Affairs
In most cases, the EIA consultants are 'paid' analysts for project developers: E.A.S. Sarma
The Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board, or APPCB, says the law limits its role to arranging and facilitating public hearings before projects start to address local concerns, if any. According to its member secretary, M. Dana Kishore, state PCBs "are not empowered to scrutiny (sic) the EIA reports".

At least 17 people who died in the earthquake in Sikkim on September 18 would not have been in the region at all, if the government had taken the environment-related objections to a project started there more seriously. Many others were at work on the third stage of the state's largest hydroelectric project - a dam on the Teesta river near Chugthang village in north Sikkim, being built by Teesta Urja, a special purpose vehicle in which the Sikkim government, PTC India, the Hyderabadbased Athena Infra Projects and a Singapore company, Asian Genco, are partners.

The EIA for the project, prepared by Wapcos Centre for Environment, Water and Power Consultancy, was passed by the expert appraisal committee, or EAC, of the Forests and Environment Ministry in August 2006. But soon after, Ritwick Dutta and Rahul Choudhary, environment lawyers associated with Legal Initiative for Forest & Environment, or LIFE, a New Delhi non-governmental organisation, that reviews EIAs, filed an appeal with the National Environmental Appellate Authority, or NEAA, against the ministry's decision.

Choudhary maintained that EIA had been completed even before the exact location of the third phase was chosen, that it did not include an environment risk assessment report, and the seismicity of the region had not been given the importance it deserved. The NEAA dismissed the appeal after the company pointed out that the National Committee on Seismic Design Parameters had examined and cleared the project. "That body considered only the design of the project for seismicity, not the project's impact," says Choudhary. He points out that the construction has developed cracks following the earthquake and 40 people were temporarily trapped in an underground tunnel when it occurred.

B.H. Haribabu, Managing Director, Bhagavathi Ana Labs, former Union secretary, Department of Economic Affairs
All EIA reports are prepared as per the Terms of Reference prescribed by MoEF in line with EIA Notification 2006: B.H. Haribabu
It is easy, on a document, to turn a 'wetland' into a 'wasteland', especially when the approving authorities are sitting thousands of miles away. That is what the authors of an EIA for Nagarjuna Construction Co.'s proposed power plant near Sompeta town in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh have done. The ecologically fragile and biodiverse wetland on which Nagarjuna planned the project became a 'wasteland' in the EIA. The MOEF cleared it. But the NEAA rejected the clearance on July 14, 2010. on the ground that it was given in violation of norms. If the power plant is finally cleared, it will generate more than 10,000 tonnes of coal ash daily and destroy the local waterbodies known as "beela".

Thermal power plant of Meenakshi Energy
Thermal power plant of Meenakshi Energy at Krishnapatnam, Nellore district
When BT contacted Vimta Labs, the agency that authored the EIA, its head of environment M. Janardhan said the report for Nagarjuna was prepared in line with the MOEF terms of reference. He said Nagarjuna got the survey of the project site done by the Survey of India, which is authorised to classify the land. "An area of 85.906 acres has been marked as waterlogged. This was referred to in our EIA report on page C3-4 of the third Chapter," Janardhan says. Though such faulty EIAs and processes abound, there is also no shortage of eagle-eyed activists making it their mission to unearth them. Among them are E.A.S. Sarma, a former secretary in the Department of Economic Affairs, Union Ministry of Finance, who has teamed up with K. Babu Rao, a scientist who earlier worked at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology.

While going through the EIAs of some pharma projects, Sarma and Babu Rao made curious discoveries. There were two - one for a project in Srikakulam district by JPR Labs, and the other in Visakhapatnam district by Lohitha Life Sciences - where entire paragraphs were identical. Both reports were prepared by Rightsource Industrial Solutions.

Amazingly, they may not have copied from each other. The same paragraphs have also appeared in an earlier EIA for a sponge iron project. Sarma says the chapter concerned has an important bearing on the future of local people and their livelihood, and should have been worked upon with much more seriousness. Sarma wrote to J.M. Mauskar, Special Secretary to the MOEF, in August this year, seeking an inquiry. He also requested the APPCB not to go ahead with public hearings for these projects. But the administration went ahead with the August 30 public hearing. However, with locals opposing both projects, too, the district administration postponed the September 13 hearing fearing law and order problems.

All animals were once wild, so cows, goats, buffaloes, cats and dogs can be regarded as descended from wild animals, right? That seems to be the reasoning behind the EIA for the 1,200 MW power project of JSW Energy at Jaigad in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. The report lists these domesticated creatures as the "fauna" of the region. The first public hearing for the project scheduled in August 2006 at the Ratnagiri collector's office had to be postponed, since no copy of the EIA had been circulated before the meeting as required.

Salt pans in Krishnapatnam
Such salt pans in Krishnapatnam are shrinking fast
 Riddled with flaws

EIAs focus on attracting investment and thus endorse most projects, instead of weighing the benefits of a project against the environmental costs.
Retired MOEF secretary R. Rajamani says: "The key word is assessment... Clearance is the objective and not the process. That's where the problem is." The evaluation process has been geared to be investment-friendly and "do away with cumbersome environmental and forest clearance procedures". Companies prepare project reports, secure financial closure and then apply for environment clearance. "So the Expert Appraisal Committee, or EAC, is stampeded into giving its clearance," says Rajamani.

