Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Saturday, September 18, 2010
With around 160 hydal power projects planned on Brahmaputra, there is a need for a holistic environment assesment
By Pradyut Bordoloi, Power Minister, Assam
As a power minister in the state of Assam – I probably have practically understood the meaning of a bipolar syndrome. On one hand I constantly need to mobilise power in the face of a demand growth explosion in my State – on the other hand I cannot turn blind eyes to the other side of development problems. How does one not get worried knowing that nobody is seriously studying the ramification of allowing reckless construction of river dams in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra water system. The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) has apparently identified as many as 160 assorted hydal power projects to be put up in the highlands of Arunachal Pradesh without carrying out a holistic study.
Hydel power projects like the one on Lower Subansiri River will enable us to get 600 megawatt power from 2012. At the moment, Assam has a deficit of 300 megawatt, which will grow every year. But when you look at the gamut of sanctioning projects in totality, you realise that there are several lacunas in the system of allotting power projects in a remote area.
Environment and Forest ministry carries out an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) study for every single project. Usually a small group of experts would fly down from Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata to a location in the North East for EIA study. They stay for a night in a hotel in Gauhati, or in a nearest urban centre. Maybe the entity, which is going to promote this power project, would have a helicopter commissioned for such a study. They will fly around the zone; they will have an aerial view of the proposed site. Then they will get back to Delhi and they will file their EIA, which may not see all dimensions of an environmental impact. An individual EIA will cover only 20-25 km radius of that project site. But has anybody imagined what would be the cumulative effect of 160 hydel power projects in the region? Twenty years from now when 160 power projects in various capacities are ready, what will be the combined adverse effects on a downstream state like Assam?
This is one point that gets us worried. That’s why the government of Assam, despite my being a power minister, we have raised this issue again and again in different forums.
What we keep saying is that before the CEA (the Central Electricity Authority) allows anybody whether it is a government or a private entity to put up any hydal project in the highlands, a comprehensive EIA should be carried out to see dimensions of the cumulative effects in the entire area. Once you carry out the comprehensive study, you should identify which part of the highlands would be safe, where probably the downstream adverse affect will be minimal and where probably you can take some redressal measures.
Arunachal Pradesh government is apparently signing MoUs with all sorts of fly-by-night operators. Prospectors are pouring in, paying upfront value and sign MoUs. All these private players may not have any accountability; they do not care about the environmental affect in the downstream areas. It is very dangerous to allow reckless construction of river dams in the upper reaches of Brahmaputra, without having a roadmap determined by the appropriate authorities – be it the power ministry or central water commission or central electricity authority. And the problem is, when a power project is allowed, multiple agencies are involved. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. There is hardly any coordination. Everybody is doing his or her own job, but hardly any cohesive approach is taken to monitor in a holistic manner.
Because of our objection, an inter-ministerial group on this issue was formed. The group has recommended that a study on Brahmaputra basin be carried out. But unfortunately they are not doing anything. Arunachal Pradesh thinks if these projects come up, they would become the richest state in the country. They might not have any concern for the people of Assam who live in the downstream areas. If you ignore all these environment issues, it will bring catastrophe in the future.
At the same time I have seen there are certain groups who are totally against dams or any kind of developmental activities. All these groups have converged in Assam and are spreading lot of disinformation while the Central government puts everything in a cold storage. I think there should be a generated condition for an informed rational decision. We should not let anti-developmental people spread all sorts of misinformation and corrupt the minds of the people of Assam. We are not against river projects, but we have to know for sure that the places where the dams will be put up are safe and that adverse downstream effects can be properly addressed.
There is also concern about dams being built in highly seismic region around the foothills of Himalayas. In 1950, great earthquake of Assam actually changed the entire topography of the area. Brahmaputra changed its course; it’s been flooding the plains of Assam every year since then. Coincidently the very dam of Lower Subansiri project currently being developed by NHPC is located on the fault line of the great earthquake of 1950. God forbids if there is an earthquake of 8.5 Richter scale again, it would be a disaster – at least that is what the people of Assam shudder to think.
