On September 4, Nava Bharat, a Hindi newspaper in Raigarh carried a notice from the Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board. This notice included information regarding a public hearing for the second phase (2x250 MW) of the 1000 MW thermal power plant at Tamnar village, in Raigarh district. The project is proposed by M/s Jindal Power Limited (JPL), and the public hearing is to be held on 7th October 2005. This notice created a flurry among those who are grappling with the speed with which JPL and its allied companies are being granted clearances by the Ministry of Environment and Forests for a range of activities including sponge iron production, mining, and thermal power generation.

Moreover this comes at a time when there is a plethora of irregularities with the clearances of the first phase of the Thermal Power Plant. To understand this, we should look back at the events surrounding the first phase of this project.

The first phase

In September 1997, JPL was granted clearance for a 2x275 MW coal-based thermal power project, as stage 1 of a 1000 MW plant at Tamnar. Among other conditions the environment clearance letter (in point #2iv) says, "the requirement of water for the project will be met by constructing a 18 mt. high dam across Kurkut river involving a cost of around Rs. 48 crores. The forest area coming under submergence shall be identified and a separate clearance under Forest (Conservation) Act shall be obtained by the project authorities prior to commissioning work on the project". Clearly this meant that JPL would require separate clearance from the forest authorities before starting any construction activity either at the Thermal Power site or at the dam site.

JPL's Tamnar power plant site in Raigarh district. (Picture credit: National Centre for Advocacy Studies)

JPL received an 'In-Principle Forest Clearance' for the diversion of the forest land in December 2004, and final clearance in August 2005. Thus, as of today, JPL supposedly has both the environment and forest clearance in place for the first phase of the project and is now going ahead with seeking clearance for its second phase. But that's not the whole story; there's a snag.

As per the Environment Impact Assessment notification, clearance was granted for a period of five years. The notification clearly states, "the clearance shall be valid for a period of five years for the commencement of construction or operation of the project." Therefore, technically the environmental clearance received by JPL for the first phase expired in September 2002. Moreover, the forest clearance was granted three years after the expiry of the environmental clearance, which is itself a violation, since the former could only be given conditional upon the latter valid.

Second, did JPL seek a fresh clearance for phase I, after September 2002 when the environmental clearance expired? Any extension of this clearance would have required a fresh clearance process to be undertaken including a public hearing and preparation of another Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report. This was clearly not done. The proof of this can be found on the first page of the executive summary (commissioned by JPL) for the second phase of the thermal power project, for which the latest public hearing is being held. The summary states,

"JPL planned to install 1000 MW thermal power station (MOU has already been signed to this effect with Chhattisgarh Govt.) at Tamnar village. During the procedures of obtaining EC for the Phase I of TPS, it appeared from the input from bidders/suppliers that 2x275 MW plant would be economical than 2x250 MW plant, hence the EC from MoEF as well as NOC from SPCB was taken for 2x275 MW plant in phase I. Later JSPL recognised that it would be advisable to go for 2x250 MW during Phase II. Keeping in view that the Phase I has not yet been installed and also that it would be advisable to go for all the four units of two phases of the same size, it has been now decided that JPL will go for 2x250 in phase I & II. Accordingly MoEF vide para 3 of their letter No.J-13011/15/2003 IA II (T) dt 24/06/2005 has modified the earlier issued clearance letter as follows".... the figures of 2x275 mentioned as para 2 of the environment clearance letter of Sept 24, 1997 may be read as 2x250 MW"

That is, in June 2005, the Ministry was clarifying that the permission it had granted should be understood with minor modifications even though the permission itself had expired! And on this basis, the company was proceeding with its plans. When granting its no-objection to the revision of the numbers, did the Ministry of Environment not see that the clearance had expired? Or did it choose not to?

No faith in New Delhi

Meanwhile, despite these irregularities, JPL has begun construction at both the Tamnar site, as well as the site of the dam at Rabo village, in complete violation of both the environment and forest clearance procedures. In October 2004 (at that time even the In-Principle Forest Clearance had not been obtained), JPL also felled trees and dumped truckloads of mud in the Kurkut River, in order to divert the river for building of the reservoir that would provide water to the thermal power plant. This construction activity near Rabo village was strongly opposed by the local villagers. They sent several written appeals to the District Collector and other concerned officials. The diversion was stopped, but only after intervention by the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh, vide his letter No. 11529 dated 2.11.2004. At the Tamnar site, on the other hand, construction is continuing.

In June 2005, the Ministry clarified that the permission it had granted earlier should be understood with minor modifications even though the permission itself had expired!

 •  1997 clearance (1.3 Mb, PDF)
 •  Forest clearance (64 Kb, PDF)

 •  When 'good' practices turn ugly
 •  Weakening the clearance process
 •  An impacted assessment process
 •  NEAA rejecting appeals coldly
 •  Steelmaker skirting the law?
 •  Expert committees under the lens
 •  The half-life of justice

The local villagers as well as civil society organizations were not aware of the environmental clearance irregularities until much later. Their earlier objections were essentially on the grounds of the impact of the proposed project on people's livelihoods and the environment. When they realized the irregularities (which were an additional reason to oppose the company's plans) the sarpanch of the gram panchayat of Rabo, Bhikam Prasad, on 1st August 2005 sent a letter to the Divisional Forest Officer of Raigarh Forest Division, drawing attention to the fact that the Forest (Conservation) Act has been violated by JPL.

On 16th September 2005, Ramesh Agrawal from Jan Chetana, a civil society organisation at Raigarh, and Rajesh Tripathi, acting on behalf of the project-affected people, sent a letter to R. Chandramohan, a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Their letter presented the range of violations listed here. Copies of the letter have also been sent to the Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board and the Expert Committee for Thermal Power Projects constituted by MoEF. The Ministry has not responded, but there are no plans to postpone of the 7th October public hearing for the second phase of the Tamnar Power plant. Everyone is left wondering on what grounds JPL is asking for environment clearance for the second phase of the project, when clearance for the first phase clearance has long since expired.

For the MoEF, this is yet another blemish on its already long record of poor regulation (see links in box). In one project after another, it has been observed that Ministry officials are either unable to perform their roles as regulators, or unwilling. This latest project is a reminder of the problems that the environment clearance process in India is presently ridden with. The impact assessment report should be available to the public at five designated places, and these should be listed in the notification itself. Predictably, such a list is not contained. Personal meetings with concerned officials have also not been fruitful, and the assessment can only be obtained through back channels, even though it is purportedly public information!

Given the Ministry's poor record in regulating large projects and protecting the public interest, could this latest plan from JPL too go forward, notwithstanding its irregularities? The answer to that question will be known in the coming weeks. Judgement on the MoEF's own performance, however, is by now cast in stone, and the JPL saga is simply the most recent of the Ministry's many failures.