The brazen manner in which the Union minister for environment and forests, Veerappa Moily, has cleared over 70 projects in a matter of 20-odd days has come in for flak even from international organisations.
Amnesty International India on Wednesday asserted that recent changes to India’s environmental clearance procedures are likely to undermine the human rights of communities affected by mining projects. Greenpeace India, on the other hand, has demanded Moily's resignation (as environment minister) since there is a conflict of interest in his holding dual charge of MoEF even while being the minister for petroleum and natural gas.
Only last week, the MoEF had said that existing coal mines of a certain size would not need to conduct public hearings – the only existing formal means of consultation - with project-affected communities before expanding their capacity by up to 50 per cent. Earlier, the ministry had said that public hearings and environmental impact assessments would not be mandatory for brick earth and river sand mining projects of a certain size.
In the three weeks that Moily has been in charge of MoEF, the ministry has reportedly approved over 70 corporate-led projects. These include the revalidation of the environmental clearance granted to a steel plant proposed by South Korean steel giant POSCO in Odisha, which has been opposed for over seven years by local communities and activists.
“The government has a duty to protect and respect people’s rights to participate in decisions that affect them. Public hearings themselves are sometimes rigged in favour of project developers and may not lead to genuine consultation. But the government should be strengthening these mechanisms for participation, not eroding them further,” said Shashikumar Velath, programmes director at Amnesty International India.
The ministry has been undermining itself. In 2009, the MoEF made public hearings mandatory for all development projects seeking to expand their capacity, even if they had already conducted public hearings for their original project plans. But in 2012, the ministry did away with the requirement for public hearings for coal mines seeking to expand capacity by up to 25 per cent.
“In its tearing hurry to approve projects, the government must not ignore its obligations to respect and protect the rights of those affected by these activities,” said Shashikumar. “There can be no real development if people’s human rights are not respected.”
Greenpeace India executive director Samit Aich, in an open letter to Moily, said, "With so many years of experience behind you, it is surprising that the impropriety of your decisions, particularly its timing does not strike you as odd. Every project proposal that goes for environmental clearance has several stake holders – there are the corporates, environmental groups, and people living in the affected areas. The law requires equal opportunity to all stake holders when a project is cleared. You have given speedy clearances by ignoring all the stakeholders, except the corporates."
Aich wrote, "The very idea behind existence of the ministry (oEF) is not to give `speedy’ clearance to projects but to safeguard the environment and wildlife. We are deeply distressed at the casual way the ministry has dealt with important environmental concerns around the projects that had been held back due to close scrutiny by your predecessor, Jayanthi Natarajan."