I’m not guided by any kind of biased views, but if somebody’s raising an issue that has to be addressed by appropriate authority. In today’s world there is technology to take care of structure even in earthquake prone areas. You have to tell the people of Assam that an appropriate technology is being used and the dam is going to be safe. That has to be told to people or else they are becoming victims of frightening misinformation. They are being constantly told that river dams are like huge ‘water bombs’. Unfortunately even the main opposition Asom Gana Parishad has changed its tune. Consistently, the party had demanded big dams in the state for long 25 years. With the elections approaching, they are now making a U Turn on dams on one up-manship contest against dams.
We have to create condition for debate and discussion on river dams. Let people be told that appropriate technology is being used and that Central Government is very sensitive to these issues – that we are in safe hands. Before that the question that will continue to haunt us in Assam is ‘hydal power at what cost’?
(As told to Kunal Majumder)
THE VILLAGERS of Panchangi and Aalor of Kanker district in Chhattisgarh are a terrified lot. On 5-6 September, Border Security Force (BSF) personnel allegedly ransacked the villages, thrashed the people and subjected them to electric shocks. The district magistrate and the BSF have ordered inquiries to ascertain the truth.
The villagers say this was in retaliation for the incident on 28 August, when Naxalites ambushed a BSF and District Force raiding party and killed five security personnel in the nearby Bhuski village. After the ambush, when the BSF jawans were unable to arrest Naxals responsible for the attack, they vent their anger on helpless villagers.
TEHELKA’s inquiries revealed that five villagers were beaten so brutally that they were admitted to the district hospital of Kanker in a critical condition. But when the incident came to light, they were discharged immediately, with no mention of their condition in their discharge report.
During the TEHELKA team’s visit to Aalor, women started crying while narrating their ordeal. Sunita said she was lucky that the BSF jawan left her after torturing her for almost 10 hours. But her father Punem Kumar Telami and sister Sarita weren’t lucky. They have been branded Naxals and are in police custody.
According to Sunita, on 5 September, BSF men surrounded the village. They searched her house and threw out all the belongings. Her father was not at home at that time. The BSF men asked both the sisters and their mother to accompany them to a camp because a senior officer wanted to question them.
When Sunita’s father reached the camp, he was detained and her mother was allowed to go. Later in the evening, both the sisters were taken to a camp located in Durg Kondal where Sunita was asked whether she had attended any Naxal meeting. When she denied having done so, angry BSF officers asked his men to give her electric shocks. She immediately admitted to having attended two meetings called by Naxals. She was later released but her sister had no such luck.
Meanwhile, Sunita’s uncle Suklu was put in jail for trying to rescue his nieces. Others, including, Ramnath Duga and Amrita, were assaulted and arrested by the jawans and later branded Naxals.
Worse was to follow. On 6 September, BSF jawans raided Panchangi village and, according to the villagers, crossed all limits of decency. Viddey Ram, a victim of BSF brutality, is unable to stand on his feet, while his sister Mangtey has been sent to a juvenile home.
According to villagers, they were asked to assemble at the anganwadi centre and then one by one they were taken to the nearby hill where they were thrashed and asked where they had kept their SLRs (self-loading rifles). When the sarpanch of the village tried to intervene, he was threatened by the jawans.
Dhanso’s brother Narsingh is still not able to walk on his own. Narsingh had married recently and all his household items were destroyed by the BSF jawans.
Villagers also allege that while the menfolk were being beaten in the hills, some BSF jawans tried to outrage the modesty of the girls. The family of Laluram Koram alleges that a BSF jawan tried to rape his minor girl child. But the presence of several villagers outside his house forced the jawan to beat a hasty retreat.
Another girl, Urmila, whom TEHELKA was not able to meet, has testified before the Scheduled Tribes (ST) Commission that BSF jawans tried to outrage her modesty as well.
THE BSF has arrested several persons from these villages, including six minors, who were sent to a juvenile detention centre. When this brutal incident came to light, the state ST Commission constituted an inquiry. But when the chairperson, Devlal Dugga, went to Durg Kondal for the public hearing, villagers were not allowed to attend the meeting on the plea that heavy firing was going on in a BSF camp near Gumdidih jungle.
