Special Economic Zones are listed in clause 7(c) in the schedule of industries requiring environment clearance, as per the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of 2006. As per this requirement, prior to the start of any construction, SEZs need to prepare an EIA report, which will then be placed before locals and others for public consultation. Only thereafter can environmental clearance be given. There is no ambiguity in the rules - when a public consultation is not held, there can be no question of awarding environmental clearance to the proposed project.

Applications for environmental clearnances in the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) are appraised by Expert Appraisal Committees (EACs). The EAC for Infrastructure Development, Coastal Regulation Zone and Miscellaneous projects, which appraises SEZs, held a meeting on 23 and 24 April, 2009. At this meeting, the EAC granted an exemption from holding public hearings for the Development of Multi Product SEZ (MSEZ I & MSEZ II) at Mundra, Gujarat by M/s. Mundra Port & Special Economic Zone Ltd.

As per the minutes of this meeting, the project involves development of multi product SEZ on a plot area of 18,000 hectares, of which 5,920 hectares is presently notified under Special Economic Zone (SEZ). The multi-product SEZ is to provide plots to various industries and also develop dwelling units, hotels, shopping malls and other related amenities and utilities.

The minutes of the EAC meeting show that the committee acknowledges the fact that the SEZ falls within the purview of the EIA notification, as item 7(c), and therefore a public hearing is needed. Nonetheless, the Committee recommended to "exempt the Public Hearing based on the details submitted. However, the projects that come within the SEZ, in future, shall undergo the procedure as per the EIA Notification." This appears to say that the SEZ itself can be established without a public consultation, and only the individual projects that come up within the zone need to be scrutinised later.

Why was this exemption given? The EAC does not say. (The minutes are available for anyone's scrutiny; see the second entry of this page.) However, it is certainly against the grain of carrying out impact assessments. Manshi Asher, who has been studying social and environmental impacts for the last four years, says, "SEZs have huge implications on ecosystems and the livelihoods they support. Setting up a multi-purpose SEZ on 18,000 hectares of ecologically sensitive coastal landscape will have a strong bearing on fishing and grazing-related livelihoods, as well as the biodiversity of the area. In such an instance, a public hearing to ascertain local people's response to the project impacts is an absolute must, and the current EIA regime mandates it."

Whatever its reasons, since the EAC did not record the qualifications for the exemption, I sought an explanation from MoEF under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

The EAC does not say why this exemption was given. However, it is certainly against the grain of carrying out impact assessments.

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The Ministry's response is even more odd - its reply dated 30 July 2009 completely denies that any such exemption from holding a Public Consultation has been given to any SEZ project. The letter is signed by Bharat Bhushan, Director, MoEF, who is also the member secretary to the EAC which recommeded the exemption to the multi-purpose SEZ in April 2009 (see his name listed at the end of the minutes from the EAC meeting, linked above). Thus, within two months of recommending that the Mundra project be exempted from holding a public hearing, the presiding officer responds to a Right to Information application, completely denying that any such exemption has been given.

The Machhimar Adhikar Sangharsh Samiti (MASS) based in Bhadreshwar, Kutch has brought this discrepancy to the attention of the MoEF through a letter dated 6 August 2009. They are yet to receive a reply. Meanwhile, Nalini Bhat, Advisor in the MoEF, indicated to me that the exemption recommended by the EAC may not be final.

One certainly hopes so. As Asher notes, "such exemptions set bad precedents for future clearances of other SEZs and projects that require nvironment clearances." SEZs continue to be cleared or designated within a market frame which sees them as economic growth engines for the next generation. But given their wide, negative impacts, we cannot afford innovative interpretations by those in power, amounting to a green light for infrastructure projects at all costs.