On 4 August 2005, Rakesh Nath, then the Chairperson of the Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) delivered the Keynote address at a workshop on "Impacts of the Bhakra Nangal Project". The keynote, written jointly with R S Dogra, Deputy Secretary of BBMB, ran into 30 pages, outlining a long list of benefits of the project. It is interesting that in all these pages, Nath did not mention any adverse environmental impact of the project. In fact, the only reference to the environment side of things was how the electricity generated by the project avoids several million tonnes of carbon emissions per year, thus "contributing immensely in environmental protection."

There was no mention of the loss of forests to submergence, of what happened to the riverine fisheries, the downstream drying up of the river, the severe problem of water logging and soil salination in the command area. On the issue of sedimentation, he agreed this had occurred faster than anticipated, but it would soon get reduced with other reservoirs coming up upstream. On resettlement of project-affected persons, he had this to say, "... every aspect ... was considered and provisions made in minute details."

I do not intend to go into the huge evidence that shows that the reality of the social and environmental impacts was quite different than this rosy picture. What is relevant is that the keynote address blatantly ignored the many environmental and social impacts of the project, as if there were none.

This is relevant, and of concern because Nath has now, on 14 June 2010, been appointed the Chairperson of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for River Valley and Hydroelectric Projects of the central Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Every river valley project with installed capacity more than 50 MW or cultivable command area more than 10,000 hectares is by law required to obtain an environmental clearance from the central MoEF before it can proceed. (Projects with lesser capacity have to seek clearance at the state level). Any such application goes to the EAC which examines the project from the environmental angle (including issue of rehabilitation) and then recommends according or rejecting the clearance. The MoEF in most cases accepts the recommendation.

With a large number of hydropower projects coming up in ecologically sensitive Himalayan states of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Himachal, and J&K, the role of the EAC becomes crucial in ensuring that river valley and hydropower development in the country is undertaken in a sustainable manner and does not lead to destruction of the environment.

Appointments without proper criteria

There are serious doubts whether the EAC with Nath at the helm will be able to play this role. This is not to raise any issues regarding his personal integrity. Nor are there any questions about his wide experience in the power sector. The issue is about the kind of perspective and approach that the new Chairperson brings to the EAC.

Apart from having been the Chairperson of the BBMB, Nath has been the Chairperson of the Central Electricity Authority, an ex-officio member of the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission and currently also a Technical Member of the Appellate Tribunal on Electricity. He is also the President of the Indian chapter of the International Commission of Large Dams, a professional grouping of state and private agencies engaged in dam building. There is little in his background to indicate expertise and knowledge of environmental impacts of hydropower and river valley projects.

Moreover, apart from expertise, the job of assessing projects for their environmental impacts and sustainability also needs sensitivity to these issues and a perspective that allows the concerns of sustainability, equity and justice to be placed as central to developmental projects. Judging by his presentation at the Impacts of Bhakra workshop, this is not likely to be his primary worry.

Nor is this an issue particular to this appointment. It is a larger malaise that affects the selection of the Chair of the EAC. The Ministry does not have any proper criteria that require the chair to have experience and background of work in environment. While it is understandable that such a committee may require members from different backgrounds including persons involved in building and promoting river valley projects, dams and hydropower, the Chair should necessarily have an overarching environmental perspective. After all, he or she is supposed to ensure the environmental sustainability of projects that come to the EAC.

The chairpersons of the EAC have mostly been people who can neither be described as experts in the environment, nor those for whom environment has been a central concern.

 •  Cleared, denied, cleared ...
 •  Delhi HC overturns mockery

Unfortunately, the only requirement imposed for the Chair in the relevant Notification of 2006 of the MoEF is that "The Chairperson shall be an outstanding and experienced environmental policy expert or expert in management or public administration with wide experience in the relevant development sector." This requirement is so general that any senior government bureaucrat can be considered for this post, as against the special knowledge and inputs that are required. In 2004, the MoEF did issue a notification that listed guidelines for appointments of members to various committees, but these were so limiting that they were withdrawn in 2009, after the environmental group Kalpavriksh protested against them.