Dugga confirmed that villagers were stopped from reaching Durg Kondal. He also said that as soon as he came to know about it, he ordered policemen to bring all the villagers before him.
He has also asked for the version of those people who are in police custody. After hearing both sides, the commission will submit its report to the government.
Kanker Collector Nirmal Khakha has ordered a criminal probe into the incident and the BSF, on its part, has also set up a court of inquiry. However, the securitymen remain defiant. “Allegations have been levelled at the jawans. They are yet to be verified,” says BSF DIG Ram Avtar.
Meanwhile, Kanker SP Ajay Yadav is dismissive of the incident. He claims that all these accusations were made under pressure from the Naxalites and the real picture will emerge soon.
But until the real culprits are identified and punished, the villagers will continue to live in fear of the uniform.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
One year after the launch of Operation Green Hunt, peace remains elusive as before
Vice-President, Revolutionary Democratic Front of India
WHEN YOU hear about the killing of a policeman deployed in anti-Maoist operations, you are expected to condemn it in the strongest words possible. Otherwise you will be labelled an anti-national. If you have expressed an opinion that is perceived to be contrary to the Prime Minister’s beliefs that “Naxalism is the largest internal security threat,” you should make it a point to condemn the killing. Or else, you could end up being charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
One could feel a sense of déjà vu in the public domain after the Maoists killed Lucas Tete, one of the four hostages captured in the Maoist ambush on a Bihar Military Police camp in Lakhisarai. This is the biggest incident of its kind in Bihar after ‘Operation Green Hunt’ was launched in 2009. Ironically, the first anniversary of what civil society rightly terms a war against the people is being celebrated in a most bizarre manner in a state where the operation has been supposedly implemented reluctantly by its government.
|Whose martyr? Lucas Tete, the Adivasi cop killed by the Maoists|
The release of three policemen by the Maoists coincided with the announcement of the Bihar Assembly election. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar never uttered a word all through the show to indicate that he would consider releasing the eight Maoists in exchange for the four men. Neither did he ever reject the Maoists’ demand. A perfect statesman. Why did the Maoists demand the swap when they knew that ordinary policemen have no importance for the government? Why did they kill Lucas Tete, a Jharkhandi Adivasi, and not the Yadav, Sinha or Khan among the four abducted men?
In the Lakhisarai case, the hostages were prisoners of war (POW). In a similar incident in 2009, Maoist leader Kishenji said that the policeman in their custody was a POW and they would do him no harm. As announced, he was released in exchange for Adivasi prisoners.
But in Lakhisarai, Tete was killed. The remaining three were released under pressure from civil society, if we are to believe what a Maoist spokesman told the media. In this case, the Union and Bihar governments didn’t feel any pressure to release the Maoists in exchange for the abducted men, as their social status was not weighty enough for that. There is no other reason. Because we know from a number of such cases in Andhra Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Northeast and West Bengal that hostages were swapped for prisoners as demanded by abductors. Why didn’t it happen in the Lakhisarai case?
INDIA DOESN’T have a clear policy in this regard. The Home Minister supported the West Bengal government for the release of Adivasi prisoners in exchange for Atindranath Dutta, the office-in-charge of Sankrail police station in 2009. The government justified this act by claiming the prisoners were not involved in serious crimes. If so, why were they not out on bail?
Tete’s killing is regrettable. It is a pattern followed by the Indian State, as in the case of Azad and Hemchandra Pandey, but is uncharacteristic of revolutionaries. The Maoists have to come up with a clear policy on the issue. Such issues should not be left to be decided in the circumstances in which they happen. India has rejected instituting a judicial inquiry, though evidence indicates it was cold-blooded murder. Ever since, the government has evaded questions related to Azad’s peace proposals.
The peace process shouldn’t be derailed. The government alone cannot decide on war and peace. It has been a year now since the war on people was launched. The situation has to change. It is through a strong people’s movement that India will be made to understand the need for peace in the place of its war on people.
PHOTO: MUKESH KUMAR
Thursday, September 09, 2010
in New Delhi
Jairam Ramesh at a press conference in New Delhi on August 24.
