“I’ve not seen even a single, honest EIA” - Interview with Prof Madhav Gadgil, WGEEP in Media Voice magazine

Article and Image courtesy: Media Voice magazine
Author: Renitha Raveendran

Dr Madhav Gadgil says that most of the projects along the Western Ghats have flouted environmental norms.

Dr Madhav Gadgil The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests to study the current status of the ecology of the Western Ghat region, is due to submit its final report in March. Headed by renowned ecologist Dr Madhav Gadgil, the panel was mandated to identify areas to be earmarked for notification as ecologically sensitive zones within this ecosystem. The fate of many controversial hydroelectric and other projects along this approximately 1,600 km of forested ranges, which includes the fragile Nilgiris biosphere, depend on the findings of this panel.

In an interim report on the developmental projects in Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra (where the controversial 9900MW Jaitapur nuclear park is located), the panel has strongly criticized the government for its poor implementation of environmental laws. The report also flayed officials for failing to protect the civil rights of local people. In this candid interview, Dr Gadgil talks about the importance of the region, serious systemic flaws that help culprits get away with environmental destruction and how the benefits of many developmental projects never reach some section of society.

Question: In the interim report on the developmental projects in Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri districts of Maharashtra, you have said that in many places Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) were flawed and environment protection laws were not enforced. Has the system been a failure, starting at the administrative level?

Answer: The EIA reports, in many cases, have not been prepared objectively. There were major systemic flaws. The project proponents themselves commissioned the assessments. Even the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) a supposedly neutral agency has prepared a biased report on the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project, simply to push the project. The report does not reflect the ground reality for instance; it says Madban (which falls in the proposed project area) is a barren plateau with just a few species of grass. In reality, the plateau has a very large number of rare and endemic species of grass. The agency had outsourced its biodiversity studies to the Dr. Balasaheb Sawant Konkan Krishi Vidyapeeth. The university study talks about several mangrove forests, but NEERI, in its report, removed this part and said the place hardly has any mangrove forests. NEERI has, thus, distorted the facts.

Question: Are you saying that EIA’s are just eyewash?

Answer: During this review, I have not seen even a single, objective and honest EIA . I am told, a power corporation in a tender notice for a project said that it is the responsibility of the agency that does EIA to get full permission for the project from the government. Then, how can we expect the assessment to be objective? This is unacceptable. EIA’s have become just a tool to get project permission from the government. This certainly should be changed.

Question: So, were EIA’s flawed only in Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg projects?

Answer: Wherever we could get hold of a report, we found flaws. The Gundiya project in Karnataka (KPCL's 400MW plant) has serious flaws. Our panel may not be able to look into every project, but we are studying different cases.

Question: But don't such projects generate jobs?

Answer: The general belief is that such projects bring in a lot of job opportunities. But it is something that we should study closely and find out whether in reality, they have created or destroyed jobs. In Ratnagiri, local fishermen say that more jobs have been destroyed with the destruction of the fishery than generated. No studies have been done so far on this. The drastic decline of fishery due to water pollution is clearly evident. So, it is plausible that jobs have shrunk.

Question: What are the other problems that you observed in this region?

Regional plan: Under the Town and Regional Planning Act, a district regional plan is prepared for every district. It defines areas for different industries and preferences and possibilities for different economic sectors. In Ratnagiri, it is clearly mentioned that horticulture, fishery and tourism are important economic sectors and certain pattern of land use is described. So, industries should come without hurting the interests of these sectors, and also not unduly impacting the forest areas. This prescription was not adhered to.

Zonal Atlas: There is something called the 'Zonal Atlas for Setting up Industries' report, prepared separately for each zone by the Central Pollution Control Board. The sites of industries are supposed to be decided according to these atlases. This has not been followed in Ratnagiri and the laws were completely violated. The atlases had been prepared many years ago, and the government had received grants from Germany to prepare them. However, these atlases are still not in the public domain, they are not even made available under RTI. Why is the government not making them public? The only possible answer is that the industry does not want them to be public knowledge.

Mining: The panel had interaction with civil society and the mining industry in Goa. There are active, illegal mining happening in Goa, which even the mining industry has acknowledged. In Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, there are a large number of illegal mines. Goa and Ratnagiri definitely have many illegal mines.

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