The result of all this can be seen if we see the last few Chairpersons of the EAC for River Valley projects. The chairs of the EAC in the recent past have included M A Chitale, P G Sastry, P Abraham and Devender Pandey.

Chitale retired as the Secretary of the Water Resource ministry. Before that he was the chairperson of the Central Water Commission, and has been involved in building and designing of dams and irrigation projects in his career. P Abraham, an IAS officer, spent 15 years in the power sector, including as Chairperson of the Maharashtra State Electricity Board and Union Power Secretary. In fact, Abraham, even when chairing the EAC dealing with hydropower projects was on the Board of Directors of several companies engaged in building hydropower projects. P G Sastry is a civil engineer and has been in academia. Devender Pandey has been the Director General of the Forest Survey of India, and had a short tenure of about 8 months on the EAC.

It is clear from this that the chairpersons of the EAC have mostly been people who can neither be described as experts in the environment, nor those for whom environment has been a central concern.

Violating both governance and the law

This is an important reason for the many problems that beset the environmental clearance process, including the poor quality of the EIAs, clearances given to virtually every project that applies, and disregard for fundamental environmental principles like cumulative impact assessments. When the EAC is headed by people whose background has been mainly in building and promoting dams, hydropower and large irrigation projects, there is a danger that the EAC and by implication the MoEF gets reduced to an appendage of the power or irrigation ministries, and environmental concerns get a back seat. This is indeed what has happened.

The appointment of people without the requisite background is not only a crucial governance issue, but is also in violation of the principles laid down in the orders of the Supreme Court as pointed out by several experts. In a letter written to the Ministry of Environment and Forests on 19 June 2010, Manoj Mishra, R Shreedhar and Ritwick Dutta, Co-convenors of EIA Resource & Response Centre (ERC) point out that the appointment of Nath is in violation of the orders of the Supreme Court and High Court of Delhi.

One of the orders they refer to is the Supreme Court's order dated 28 November 2006, in I.A. No. 1126 of 2004 in T. N. Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India, W.P. (C) No. 202 of 1995, which had considered the issue of appointment of members of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) constituted under the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The Supreme Court criticised the appointment of civil engineers, mining experts etc on the FAC saying that the Ministry has shown total unawareness of the objectives of the Forest Conservation Act. And experts from these disciplines could never substitute eminent experts in Forestry and allied disciplines. The matter of the EAC is exactly parallel to the FAC.

There is another important aspect that is highlighted by the appointment of Rakesh Nath. Currently, there is no requirement that either the Chair or some of the members of the EAC be full-time on the committee. The EAC is expected to meet at least once a month, and at each meeting, it has to deal with 8-10 projects, sometimes more. Considering that only major projects come to the EAC, it is bound to be a tremendous load to read and understand all the relevant documents, undertake field visits if required, and provide diligent oversight. It is difficult to see how a chair and members who are only part time can provide the required scrutiny and inputs.

It is not only this EAC, but also the others dealing with thermal power, mining etc. that are in need of serious reform, so that they become able to implement environment protection as a core value. This needs a comprehensive rethinking of the current ad hoc-ism in the appointment of the committees. While the Minister, Jairam Ramesh, has sought to bring life, discipline and a sense of purpose to the hitherto moribund ministry, on this score his performance has been disappointing.

Proper criteria and guidelines are required to ensure that persons providing leadership to the EAC have environment as their central concern, and have the relevant knowledge and understanding. It is about ensuring that the Chair and at least some of the members on the EAC are full time members so that they can bring in adequate inputs. It is about ensuring that there is no conflict of interest. It is only when all this is in place that the most crucial fronts of the MoEF, the EACs, will stop being round holes with square pegs.