THE CONVEYER BELT to supply bauxite ore to the Vedanta alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Orissa's Kalahandi district was built without any formal approval.
in New Delhi
|The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests reverses its approach and refuses clearance to the Vedanta mining project.|
Jairam Ramesh at a press conference in New Delhi on August 24.
ON August 24, Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests, uploaded on the Ministry's website the text of his detailed decision rejecting the application from Vedanta Resources for forest clearance to start bauxite mining in Orissa's Niyamgiri hills. The decision is a rare instance of how the executive can use its powers to correct a perceived injustice resulting from its own earlier decision and directions of the Supreme Court. Jairam Ramesh's decision reversed the Ministry's first-stage forest clearance granted to the Orissa government in December 2008 and made inoperative the Supreme Court's August 8, 2008, clearance to Vedanta's Indian affiliate, Sterlite, to divert forests for bauxite mining.
The crux of the controversy is the Centre's powers to stop diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes. Ever since the subject of forests was transferred from the State List to the Concurrent List under the Constitution in 1976, the Centre's powers to act directly in managing the country's forests have been recognised. The Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 conveyed Parliament's intention to arrest the rapid decline in forest cover which had, until then, averaged one million hectares a year. The Act prevented the cutting of trees in forests without the Central government's approval. However, interpretation of the Act's provisions gave rise to legal problems. The meaning of the word ‘forest' used in the Act was contested, and the need for prior approval of the Central government in all activities in the forest area was questioned before the Supreme Court. Although the Supreme Court resolved this issue of definition easily in terms of the dictionary meaning of ‘forest', the cases before it presented an opportunity for it to assume a much more active role than it had been assigned originally. Thus, the Supreme Court began to issue, from December 1996, sweeping directives to oversee the enforcement of forest laws across the country. It aimed to regulate the felling and use of trees and the movement of timber in all States to promote sustainable use of forests. It sought to do this through a Special Bench and a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to examine the technical issues, whose advice has not always been binding on the Bench.
Jairam Ramesh's decision is significant because for the first time since the Supreme Court began playing an activist role in forest matters the Central government has asserted its powers and felt bold enough to render a Supreme Court decision irrelevant. In this the Minister was helped by legal opinion, tendered by Attorney-General G.E. Vahanvati, that the Supreme Court's direction is not binding on the government if it rejects an application for forest clearance.
How it all started
On February 28, 2005, the Orissa government forwarded a proposal to the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF) for the diversion of 660.749 hectares of forest land for mining bauxite in favour of the Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC) in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts.
The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) in the MoEF recommended “in principle” approval on October 27, 2007, stipulating certain conditions such as concurrent reclamation, minimum tree felling in a phased manner and modified wildlife management plan. Although the August 24 decision does not elaborate, it is relevant to know how the FAC arrived at the decision to recommend “in principle” approval.
In September 2005, the CEC recommended to the Supreme Court that mining should not be permitted on the Niyamgiri hill. The CEC report was a scathing indictment of the project and questioned the integrity of the authorities involved. It also recommended that the environmental clearance granted by the MoEF for the alumina refinery plant on September 22, 2004, be revoked and all work be stopped.
Yet, in February 2006, the court referred the matter to the FAC and sought a report. The FAC requested the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and Central Mine Planning and Design Institute Limited (CMPDIL) to assess the project for soil erosion and impact on water resources. The CMPDIL cleared the project of all water-related concerns. The WII's report, submitted in June 2006, warned that bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri plateau would destroy a specialised wildlife habitat. However, following a special presentation by Orissa forest officers, the institute, in October 2006, recommended a Rs.42-crore plan for mitigation of impact on wildlife. When the Supreme Court heard the matter on May 16 and 18, 2007, the CEC argued that the FAC had acted irresponsibly and with “undue haste” in granting Vedanta clearances. On December 11, 2008, the MoEF granted in-principle clearance to the State government.
On August 10, 2009, the State government applied to the MoEF for the final clearance. The FAC recommended on November 4, 2009, that the final clearance be considered only after ascertaining the community rights on forest land and after the process of establishing such rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), is completed.
