Conflict of interest queries put on hold appointment of ex-EIA advisor to NGT

A scientist who was till recently working as Advisor, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) division, in the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has been recommended for appointment as an Expert Member in the National Green Tribunal (NGT). With questions being raised about possible conflict of interest, the MoEF has been sitting on the proposal for the last couple of months.

Nalini Bhat worked as Advisor to the EIA — a post equivalent to the rank of joint secretary — for over five years, overseeing green clearances granted to major projects, many of which have been challenged in the NGT. Working in the ministry for 25 years, she was recently made in-charge of the National River Conservation Directorate.

Bhat has so far cleared the first selection round comprising a high-level appointment panel headed by Supreme Court judge Justice Swatanter Kumar. The recommendation is lying with Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, who is yet to forward it to the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC). As per a Supreme Court order, all NGT appointments have to be finalised by April 9.

During Bhat’s term in the EIA, the MoEF issued green clearances to many big-ticket projects like the Lavasa Hill City in Maharashtra, Posco project in Orissa, Jaitapur nuclear power plant, Navi Mumbai Airport project, Vedanta aluminium refinery and captive power plant in Orissa, hydel power project in Arunachal Pradesh, and a host of thermal power plants in Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

As per the chain of command, copies of all the environmental clearance orders were either marked to Bhat directly or to the division. As Advisor, she was also privy to files, notings and discussions prior to the granting of clearances. Bhat herself has signed orders relating to formation of expert appraisal committees. She has also headed panels issuing showcause notices to industries invoking Section 5 of the Environment Protection Act, 1986 in cases of alleged violations.

Since the NGT mostly deals with cases regarding environmental clearances, it is being said that making a technical official, who headed the division issuing those clearances, an Expert Member of the tribunal flies in the face of ethics.

While Bhat has kept quiet on the issue, the argument being given in her favour is that she can recuse herself in matters related to impact assessment. “The NGT hears cases on matters related to seven laws, not all of which are related to environmental clearances,” said a former MoEF secretary.

However, of the 67 cases pending with the NGT at present, almost 50 are related to green clearances, most of which have the MoEF as a party.

“They can recuse themselves, but if they are going to recuse themselves from nine of the 10 cases that come to the NGT, then what’s the point of being there on the panel as an expert?” asked another former environment secretary, P V Jaikrishnan, adding that the argument of conflict of interest gains ground in the case of technical persons like scientists as they are involved in the day-to-day affairs of cases.

But, present another point of view, former environment secretary Pradipto Ghosh said allegations of a clash of interests were “far fetched”. “The moment someone becomes a member of the tribunal, he snaps all ties with his former employer, so where is the conflict of interest? Also, where will you get experts who are somehow not connected to the field as a professional?”

Some clearance-related cases pending before the tribunal with the MoEF as a party:

  • Jaitapur nuclear power plant, Maharashtra
  • Lavasa hill city project, Maharashtra
  • Renuka Dam, Himachal Pradesh
  • Stone-crushing units at no-development zone near Kaziranga national park, Assam
  • Alaknanda hydro electric project, Uttarakhand
  • 3600 MW thermal power plant of ILFS, Andhra Pradesh
  • Lower Demwe hydel power project, Arunachal Pradesh
  • Thermal power plant in Chhattisgarh

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