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Why is there no Sab ka Sath in Environmental Governance?

New Delhi, March 10 (G’nY News Service): The Government of India has repeatedly committed itself to Sab ka Sath in development projects in India. This was reiterated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his speech in Dibrugarh (Assam) on Feb 5, 2016. While a debate on what this should mean in practice could be a subject of a longer article, I would like to highlight that the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF &CC) seems to be working in contradiction with the Government’s solemn commitment.

A letter written by several individuals and organisations on the same day, Feb 5, 2016 helps illustrate the latest episode in this regard. This letter was about making documents related to the MoEF &CC’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) on River Valley and Hydropower Projects (RVHP) public in advance of the EAC meetings.

The letter was warranted since, in a departure from the past, MoEF &CC suddenly decided that henceforth the draft Cumulative Impact Assessment & Carrying Capacity Study (CIA & CCS) reports that the EAC would be discussing, would not be in the public domain. The decision was conveyed by officials of the MoEF &CC .This deprives all concerned, including the people in river basins, from a chance at informed participation in deliberations and decisions that the EAC takes. In fact, a more democratic, participatory process of conducting public hearings is necessary regarding these CIA & CCS reports, considering the far-reaching implications they can have on millions of people living in the river basins in future.

This decision of MoEF &CC is also in violation of the legal provisions of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification under the Environment Protection Act 1986 and also a specific 2012 order of the Central Information Commission. It is also against the order of MoEF &CC of May 28, 2013

The CIA & CCS involve river basin- wide studies of various impacts of all existing, under construction and proposed dams and hydropower projects in river basins in the context of the carrying capacity of concerned river basins and other aspects. Hence, we need to have good quality CIA & CCS studies in the public domain. Unfortunately, there has been no single credible study produced so far.

EAC members lack ground-level knowledge about the situation in river basins. This is where local groups could help with critical feedback. A participatory process through public hearings would also be in order with the government’s declared policy of going Sub ka sath, in the matter of environmental governance.

In fact, ignoring the democratic processes in this context can have very grave consequences for development projects, as is evident in the way work on the 2000 MW Lower Subansiri hydro-electric project on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border has come to a standstill for over four years now. One only hopes that realization dawns in this respect, and necessary changes follow in the governance of the river basins so that the assurances of Sab ka Saath the Prime Minister and his government have been giving become reality.

Story by:
Himanshu Thakkar,
South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP),
New Delhi.

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