On 8th April, 2005, over sixty non-government organizations and individuals sent an Open Letter to Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Their concern, "Why are the Expert Committees of Ministry of Environment and Forests dominated by ex-bureaucrats, politicians and engineers?" This statement emerged out a growing unease with the completely lopsided composition of a set of committees which the central government consults before deciding on environmental clearance for industries and other development projects.
As part of the present regulations (laid out under the Environment Impact Assessment Notification (EIA), 1994), the Ministry of Environment and Forests 'if deemed necessary' can consult a committee of experts. Thereby, relevant documents including project reports, Environment Impact Assessments and so on are assessed by one of the seven Expert Committees (ECs) depending on which category they fall under. These include, Industrial projects, Thermal projects, River Valley and Hydroelectric projects, Mining projects, Nuclear Projects, Infrastructure and Miscellaneous projects and New Construction Projects and Industrial Estates.
(See Ministry committees page)
It is important to mention at this stage that in the original EIA notification of January 1994, the MoEF had to consult the expert committees mandatorily. Just a few months after, in the first amendment to the notification in May 1994, the Ministry altered this mandatory clause. Consultation was made to be required only if necessary. Still, committees continually look into the clearance of projects. The committees recommend or reject the grant of environmental clearance. They also put together sets of conditions based on which an environmental clearance is granted. These might be related to pollution loads or restrictions on muck dumping and so on. The expert committees also recommend ways by which environmental and social impacts of the projects could be mitigated by project developers, to the maximum extent possible.
When 'good practices' turn ugly
Weakening the enviro-clearance process
The expert committees must be balanced to keep social and ecological aspects foremost in their mind in order that stark compromises are avoided in the name of 'developmental' goals. The reality of course, is far from this. Projects are being cleared amidst severe and unaddressed objections, and also based on incomplete, incorrect and inadequate EIAs. The expert committees are a party to it all.
Research on the composition of six of these committees in November 2004, presented some shocking facts: One, there are only two wildlife experts. The law requires a flora/fauna expert in each committee. Nearly half the members are from government or government affiliated agencies. How independent would these members' decisions be if project proponents themselves are also government agencies? Two, there are no representatives of indigenous/adivasi/local communities, even though the projects being considered mostly affect such communities. Three, nearly two-thirds of the members are based in Delhi/Noida and Tamilnadu (mostly Chennai). Is all of India's environmental expertise located only in these two places? Finally, there are only three or four women members, one of them being a MoEF official.
(Schedule-iii of the EIA notification)
1. The Committees will consist of experts in the following disciplines:
(i) Eco-system Management
(ii) Air/Water Pollution Control
(iii) Water Resource Management
(iv) Flora/Fauna conservation and management
(v) Land Use Planning
(vi) Social Sciences/Rehabilitation
(vii) Project Appraisal
(ix) Environmental Health
(x) Subject Area Specialists
(xi) Representatives of NGOs/persons concerned with environmental issues.
2. The Chairman will be an outstanding and experienced ecologist or environmentalist or technical professional with wide managerial experience in the relevant development sector.
3. The representative of Impact Assessment Agency will act as a Member-Secretary.
4. Chairman and Members will serve in their individual capacities except those specifically nominated as representatives.
5. The Membership of a Committee shall not exceed 15.
The Open Letter presented these and several other points in detail.
One of the facts it highlighted is that there is no committee that has been constituted for the Nuclear Power projects. This is despite the fact that website of the MoEF lists this as one of the expert committees. All the weblink link displays is "there is no composition to show"! This implies that nuclear power and related projects listed in Schedule I of the EIA notification are being granted environmental clearance without any 'expert advice'.
Another significant point that the open letter highlights is related to the field of expertise of chairperson of these committees. Although, each Expert Committee has varying number of members, there is one Chairman and one Member Secretary, who is a MoEF official.
According to the EIA notification, the Chairman of these committees should be an outstanding and experienced ecologist or environmentalist or technical professional with wide managerial experience in the relevant development sector. None of the chairpersons are from or closely related to the field of environment. All present Chairmen are ex-Secretaries of government departments or ministries. In some cases they have been secretaries of departments or ministries that are proposing the projects coming to their committee. E.g. Dr M.Chitale, who was the Chairman of Environmental Assessment committee for River Valley Projects, till recently served in the Central Water Commission and Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR). Many of the projects that came to his committee for clearance were envisaged by the CWC and supported by the MoWR.
The analysis presents similar concerns vis a vis lack of environmental expertise; technological bias; affiliations of members to agencies and institution (nearly half of them having government affiliation); No available guidelines on what should be minimum qualification (educational or experiential) of an expert; No conditions for dissolution of committees and so on.
Further, three out of five committees have individuals who are listed by their name and residential addresses only. Out of these three individuals are office bearers of the Dravida Munnetra Karagam (DMK), which happens to be the political party to which the present and previous Ministers of Environment and Forests belong.
How can one expect unbiased and independent advice being given by such committees to the MoEF? Yet, it is these very committees that have sat upon in decision to projects such as the Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project, Siang Middle Siang (Siyom) Hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh; Chamera III in Himachal Pradesh, Lohari Nag Pala and Tapovan Vishnugad Hydroelectric projects in Uttaranchal; Athirappilly Hydroelectric Project, Kerala, Civil Society organizations have from the very beginning been highlighting facts and apprehensions on each of these projects, and the severe social and environmental impacts that they would have. But, despite that the expertise of these committees led all these and many more projects to be cleared.
In its conclusion the open letter made a strong remark on the expert committees calling them, "toothless bodies that recommend project clearance no matter how blatantly false the information provided by the project authority, or no matter how high the environmental damage to be caused."
The letter also urged the MoEF to dissolve the committees, and reconstitute them with wide representation from experts reputed in environmental and socio-economic fields. It asked the Ministry to make the process of selection of these committees open and transparent, providing a full list of the expertise/experience of each nominated member. Further, the signatories asked the Ministry to make all the minutes of committee meetings open to public scrutiny within a week of a meeting, so that it is known whether the recommendations are made on the basis of sound science, information, and criteria of ecological and socio-economic sustainability. This will also make committee members accountable for the recommendations they give to the MoEF, the signatories feel.
The signatories have asked for a system whereby representatives of concerned communities and individuals and civil society organizations can make presentations and directly discuss grievances with the expert committees. Currently this is not possible. There is a provision for committees to under take site visits and interact with people. Still, the Ministry's website does report from time to time that one of its committees has sought clarifications from project proponent. Very rarely has a committee sought (it is not known whether a committee has ever) clarifications from impacted communities or civil society groups.
Unless the Ministry of Environment responds with reform, current expert committees with their flawed and biased composition will continue to clear projects and activities that have deep, if not permanent impacts on the countrys ecological and livelihood security.