Power Struggles on India's Road to Transparency
Construction on a proposed thermal power plant in the Raigarh district of Chhattisgarh, India has come to a halt following reports that the company in charge of the project, Jindal Power Ltd., failed to obtain required environmental clearance. In June, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) withdrew its March 2009 letter, which had granted terms of reference (TOR) for the plant, provided that Jindal prepare an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and conduct public hearings regarding the project as required by the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification of 2006. Jindal, however, allegedly began plant construction before creating an EIA. Although the local Environment Conservation Board requested that the company stop operations months ago, local residents and activists contended that construction of the 2,400 MW power plant continued until just recently.
Jindal Power also failed to conduct public hearings prior to construction. Following a mounting number of complaints from villagers and local NGOs, including the Jan Chetna group, led by environmental activist and Raigarh resident Ramesh Agrawal, the MoEF investigated. The Ministry then decided to withdraw its initial project permission, halting all operations and citing Section 19 of the 1986 Indian Environment (Protection) Act. Agrawal’s persistence, however, has come with a price; he was charged with extortion soon after the cancellation of Jindal’s terms of reference (TOR) for construction. The company claims that Agrawal demanded Rs. 5 crore in exchange for not protesting during a public meeting for the project, and he must now dispute this charge.
Recent developments in this case are notable not only for the fact that the power plant company head, Naveen Jindal, is a member of parliament, but also for displaying a rare example of public complaint and persistence influencing government action in favor of the environment. If it wishes to proceed with the project, Jindal must now create a new project proposal, outlining any planned changes in site location. The company will continue to dispute the MoEF’s findings, arguing its claims that the perceived new-site construction was actually repairs on existing plant equipment and therefore did not violate the TOR.
In June 2009, India’s new Minister for Environment and Government, Jairam Ramesh, stated that the “tendency to treat environmental and forest clearances as a mere formality will no longer be acceptable.” The Ministry must immediately address and penalize Jindal’s example of this tendency if it wishes to continue its new mission toward greater transparency and public trust. As an area rich in resources and minerals, Chhattisgarh is vulnerable to development and exploitation. The locals’ demands for more information on construction near their homes are justified under the Right to Information Act, which mandates timely response to citizen requests for government activities. The residents and local environmental groups, backed by the MoEF, must continue extra vigilance toward access to information, media attention, and enforcement in such susceptible regions. Further failure to enforce EIA standards and development protocol will worsen an already distrustful opinion of Indian citizens toward their government’s environmental concern.
Links of interest: http://www.accessinitiative.org/blog/2008/10/india-district-... http://www.accessinitiative.org/blog/2009/07/indias-new-envi... http://www.accessinitiative.org/blog/2010/03/india-villagers...