Expert Appraisal Committee is bending ecological norms to push every project government wants it to clear

Subansiri river

In a letter to the chairman and members of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) on River Valley Projects, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, several experts and activists* have taken strong exception to the minutes of the 86th meeting of EAC, uploaded on September 14, 2015, whose clearance letters in some cases were issued even before the EAC minutes were made public or the minutes were finalised at the next EAC meeting held on August 24-25, 2015. Excerpts:

The minutes make a disturbing reading. The EAC seems to be bending every ecological norm, facts and even legal stipulations to push ahead with every project that the government wants them to clear. There seems to be no application of mind from the EAC on the proposals. The minutes are not even internally consistent. It is putting forward facts in misleading fashion to give a wrong picture.

Some of the subjects discussed and recommended by the EAC are not even on the agenda put out in public domain. These include projects of far reaching implications. This kind of decision making is completely imprudent, improper, unacceptable and legally untenable. It seems as if the EAC does not want to learn any lessons from past blunders like in case of Lower Subansiri HEP.

EAC is supposed to have representatives from well-known institutions like Wildlife Institute of India (WII), National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), Union Ministry of Earth Sciences, Central Indian Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI), Indian Institute of Technology-Rourkee (IIT-R) and Central Water Commission (CWC). These institutes are clearly putting their reputation at serious risk by being a part of such decision making.

In fact some of the institutes like CWC on and IIT-R should not have been a part of the EAC considering their conflict of interest, lacking necessary expertise and past track record. The chairman, Alok Perti himself has no environmental credentials to be even a member of EAC, leave aside chairing the EAC. SK Mishra, listed as member of EAC from IIT-R even now on the official website, has not attended any of the 16 EAC meetings since January 2014. In fact, even WII and CIFRI members are absent in majority (9 out of these 16) meetings. The minutes of the meetings list the EAC members present in each meeting, but this list has a lot of persons who are not listed as EAC members on the official website. Dr PV Subba Rao of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) keeps getting listed as EAC member present, but he is not listed as EAC member. There are a number of other persons who keep getting listed present in EAC meetings, when the official EAC member list does not include them.

Cumulative Impact and Carrying Capacity Study of Subansiri sub-basin including downstream impacts

The decision of EAC to clear this study is most shocking. Firstly this study was not on the agenda of the EAC meeting. There is no plausible reason why the EAC decided to even consider this study when it was not on the agenda. Secondly, as we have written to you in the past, the study is fundamentally flawed[3]. Thirdly, the study has not done downstream social impact assessment. Fourthly, there have been no public consultations in the downstream area. Fifthly, the modified study as mentioned in first para of the minutes related to this project is not even in public domain and it is still not available on the EAC website.

To consider a cumulative impact assessment study with all these fundamental flaws, when it is well known that the Lower Subansiri project is stuck for these very reasons, is disturbing decision that shows that the EAC members and MoEF are impervious to similar such mistakes committed in the past. But as the EAC should know, preconceived decisions of this kind can have no public acceptance. We urge EAC to reconsider this decision at the earliest.

Reduced Time frame for Cumulative Impact Assessment (CIA) studies

This discussion too not part of the agenda of the EAC meeting but the EAC decided to consider it without any publicly known reason. What was the urgency for considering this? Secondly, it is well known that the CIA studies done so far are so shoddy that the EAC or MoEF have not dared to have public consultations for them (in case in Sutlej basin where there was public consultation and peer review, it was exposed how inadequate the study was), nor have they been able to respond to the issues raised about the studies. In such a situation, considering a proposal to reduce time required for such studies is entirely unwarranted and misplaced.

The EAC decision in this regard was: “Further, EAC recommended that one season data should be collected by consultants as per the terms of reference issued earlier for these studies and since monsoon is critical season for such studies, the field data can be collected in the month of September itself. This would reduce the time frame of the study from 21 months to 12 months without compromising on the quality of the study.”

This decision is clearly without any merit and possibly shows the ecological ignorance of the EAC members. The site specific baseline study is required for all the seasons, preferably it should be for two years so that seasonal incongruity is taken care of. But instead, the EAC has decided that only monsoon season baseline study is ok. EAC must immediately review and change this decision.

The EAC further decided: “For hydrological data, which is critical for basin study for the purpose of environment flow assessment, downstream impact study, etc.; long term discharge series is used and same is available from CWC only and same shall be used for the study.”

The EAC thus equates hydrological data with environment flow assessment, downstream study etc. This is clearly wrong, Environment flow assessment and downstream impacts involve so much more than hydrological studies, they also involve social impacts. The EAC does not even mention any social parameters, as usual. This again shows that EAC just does not understand the ecological parameters that are supposed to be the main concern of EAC. This also is wrong decision of the EAC and EAC must review and change this decision.

The EAC contends that the data gathered under project specific Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs) should be useful in CIA, but the problem is that we have yet to see a credible EIA that has done honest three season baseline study. The EAC knows this is the situation, but chooses to ignore the reality.

EAC and MoEF’s notion of Conflict of Interest is lacking

The EAC’s decision in this regard reads: “EAC discussed the matter in detail and observed that these are objective studies and recommendations are based on technical findings. All the recommendations have to be justified with substantial data back-up and scientific analysis. Technical committee will evaluate the report in detail and do not see any possibility of consultants giving any undue favour to any Developers. In fact earlier experience of working in the basin will be helpful to make objective analysis due to consultants’ familiarity with the region. EAC also observed that the terms of reference (ToR) of the studies do not offer discretionary and arbitrary authority to the Consultants that can be used to extend favour or punishment to any proponents… The matter of conflict of interest is settled, keeping in view the objective assessment required for the study and evaluation of the report by experts.”

This is incorrect on several counts. Firstly, by this token any technical study will never have any conflict of interest, since all studies are supposed to justify their conclusions and are supposed to be scrutinized. This shows that the EAC does not appreciate conflict of interest issues at all. By this token, it was ok for someone like P Abraham to be the EAC chair, while simultaneously being on the board of hydro projects, since EAC has to justify all its decisions based on technical reasons. This also shows that CWC itself does not appreciate the issue of conflict of interest and hence they did not include this in the pre-bid conditions.

Complete text of the letter can be accessed HERE

*Signatories of the letter are Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), Delhi; Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP, Pune; Prof Brij Gopal, Centre for Inland Waters in South Asia, Jaipur; KK Chatradhara, People’s Movement for Subansiri & Bramhmaputra Valley, Assam; Shripad Dharmadhikary, Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, Manthan, Pune; Latha Anantha, River Research Centre, Thrisur, Kerala; Manoj Misra, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, Delhi; Pushp Jain, ERC Resource and Response Centre, Delhi; Ravindranath, River Basin Friends, Dhemaji, Assam; Vimal Bhai, Matu Jan Sangathan, Delhi; Bharat Jhunjhunwala, former professor of IIM Bangalore, Uttarakhand; Malika Virdi, Maati Sangathan , Munsiari, Uttarakhand; E Theophilus Himal Prakriti, Munsiari, Uttarakhand; and K Ramnarayan , Himal Prakriti, Munsiari, Uttarakhand

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