October 21, 2013

Digging up the dirt

Madhav Gadgil

Mining companies have received favourable impact assessments even as they do great damage to the environment because regulators are willing to look the other way

Last week, world leaders concerned about economic development got together at the International Monetary Fund, and gave a series of most instructive interviews. Our Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, said that his problem was the slowing down of India’s economic growth and reduction in government revenues. The Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, though, struck a different note. He emphasised that the quality of economic growth was a very significant issue, and that the growth must be environmentally and socially sustainable.

Goa project

Recent developments in the context of mining in Goa have reinforced questions as to whether India is on a path of socially and environmentally sustainable development, and if the fundamental rights of our citizens, including the right to livelihood, are being respected. This is brought out by Justice Shah Commission’s Report stating that “… no inspection was carried out of iron ore mines… resulting into fear-free environment which has caused loss to the ecology, environment, agriculture, ground water, natural streams, ponds, rivers, biodiversity, etc.” The fear-free environment that the report talks about is not one that is enjoyed by the people, but by the mining industry supported by all arms of the state. A striking example of this has been the attack on Nilesh Gaonkar, a tribal activist of Cauvrem village, in May 2011.

It was developments like these that prompted the government of Goa to ask me to oversee a project to assess the quality of the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), compliance with Environment Clearance (EC) conditions and the adequacy of the Environmental Management Plans (EMP) with respect to mines in operation in Goa. These are tools in our armoury to ensure that none of our developmental interventions has unacceptably large or avoidable negative impacts, that the most desirable alternatives are selected and the projects managed efficiently. Enjoying full cooperation of the State governmental agencies, the mine management as well as the people, we had at our disposal a complete set of EIA-EC-EMPs for 79 mines then in operation. The study was conducted in an open, transparent and participatory manner involving a wide range of stakeholders and extensive field visits.

Regrettably, we find that the EIA-EC-EMP process is being implemented in a very restricted framework of the project proponents getting the legally mandated clearances as quickly and with as little effort or involvement of society at large, as possible. As a result, there are serious deficiencies in the EIAs with deliberate misrepresentations of facts relating to vital issues such as water and biodiversity resources and livelihood support systems of local people in practically every single exercise. For instance, the EIA for mines adjoining village Rivona claimed that agriculture is characterised by dependence on monsoons as irrigation facilities are available for only one per cent of the land. When the community members disputed this and requested the Agriculture Department to independently verify the facts, the latter reported that Rivona has extensive irrigated agriculture and horticulture with its own perennial irrigation systems based on over 30 natural springs, all of which would be affected by mining.

Issues brushed aside

Public hearings are a vital and legally mandatory component of the EIA process complementing the consultant’s report, as it is the local community who have deep knowledge of the local environment and a genuine concern for its preservation. The people invariably raise important issues, but these are quite improperly brushed aside. For instance, the Kushavati Bachao Andolan pointed out in writing that the Hunantlo Dongar manganese mine near Columba village lies on the bank of a major rivulet of river Kushavati; this important fact was still left out of the final EIA. To be effective, public hearings are required by law to be held at the project site. However, this is routinely violated and in 95 out of 96 cases, the hearings were held in district or taluka headquarters.

What we experience are not isolated, but cumulative impacts. Thus, 100 trucks plying with ore from one mine may be quite acceptable, but when thousands of trucks from several mines start plying on the same roads, this can lead to horrible traffic jams and accidents. Indeed this has been one of the bitterest complaints of the people of Goa. The EIA process has so far uniformly neglected cumulative impacts. Furthermore, the exercises are confined to the narrow limits of the leases and immediate vicinity, and ignore pervasive impacts such as on rivers of Goa. Mining has now been suspended since June 2012 as a consequence of the Justice Shah Commission reporting large-scale irregularities amounting to Rs.35,000 crore. With this withdrawal of mining impacts, the fisheries as well as shell-fisheries of the rivers have registered a remarkable recovery with the waters becoming clearer and the bottom dwelling organisms freed of sediment settling on them. Simultaneously, the estuarine brackish water land bunds are no longer suffering breakages as no waves are being created by large ore barges plying in the rivers. Not a single EIA has considered many such significant, widespread impacts. In consequence, as the Shah Commission emphasised, there has been substantial damage to the environment of the State as a whole and its ecological assets far beyond the mining area.

Again, as the Shah Commission has highlighted, there has been no inspection and hence no monitoring of management of the mines. This has meant little serious efforts at mitigation of adverse impacts. To the contrary, there are examples of deliberate neglect. Thus a deep mine near Pissurlem village has punctured the aquifer and drained away all ground water with the resultant serious loss of agricultural productivity. Yet, the water being collected in the mine pit is being pumped out and deliberately let out to the river through a long pipeline despite farmers pleading that it be made available for irrigating their dried-up farms.

What is clearly needed is to inject into the system ways of ensuring that justice is done to the larger social objectives that the EIA-EC-EMP process has been designed to serve. This calls for ensuring transparency, accountability and effective social participation. Our democracy has ensured that there are excellent provisions for bringing this about, provisions such as the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution that assign a significant role to local self-governments in the planning and implementation of developmental activities and the management of natural resources within their jurisdiction, and the Biological Diversity Act that assigns a significant role to local self-governments in the documentation and management of the biodiversity resources within their jurisdiction.

Nowhere in the world have governments taken steps on their own to protect the environment until public pressure has forced them to do so. This is easier in egalitarian societies such as Japan or the Scandinavian countries, but more difficult in countries with stratified societies such as India. But we do have a vibrant democracy and it is a most positive sign that the government of Goa asked us to objectively assess the situation and the Goan government, the mining industry and the people all extended their full cooperation. Our report, the first such comprehensive study of the process in India, and as far as I know, anywhere in the world, would hopefully serve to better inform people, who will then pressure the government to take effective steps in the direction of the public good. I, for one, remain optimistic.

(Madhav Gadgil was on the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel)


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