Ever since Jairam Ramesh took office as Environment Minister a year ago, there has been much ado about his efforts to paint the ‘green’ ministry greener. However, can a person, who was the Minister of State for Power during his last tenure, suffer a change of heart suddenly and come down heavily on non-compliance by those power projects he once presided over?

A nagging doubt surfaces when you look at the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) audit report that got tabled in Sikkim assembly recently. According to CAG, these hydropower projects which were subjected to Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and were supposed to comply with environmental safeguards and mitigation measures during his stint as Minister of Power, have indulged in large-scale violations with impunity.

With the opening up of hydropower sector for private participation, Sikkim had identified 35 potential hydropower projects with an aggregate installed capacity of 5,741 MW in 2001-’02. Till date, Letters of Intent have been issued for 33 projects (5,681 MW) and MoUs have been signed for 28 projects -- 24 projects through Independent Power Producers mode (a hydropower being built, owned, and operated by a private agency) and four through Central Public Sector Enterprise (PSE) named National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) -- with an aggregate installed capacity of 5,421 MW. The CAG audit finds that the State has awarded many of these projects to private developers without exercising due diligence and ensuring adequate compliance on environmental aspects.

When these audit reports enter the public domain, will the minister look back and do some necessary introspection?

Scrutinising EIAs

CAG’s audit scrutiny of correspondence on EIA and Environment Management Plans (EMP) revealed that the state's Department of Forest and Wildlife had voiced concerns that the agencies carrying out the EIA had not kept the department informed. In a letter dated January 2006, the then Principal Chief Conservator of Forests had stated that “the project developers were conducting surveys and investigations on forest land without involving the officers of the department. Site clearance was being applied to GoI without the knowledge of the department and hence the data supplied to GoI might not be truthful.”

Rapid EIA

It was also found that “in most cases, the mandatory one-year comprehensive data required for preparing EIA was not gathered as borne out by the period between the grant of site clearance and the grant of environment clearance”.

Unfortunately, there have been similar instances where even after clear directions from MoEF that the project authorities must carry out a comprehensive EIA, a Rapid EIA document – that too with monsoon months’ data and without being put before the public – has been put on record to obtain environmental clearance.

The audit concluded that “the CAT (catchment area treatment) plans were prepared without taking into account the field requirement for survival of the plantations and were therefore arbitrary and inadequate”.

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In light of such violations, this aspect being highlighted by the CAG audit is a heartening step. It enables a debate on whether Rapid EIA -- which takes into account data compiled in less than a year -- can describe all the probable long-term impacts for big projects. It also questions whether the explanatory note issued by the MoEF on Rapid EIA – directing in unambiguous terms that it should have one season data, except monsoon – is complied with in letter and spirit. (The note doesn't explain why, but the monsoon period is not preferred as several indicators and data sets can't be authentically obtained during monsoon).

Knowledge base ‘missing’!

During the audit scrutiny of records with respect to two projects – Teesta Stage VI and Dikchu Hydroelectric Projects – it was found that EIAs and EMPs for these projects were prepared by the state's Department of Forest, Environment, and Wildlife Management. However, project-wise details of the state department personnel who prepared EIA and EMP, preliminary data sheets relating to collection of data as well as survey/investigation reports etc., were not furnished for audit scrutiny. In the absence of this ‘knowledge base’, auditors were compelled to note that “the audit could not vouchsafe authenticity of the data incorporated in the EIA and EMP reports”.

The fact that during the scrutiny the CAG auditors made an effort to access the ‘knowledge base’ gone into making EIAs and EMPs is an important aspect. As of now, people’s access to environmental decision-making process through public hearings on EIAs and EMPs is limited to this single document that enters the public domain. In fact, most often, it’s not even the complete EIA and EMP reports but just executive summaries.

However, when this finding was communicated to the department, in a sort of volte-face, it sought to reply (September 2009) that “since the experts in the MoEF scrutinised and cleared the EIAs and EMPs, these reports were presumed to conform to the prevalent norms”. In reaction to this, the CAG audit report said “the reply was not acceptable”.

So, even as the CAG auditors take environmental governance one step forward by asking for ‘knowledge base’ and probing whether the data was comprehensive enough, such a response by the state's Forest Department takes it two steps backward by passing the buck on the Experts Advisory Committee (EAC) of MoEF.

When non-compliance becomes a ‘norm’

A close look at the EMPs of 10 projects revealed that provision for plantation -- to mitigate and compensate for the forest cover lost due to submergence in reservoir -- was kept for only one year in Teesta VI, for three years in six projects (Panan, Rongnichu, Ting Ting, Tashiding, Rangit II, and Jorethung Lup) and for four years in the remaining three projects (Teesta II, Dikchu, and Rangit IV). It is also clear that there was no provision for subsequent weeding and maintenance of plantation in respect of four of these projects.

In the remaining six projects, such a provision was inadequate as it ranged from 0 to 4 years. The provision is imperative as compensatory afforestation can't merely be limited to plantation of saplings, but to compensate for the forest cover lost due to dams, such plantation must be tracked with regular maintenance activities such as subsequent weeding, care-taking, monitoring survival rates, etc. In cases where such a plantation consist of Catchment Area Treatment (CAT) plans, to prevent rapid soil erosion in catchment areas which in turn might lead to higher and rapid silt accumulation in the reservoir, survival rates must be monitored to ensure the soil-retaining capacity envisaged due to plantation.

Thus, the audit concluded that “the CAT plans were prepared without taking into account the field requirement for survival of the plantations and were therefore arbitrary and inadequate”.

While replying to this audit observation, the department (September 2009) stated, “Since the CAT plans are accorded approvals by the experts of the MoEF, the same were presumed to conform to the prevalent norms”. Having noted this reply, the CAG audit report noted once again, “the reply was not acceptable”.

The department was in receipt of Rs 26.37 crores (December 2005 to May 2009) from six project developers. This was towards the cost of compensatory afforestation, CAT, net present value of forestland diverted, wildlife preservation and biodiversity preservation. But the audit scrutiny found that it had prepared the annual plan of operation for implementation of CAT programmes with respect to only two projects (Jorethung Lup, Chuzachen) and a five-year plan of operations for compensatory afforestation with respect to only one project (Chuzachen). The department has not prepared plans for forest and wildlife protection or biodiversity preservation for any project.

Can we expect a response?

However, the Environment Ministry has till date not taken note of these audit findings. What is also shocking is that this CAG audit report put under scanner certain examples of non-compliance that were not detected during the monitoring mechanism of the state Forest Department and MoEF’s regional offices. It is relevant to also to cite that many of the dams in question had been accorded environment clearance subject to fulfilling certain ‘conditions’ and the project authorities needed to file compliance reports regularly.

Will the Minister of Environment and Forests take cognizance of the issue and set his house in order? Green talk alone does not suffice; some real green acts would do well too.