After the Fukushima tragedy struck in Japan, governments across the world started rethinking their Nuclear Policy. In India, the Minister of Environment and Forest (MoEF), Mr. Jairam Ramesh, also raised several red flags of India’s nuclear programme, including the safety of multi-reactor nuclear parks like Jaitapur (6 plants). And then there is a sudden volte-face -- it seems that if we want economic growth then there is no alternative (TINA).
Jairam Ramesh has acknowledged that there were “strategic, economic and diplomatic concerns” that influenced his decision to clear the project. It is a well-known fact that the Jaitapur nuclear plant is on an earthquake-prone zone and the French EPR reactors have not yet been tested anywhere in the world. The project will deprive 1,000 families of their farmland and 6,000 who depend on fishing for their steady income. Will the setting up of an “independent and autonomous” Nuclear Regulatory Authority of India -- that has been announced post facto-- set right the original sin committed by the government when the freedom and autonomy of people – hallmark of any true democracy – were given short shrift? Doesn’t the constitutional imperative of people’s consent get ignored when the Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan says, “The question of pausing or halting work at Jaitapur does not arise?” This despite wide protests by local residents and fishing communities on the ground of very legitimate fears of a nuclear disaster on the one hand, and the more immediate threat to their livelihoods on the other. The last one has heard on this is that the compensation for affected families has been raised from 4.5 lakhs per acre to 10 lakhs per acre, besides a promise of investment in infrastructure projects for community development in the field of health, amenities and education. But one may well ask, don’t education health and civic amenities constitute the basic rights of any citizen? So how can these be passed off as a compensation package, when these are rights that our constitution promises?
Lavasa Corporation Limited (LCL) bent rules, overlooked regulations and ignored environmental statutes while building the Lavasa Township. This has jeopardized the ecology of the Sahyadri hills. Lavasa will occupy about 5,000 hectares along the edges of seven hills in the Sahyadri range of the Western Ghats. The MoEF had issued a stop-work order and notice to LCL, as the company had failed to obtain environmental clearance from the Union ministry. An Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) constituted in March 2011, while acknowledging violations of environmental norms, observed that substantial development has already taken place in about 700 hectares and “In view of this and considering all related consequences, there is no other alternative before EAC, except appraising the project post facto..”. No marks for guessing that this is in the face of vigorous protests by local farming communities. So the TINA factor is at work here also. Since substantial development has taken place over 700 hectares, the project is being appraised post facto and certain conditions are being specified by the EAC, with a view to minimize future damage. What is the guarantee that this will not become precedence for other projects in future? It’s easy, first break the rule of law, then pay the fine, then get post facto clearance.
April 2011 saw the completion of the first year of the MoEF's promise to ensure green justice for one and all. Last year, the MoEF promised effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection, conservation of forests and other natural resources and access to specific biological material. We were looking forward to the setting up of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) with circuit benches across the country, headquartered in New Delhi and empowered to settle disputes under seven environmental statutes. Enforcement of legal rights related to environment and giving relief and compensation for damages to persons and property and related matters were part of its mandate. Nevertheless, the promised forum for green justice delivery is still not in place even as environment clearances continue to be granted to the tune of 100 a month. It then comes as no surprise that Jairam has given the final clearance to the South Korean steel major POSCO to divert 1253 hectares of forest land for its iron and steel project in Jagatsinghpur district in Orissa -- reposing “faith and trust in what the state government says is an essential pillar of cooperative federalism” in the state government’s assertion that no violation of forest laws was taking place at the project site. This despite the observation to the contrary of the Forest Rights Committee that was set by the same ministry to investigate the status of implementation of the Forest Rights Act. If the minister cannot repose “faith” in his own committee’s observation, why should the thousands of tribal people who are opposing the project for so many years matter? Clearly the MoEF not only lacks the political will to implement the Forest Rights Act in right earnest, but it also seems to have no intention of doing so.
The trick it seems is to glibly invoke a vocabulary constituting of high sounding terms -- TINA, post facto, cooperative federalism, etc. – that obfuscate the real issue at stake.
It’s not as if everything is bleak though. After all, the new Critical Wildlife Habitat (CWH) guidelines released in February 2011 did get recalled the very next month after protests by civil society groups; and bamboo harvesting for owning, cutting, using and selling has been legalized by declaring it as a minor forest produce (Mendha-Lekha in Gadchiroli has become the first village in India to get bamboo rights). The Union Minister for Environment has also announced that the “bhayanak (draconian)” provision to register offence in the Indian Forest Act against villagers entering forests will soon be repealed as “It is based in the British-era understanding that villagers and forests can’t co-exist.”
So here we see the Janus face of the ministry for environment and forest – one face towards nature, and other towards the corporate-industrial interest. In simpler language this is called running with the hare and hunting with the hound.
What will happen if thousands of hectares of land are sacrificed at the altar of the god of development? What will become of the farmers at Lavasa, the fisherfolk at Jaitapur or the Adivasis in Jagatsinghpur district of Orissa? Where would natural resource dependent communities go?
-- Milind Wani works with Kalpavriksh environmental action group, Pune. ------------------------------------------------------------+---------------------------------------------------------------