Gatekeepers with baggage

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MoEFOn 5 August, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoFE) reconstituted the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) that examines major irrigation, dam, hydel and river valley projects. Former coal secretary Alok Perti was selected to head the panel. This is the same person who pressured the MoFE last year for prompt clearances to coal projects and was quoted by the media saying, “India has to decide whether she wants electricity or tigers.” But Perti is not a surprise choice for an EAC chairman.

His predecessor, Rakesh Nath, headed the Indian chapter of the International Commission on Large Dams, a rabidly pro-large dam lobby, while serving as the EAC chairman. Nath’s predecessor, former power secretary P Abraham, had delinked the green clearance of the Demwe hydel projects from the cumulative impact study of all the projects coming up on Arunachal’s Lohit river. He had to resign when it was pointed out that he was a director on the board of PTC India Ltd, one of the project’s co-promoters.

Before Abraham, chairman MA Chitale brought to the EAC his long experience in building dams and irrigation canals as the water resources secretary and Central Water Commission chairman. Then there was PG Sastry, a civil engineer, who, after completing his term as the EAC chairman, helped the Sikkim government push its dam projects. Like all these men who had no green credentials or understanding, Perti has been conditioned only to push big projects.

In 2004, NGO Kalpavriksh studied the composition of six EACs. It found that only two out of 64 members were wildlife experts, nearly half the members were from government or government-affiliated agencies and not one member was from a tribal community. Nothing has changed in terms of undermining expertise, independence and democratic representation.

Given the hydel rush in the Himalayan states and the lessons learnt in Sikkim and Uttarakhand, the absence of a single independent member with environmental credentials in the present EAC on dams and river projects is particularly worrisome. But the role of other EACs constituted by the two UPA governments on mining, thermal power, industries, etc also needs scrutiny because among them they surrendered nearly 4 lakh hectares of forestland since 2004, while the first 24 years of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, recorded a total diversion of 5 lakh hectares for development purposes.

What allows the MoFE to compromise gatekeeping is its current rules that say “the chairperson (of EACs) shall be an outstanding and experienced environmental policy expert or expert in management or public administration with wide experience in the relevant development sector”. There is nothing on conflict of interest and any convenient bureaucrat fits the bill.

Unsurprisingly, a ‘conflicted’ Abraham was not the ministry’s only embarrassment. In 2009, the Delhi High Court pointed out that “appointing a person who has a direct interest in the promotion of the mining industry as chairperson of the EAC (mines) is… an unhealthy practice that will rob the EAC of its credibility since there is a direct and obvious conflict of interest”. The man in question, ML Majumdar, served as a director in four mining companies.

In 2011, a frustrated DC Goswami of the Guwahati University resigned from the EAC on dam and river projects, citing lack of transparency in the assessment process. But such lessons have not deterred the MoFE from picking Perti to give the UPA’s growth story a desperate push in its last lap. “Is expertise found only outside the government? There is only one Chair in an EAC. Will it be fair to pick an activist or expert who has opposed every dam and mine all his life?” argued an unapologetic MoFE functionary. Of course, the green ministry can pack its EACs with growth lobbyists as long as it includes environmental experts in equal numbers and appoints retired Supreme Court judges as chairpersons to ensure informed, democratic and fair assessments. For now, the MoFE wants us to believe that asked to guard the sheep, wolves lose appetite.

jaymazoomdaar@gmail.com

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