On January 1, 2010, the FAC constituted a three-member expert group to carry out a site inspection. When this group recommended further examination on various grounds, Jairam Ramesh set up a four-member committee of specialists, chaired by Naresh Saxena, former Secretary, Planning Commission, to facilitate a holistic investigation. This committee submitted its report on August 16.
Saxena Committee's report
Some salient findings of the Saxena Committee, which influenced the MoEF's decision not to grant the final clearance, are:
The project would severely disturb important wildlife habitat that has been proposed as part of the Niyamgiri Wildlife Sanctuary.
THE CONVEYER BELT to supply bauxite ore to the Vedanta alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Orissa's Kalahandi district was built without any formal approval.
More than 1.21 lakh trees would need to be cleared for mining besides many more lakh shrubs and herbal flora.
The grasses are breeding and fawning ground for the four-horned antelope ( Tetracerus quadricornis), barking deer ( Muntiacus muntjac) as well as spotted deer ( Axis axis). A rare lizard, golden gecko ( Callodactylodes aureus), is found on the proposed lease area. The populations of all these species will decline if mining is allowed.
Mining on the scale proposed in this habitat would severely disturb elephant habitats and threaten the important task of elephant conservation in south Orissa.
The mining operations involve stripping of more than seven square kilometres of the Niyamgiri hilltop, which would drastically alter the region's water supply.
The proposed mining lease (PML) area is intimately linked, by way of economic, religious, and cultural ties, to 28 Kondh villages with a total population of 5,148. The affected include 1,453 Dongria Kondhs, who constitute 20 per cent of the total population of this tribe. Loss of forest cover will cause a substantial decline in their economic well-being. Landless Dalits who are dependent on Kondhs will also suffer.
Mining-related activities will deny Dongria Kondh access to their cultivable lands. Mining activities will also adversely affect the surrounding slopes and streams that are crucial for agriculture.
The Orissa government did not follow the Forest Rights Act and disregarded the legitimate and well-established rights of the Kondh Primitive Tribal Groups (PTGs).
The Orissa government is not likely to implement the Forest Rights Act in a fair and impartial manner as far as the PML area is concerned.
The MoEF cannot grant the clearance unless the process of recognition of rights under the Forest Rights Act is complete and satisfactory; the consent of the concerned community has been granted; and both points have been certified by the gram sabha of the area concerned. All of these conditions, not any one, must be satisfied.
If mining is permitted on this site, it will not only be illegal, but will also destroy one of the most sacred sites of the Kondh PTGs. It will make the area easily accessible to poachers and timber smugglers, threatening the rich biodiversity of the hills.
The mining activities at the PML site will have limited relevance to the refinery now under a sixfold expansion as the 72 million tonne ore deposit here would last only about four years for the increased needs of the expanded refinery. In balance against this are the adverse consequences on the primitive tribal people, the environment and the wildlife of these forests.
Vedanta Aluminium Limited was accorded clearance under the Environment Protection Act (EPA) on the condition that no forest land would be used for the establishment of the refinery. But now it is clearly established that the company has occupied 26.123 ha of village forest land within the refinery boundary with the active collusion of the officials concerned. Hence, the environment clearance already granted is legally invalid. Allowing mining in the PML area would shake the faith of the tribal people in the laws of the land and have serious consequences for the security and well-being of the entire country.
FAC endorsed the report
The FAC on August 23 endorsed the Saxena Committee report, accepting that there was lack of diligence in safeguarding the rights of the PTGs in the adjoining forest areas, and found it a fit case for applying the precautionary principle to obviate the irreparable damage to the affected people. This principle requires the government authorities to anticipate, prevent and attack the causes of environmental pollution. It imposes the onus of proof on the developer or industrialist to show that his or her action is environmentally benign.
The FAC, therefore, recommended temporary withdrawal of the in-principle/stage-1 approval accorded by the MoEF for the diversion of 660.749 ha of forest land in favour of Orissa Mining Corporation Ltd. After giving due opportunity to the State government to present its views on the Saxena Committee report, Jairam Ramesh elaborated on certain factors that he considered while arriving at his decision.