All in a Days Work !
In November 2009, Justice Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court in a landmark order with regard to Public Hearings for Projects observed that ‘there is no question of scheduling several hearings relating to different projects at the same date, time and venue. This can possibly result in avoidable chaos at such hearings. It also reduces the whole exercise to empty formality. We expect the MoEF to immediately issue necessary instructions in this regard so that public hearings in terms of the EIA notification dated 14th September 2006 take place with the seriousness which they deserve.’ The Pollution Control Board of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu does not mind reducing Public Hearings to a mere formality (like most other government offices). It perhaps also considers Central Government directions to be too trivial to be complied with. Nothing else can explain the following – On 27 August 2010, the Board scheduled Public Hearings for four different Projects at the same venue within a span of little more than two hours. On 14 September 2010, it scheduled Public Hearings for two different Projects at the same venue within a span of 2 hours. This, despite clear directions from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (Central Government) in April 2010 that public hearings pertaining to different projects shall not be held at same venue at same date and time and that a sufficient gap of time shall be provided between different public hearings, if these are scheduled to be held at the same date and the same venue. (This direction was an overdue response to the High Court’s order. For more information about this see here http://www.accessinitiative.org/blog/2010/05/india-implement...). The two hearings to be held on 14 September 2010 were of – first, an expansion project of a cement plant along with a captive power plant; and second, expansion of leases for limestone mines for a cement company. The first Project would impact 6 to 7 villages with a total population of around 5000 and the second would affect more than 15 villages. By the Board’s estimate for a Project impacting 5000 people, two hours was ‘sufficient time’ to hear their concerns! As if this was not bad enough, the Board decided on a venue which was ten kilometres from the project-affected villages. For the Board, this was ‘close proximity’ (as required by the EIA Notification 2006). Local civil society organisations decided to take up this matter with the Board and along with affected persons wrote to the Board on 10 September 2010 about the illegality in scheduling two hearings on the same date which such a short time gap. The Board did not respond to their letter. However, it shifted the date of the Public Hearing for one Project by a day i.e. it was now to be held on 15 September 2010. It meant that people had less than five days notice about the rescheduled Public Hearing. This ran contrary to another provision under the EIA Notification 2006 which requires a notice period of at least 30 days before a Public Hearing. Another letter was shot off to the Board by the groups– which yet again did not respond. However, a Notice was published postponing the same Public Hearing, this time by a month. Given the otherwise apathetic attitude of Pollution Control Boards in most states, one is pleasantly surprised by the Board’s quick response (although no written acknowledgment for those letters has yet been received). But was the Board waiting for letters from vigilant civil society groups to comply with the law?
Shibani Ghosh Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) firstname.lastname@example.org