Some project proponents even set up their own EIA agencies.
Ramky Power, a unit of Ramky Infrastructure, got the EIAs for some of its proposed power projects done by Ramky Enviro Engineers. B. Chakradhar, Vice President of Ramky Enviro Engineers, says: "There is no conflict of interest if the organisation follows all the guidelines stipulated by the regulatory authorities."

EIAs should be region-specific but are not.

"A bulk drug project in the Western Ghats will have a greater negative environmental impact than the same project being set up in, say, barren Saurashtra," says Vishambhar Choudhari of Oasis Environmental Foundation, Pune, in a paper submitted to the Western Ghat Ecology Expert Panel, MoEF.

Regulating agencies rarely verify site data.
"It is not uncommon for EIA baseline data to be generated elsewhere rather than from the field," says activist Sagar Dhara. EIAs do not actually make an impact assessment, but mostly present pre-project baseline data and postproject air quality predictions. Says D. Stalin of Vanashakti, a Mumbai NGO: "Ecology is the most neglected component… Most EIAs are silent on endangered species, de-greening, migratory birds..."

Environment Ministry's Committee barely evaluates
"The EAC of the Environment Ministry relies on the project proponent for information. Only routine clarification is sought," says Ritwick Dutta, Co-Convernor, ERC.

At the second hearing, locals claim, their representatives were not allowed to speak and the meeting was wound up in 30 minutes. The company secured the environment clearance certificate in May 2007. A petition challenging the clearance was also dismissed by the NEAA. In September 2009, however, the Delhi High Court, acting on a petition filed by farmers, stayed the commissioning of the generating units. The court asked the MOEF to study the effects of the power plant on cultivation and reassess its environmental clearance. But the team commissioned by the ministry endorsed the project: it even concluded that Alphonso mangoes - the pride of the region - were more tolerant of high levels of suphur dioxide than previously believed. The ministry later approved the setting up of the power plant.

JSW Energy's spokesperson says the EIA was submitted before the first public hearing with copies to the state pollution control board. The company then submitted the EIA to the MOEF addressing all the issues discussed at the hearing. "After discussions, the MOEF issued a letter upholding the clearance granted in May 2007, but with certain additional conditions," he says.

B.H. Haribabu, Managing Director of Bhagavathi Ana Labs, a winner of the BT-YES Bank Best SME Award in 2010, defends the EIA consultant fraternity, saying all accredited EIA consultants have to adhere to rules and regulations. "All EIA reports are prepared as per the terms of reference prescribed by MOEF in line with EIA Notification, 2006," he says. The web sites of all the big consultants such as Bhagavathi, Vimta Labs, Ramky Enviro Engineers and GreenC claim they employ experts on air quality, water quality, noise pollution, flora and fauna, biodiversity and environmental engineering.

Not only are there numerous other instances of faulty EIAs, but the routine manner in which the government clears them is also alarming. According to government data, the MOEF cleared most of the 2,746 EIAs filed in the two-year period beginning September 14, 2006, the day a new EIA notification came into force. The data was collected by the EIA Environment Resource and Response Centre, or ERC, an initiative of the New Delhi NGO LIFE, through a Right to Information Act application.

R. Sreedhar, General Secretary of Mines, Minerals and People, another NGO from Visakhapatnam, and part of the ERC, says: "We felt the two years' data would give us a fair idea of how the reforms were actually working. The results were truly illuminating." Of the EIAs that were cleared smoothly, 134 were for thermal power plants. "Only four construction proposals out of 1,073, and 10 of 587 noncoal mining requests were rejected, raising the question of whether the mandate of the MOEF is to protect or destroy the environment," says Sreedhar. The ERC then checked the period from August 1, 2009, to July 31, 2010.

Nothing had changed: of the 769 projects, 535 were approved and only six rejected. The rest were still being looked at. There is big money in the business. An EIA firm can charge anywhere from Rs 5 lakh to over Rs 15 lakh to prepare a report. "EIAs have generated business worth hundreds of crores, but their failure is causing environmental damage many times that value," says Dhara. The numbers of EIA consultants, however, has been shrinking since 2009/10, from nearly 800 to around 100 today. Only 27 have secured full accreditation from Quality Council of India, an apex quality monitoring body.

Although many NGOs have written to the MOEF and even the prime minister's office seeking a better process, the only hint of the government's thinking came earlier this year, when Ramesh was the minister. At a meeting in Hyderabad on June 21, he noted the importance of cumulative impact assessments in sensitive areas. "Unfortunately, our system today looks at each individual project and we do not look at the cumulative environmental impact," he said.

Given the way EIAs are being prepared and processed, India could face an environment disaster. The administration's view of progress comes through clearly in an e-mail reply to questions sent by BT to Nellore's Collector B. Sreedhar. Providing detailed data, he pointed how well Nellore was doing on all economic parameters.

On the need for a cumulative impact assessment in Krishnapatnam, Sreedhar says: "Matter has been addressed to Government/Energy Department on need to get a cumulative EIA study conducted and it is in progress." Aiyya, the prawns farmer, meanwhile, continues to wait.