Was Posco’s 2011 clearance fixed?

The National Green Tribunal has showed that how environment ministry turns a blind eye towards ecological protection in name of development. Its order in the Posco case is laudable as it shows that how the environment ministry overlooked recommendations of its own committee to give clearance to Posco in 2011.

Then environment minister Jairam Ramesh first suspended the environment clearance in wake of protest by the locals and then gave clearance earning a lot of media mileage but nothing for protecting the environment.

A few new conditions he had imposed in the environment clearance granted did not much as he failed to remove the fundamental flaws in earlier clearance of 2007. The 2007 clearance was based on premise that each part of the project — steel plant, power plant and the port — will come up separately and therefore, their environment impact assessment should be done separately.

This approach of the ministry meant that even though individual impact of these projects were measured their cumulative impact on Orissa’s fragile coastal region was not known. One individual project may appear to do very less harm to environment but a three put together can change face the area’s ecology.

It was the fear expressed by Ramesh’s inquiry committee and other experts also. But, he overlooked many of these concerns apparently because of pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office as India has committed to clear the project to the South Korean government. The pressure worked as four months before the project was cleared in January 2011, Ramesh had announced that it will get clearance.Surprising, as it was even before his own committee had submitted a report. It became apparent that the Posco clearance was fixed.

The tribunal on Friday, in its order, indicated at this policy fixing without naming anyone.

“Though the report of Meena Gupta appeared to be balanced one, even this was not taken into consideration in totality,” the bench of Justice C V Ramulu and Devendra Kumar Aggarwal said, in their 32-page order on Friday.

Ramesh had constituted a four member committee headed by former environment secretary Meena Gupta. Three civil society members of the committee gave a dissenting report against the chairperson former environment secretary Meena Gupta. One recommendation was common that there need to be a compact environment impact assessment of the Posco’s entire project, not just the steel plant.

The minister approved the project while saying a comprehensive impact assessment of the project on local ecology should be done. The NGT pointed out that putting in such a condition after clearing the project has no meaning and indicated having such conditions are just eyewash.

“A close scrutiny of the entire scheme…reveals that a project of this magnitude particularly in partnership with a foreign country has been dealt with casually, without there being any comprehensive scientific data regarding the possible environmental impacts,” the bench said.

The environment minister neither has manpower or skill to monitor implementation of its own conditions. Most project proponents are not able to meet the conditions imposed and the ministry has seldom taken suo-motto action against the violations. Only after repeated complaints or through court intervention, the ministry has initiated any action.

It is time that the ministry thinks how to enforce environment protection conditions put in clearances rather than becoming a project clearance office. A recent analysis of the ministry’s clearances show that the rate of approvals has doubled in the last three years without the ministry having a clue environment protection norms are being followed or not.

The NGT’s also imposes important policy directions on the ministry on how environment impact assessment of big projects such as Posco could be done. The order can go a long way in improving a faulty environment clearance process of the environment ministry, if the political class is really serious to balance growth with environment protection.

[Source – Hindustan Times]

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