An official study that was meant to look at the way environmental clearances in Karnataka were given out in the last 10 years has turned out to be a virtual indictment of the entire process itself. There is not a single project which has got the top two grades in the rankings that were compiled by the Environmental Management and Policy Research Institute (EMPRI), an autonomous body established by the state government.
The damning study, which was conducted by EMPRI researchers and three independent consultants, has been given a quiet burial. The decision to hold back the findings was taken at a governing body meeting of EMPRI on April 2.
The EMPRI co-chairman and secretary to the ecology and environment department, Ramachandra, said at the meeting that since the State Environment Clearance Committee (SECC) had been discontinued, the study had lost its relevance. He suggested at the meeting, a copy of the minutes of which are in possession of this correspondent, that only a limited copies of the report may be printed and used for academic purposes.
It is, however, not the SECC itself, but the findings of the EMPRI team that is glaring. The researchers found innumerable counts of environmental violations, and loopholes in the SECC system. SECC documentation was either sketchy or not available at all. Had the government published the report, it would have been a sort of admission that environmental clearances accorded in the last 10 years had been deeply flawed.
The study in question had been commissioned by the department of forest, ecology and environment (DFEE) on March 13, 2013. Among other things, the EMPRI was supposed to assess whether the SECC could make cumulative impact assessments, and also look at the impact/outcomes of the SECC approvals, especially those given in the past 10 years.
After submission of a number of drafts, the final report was submitted to the government in February. The state acted quietly in the meantime, and wrapped by the SECC through an official order on February 7, 2014. The order had asserted that the committee was no longer needed in view of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification of 2006. The DFEE head, Madan Gopal M, said last week that this had been done since the SECC itself had no legal standing. What he did not elaborate on was why it took the Karnataka government eight years to realise that there would be no need of the SECC in view of the EIA notification that was issued by the Centre way back in 2006.
They had to file RTIs for info
The study, 'Addressing gaps in environmental decisionmaking in Karnataka' had been undertaken at the directive of the state department of forest, ecology and environment (DFEE). Yet, the study team had to come across innumerable stumbling blocks, primarily because most information was not forthcoming from the DFEE.
To begin with, the team learnt that except for copies of environmental clearances that had already been accorded, the information that formed the basis for according these clearances was not available in the DFEE office. This information had been archived even though all projects were active. The fact that the information supplied by the proponents would be essential in monitoring, regulating and reviewing of compliance criteria and also in decisions relating to renewal of applications, was not addressed. The team was left with no alternative but to gain access to the files through the RTI process.
The government order on the study was issued on March 13, 2013 and the institute was given three months to complete the process. Despite the deadline, the DFEE itself delayed the work. For instance, information for nine of the 47 projects selected for field study were made available only on November 19, several weeks after the conclusion of field studies. Information on 14 more projects was provided on November 16, few days before the submission of the first draft of the report by the consultants to EMPRI.
The study team was hamstrung by the fact that it had to conduct each field visit without any prior information on the project, its location, its impacts, its compliance with clearance conditions, etc. In some cases it was discovered that the projects selected had been shut down or relocated, or even reassigned to a different proponent, information about which was not available beforehand. "At some of the facilities, officials had not received the intimation letters (often due to change of address that was not on official DFEE record). In rare cases, company officials were unwilling to cooperate with the visiting study team. In some sites, the visiting team was not allowed a comprehensive review of the facility," the consultants wrote.
WHY THE SECC WAS NEEDED
Specific project types with environmental and social impacts currently not addressed per the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006 (representative list):
* Small mineral mines (recent judicial intervention has changed the position)
* Sand mining in rivers and lakes (recent intervention by National Green Tribunal has changed the position)
* Ground water extraction for commercial purposes
* Small dyeing units
* Water treatment units
* Small distilleries
* Small foundries
* Garment industries with dying and printing operations
* Apartment complexes not exceeding the threshold conditions
* Commercial buildings such as shopping complexes and malls not exceeding the threshold conditions
* Food processing industries
* Biotech research laboratories
* Biotech experiments in agriculture and health sectors
* Clinics and hospitals
* Road (non–highway) expansion projects
* Metro rail projects
* Lake development projects
* Eco tourism projects - leasing of forest land to private parties, permitting heavy vehicles for wild life safaris, permitting building of lodges, hotels, restaurants, etc. in forest and protected areas.
* Urban beautification projects, for example, cementing of footpaths and open spaces, statue and signage installation, etc.
* Hydro power projects below 25 MW capacity
* Small ports and harbours
* Pharmaceuticals and chemical intermediates of several kinds
* The SECC system was based on a handful of government orders that did not specifically provide for a clearly defined EIA process integrated into decisionmaking procedures that are guided by laws governing environment, forests and land use planning.
* The application form for SECC clearance or the required documentation did not project proponents to provide reasonable alternative actions to adverse environmental impacts.
* The environmental clearance regime under the SECC applied to all Red Category industries (as per KSPCB categorisation) which had an investment of Rs10 crore and above and was not covered by the EIA Notification 2006. Moreover, the high level clearance committee had discretionary powers that needed closer study.
* Information relating to the clearance applications was never made available to the public. Process was non-transparent, secretive and exclusionary. Public hearing is an exceptional event and even in these cases the information was not made freely available.
* Although the application documents and EIA related information theoretically were to influence decisions, in practice this was rare or not happening adequately.
* In addition to DFEE, KSPCB is to monitor compliance with the SECC clearance conditions. However, there were few (if any) specific conditions relating to monitoring in the clearance documents and the practice in terms of the SECC clearance is infrequent .
THE GRADING PROCESS
The EMPRI team arrived at a method to grade the quality of environmental clearances accorded by SECC based on a set of criteria that are universally accepted:
* Detailed geographical location
* Resource consumption
* Production capacity
* Production process details
* Capital investment
* Environmental mitigation measures required
* Compliance requirements
* Duration of clearance and renewal requirements
* Constraints against expansion
* Conditions for withdrawal of environment clearance
The total points each EC got were computed and they were graded as follows:
A: Full provision of information with no gaps or weaknesses (9 or 10 conditions addressed)
B: Good provision of information with only very minor weaknesses which are not of importance to the decision (7 or 8 conditions addressed)
C: Adequate provision of information with any gaps or weaknesses in information not being vital to the decision process (5 or 6 conditions addressed)
D: Weak provision of information with gaps and weaknesses that will hinder the decision process but require only minor work to complete (3 of 4 conditions addressed)
E: Very Poor provision of information with major gaps or weaknesses, which would prevent the decision process proceeding and require major work to complete. (2 or less conditions addressed)
A grade : Nil
B grade : Nil
C grade : 50
D grade : 334
E grade : 49