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At play in the fields of the lord

Written By mediavigil on Saturday, November 27, 2010 | 4:15 AM

DMK’s stint at the Environment Ministry straddled two coalitions and three terms: within it lie clues to the unraveling the real 'scam of the decade’, which puts the 2G scam to shame

It is ironic that the same headline-grabbing story of the 2G or second-generation spectrum scam that alerted people to the curious fact of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) 12-year uninterrupted stint in Delhi, straddling two coalitions and three terms, has managed to hide the fallout of this fact despite the 24-hour media glare. There is an unacknowledged and irreparable loss to India’s ecological and natural resources due to decisions taken by DMK ministers TR Baalu and Andimuthu Raja during their terms as environment ministers. If a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) is ever formed, which looks unlikely as of now, it should probably be examining the environmental and pollution crimes committed by the two with as much vigour as it investigates the spectrum scam.

It may be recalled that Baalu was the Union Minister for Environment and Forests from October 13, 1999, to December 21, 2003, during the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government. He was succeeded by Raja, who was in charge of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) from May 23, 2004 to May 17, 2007. It was during his tenure as MoEF minister that the Raja-Niira Radia relationship blossomed in January 2006, which made environmental clearances for various projects of Radia’s clients easier. Radia's influence in the ministry was an open secret. Actually, the roots of the present scam can be traced back to Raja’s incarnation as environment minister when environmental clearances for various projects brought companies across sectors closer to him. With the assistance of RK Chandolia, then a director, planning and coordination, in the ministry, and Radia, clearances were granted at a supersonic speed.

During the terms of the DMK ministers, the MoEF had almost decided to grant a self-certification option which would have exempted project expansion and modernisation proposals from seeking environment clearances, through one of the major amendments proposed to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2006, which delineates a legal process for the grant of environment clearances to industrial and infrastructure projects.

Raja’s tenure as environment minister has been termed by environmental groups as the “death certificate” of the MoEF. EIA notifications were first issued in 1994 under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. In the 20 years from 1986 to 2006, the MoEF cleared 4,016 projects. According to the 2009 report by the environmental group Kalpavriksh, entitled ‘Calling the Bluff: Revealing the state of Monitoring and Compliance of Environmental Clearance Conditions’, the MoEF cleared 80 to 100 projects every month with a range of environment and social impacts. Under the new EIA 2006 Notification, 2,016 projects were cleared between 2006 and 2008 in just two years. The MoEF chose to have no database on the extent of compliance of the projects it cleared. Those projects which were cleared under his regime now merit rigorous scrutiny.

Besides, the appointments for the Expert Appraisal Committees (EACs) and their conflicts of interests also need to be examined and their decisions reviewed. Under the EIA notification of 2006, the EACs’ role at the fourth stage of environment clearance (after the EIA report and the public hearing) is of enormous significance on sectors such as river valley and hydel/thermal power projects, industries, mining, infrastructure, etc. By 2005, out of 64 members in the various EACs, almost two-thirds of the members were from the National Capital Region and Tamil Nadu. It is as if most of the expertise on environment must come from DMK’s legislative constituencies so long it is in power.

The story of P Abraham, the former secretary, Ministry of Power, who was appointed in April 2007 by Raja, reveals the rot that set in during the DMK (mis)rule. Even though he was a proponent of hydropower projects, he was appointed to chair the EAC on River Valley and Hydroelectric Projects. After this was exposed by environmental groups, he was made to resign by the present environment minister. But no investigation has happened into all the clearances granted under Abhraham’s tenure.

If Raja’s tenure at the MoEF was a disaster for the environment, under his predecessor, Baalu, it had assumed a surreal garb. Instead of making every firm liable for their environmental crimes, Baalu launched the (mouthful) “Government's Charter on Corporate Responsibility for Environmental Protection” (CREP) on March 13, 2003, while arbitrarily choosing 17 out of the 64 heavily polluting industries under the highly polluting “red” category. A MoEF official, on condition of anonymity, had then commented that this done to attract funds for fighting elections which were then around the corner.

A Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) official revealed anonymously that in order to prepare this charter, some 17 meetings were held almost between 5 December 5, 2002, and January 10, 2003. In fact as many as four meetings took place in a day on some occasions. The “negotiations” for even this effete charter continued till March 12, 2003.
Even though the issue of monitoring and implementation was left unaddressed, Baalu had told the media, “We will not punish any industry if it fails to implement the charter, as such an act would be against the spirit of voluntary compliance.”
Both A Raja (left) and TR Baalu had headed the Environment Ministry earlier

Showing remarkable innocence, Baalu had the said that the pollution control boards and the industry would work together to check pollution. The (voluntary) CREP is applicable to 2,098 units in 17 categories of major polluting industries, including sugar (525 units), pharmaceuticals (397 units), distilleries (232 units), leather (150 units), pesticide (150 units), cement (126 units), fertilizer (111 units), dyes and dye intermediates (100 units), pulp and paper (96 units), thermal power plants (83 units), petrochemicals (51 units), caustic soda (35 units), refineries (17 units), iron and steel (8 units), aluminium (14 units), copper (6 units) and zinc (4 units). It recommended toxic technologies like incinerators, which emit harmful dioxins, to deal with hazardous waste of all kinds. In fact, to facilitate this move, there was at that time a proposal to make import of incinerators duty-free.

Meanwhile, the 150 units belonging to the pesticide industry suggested segregation, detoxication and treatment of highly toxic waste streams by standards set up by the industry itself.

Unlike the pesticide industry, the cement industry was unable to come to a consensus on the exact radius of the area around a cement plant that is vulnerable to pollution. When they were unable to decide whether the belt under threat of pollution around the project should be fixed at 3 or 7 km, the then special secretary, MoEF, VK Duggal, using remarkable mathematical genius, fixed a 5 km limit, it being the average of the two contending limits.

For other disagreements that any industry body had with the charter, the ministry had a simple solution – it simply deleted the problematic clauses. One clause in the charter required “all the major tannery units to obtain ISO 14000 certification by December 2004”. This was deleted. The section on tanneries exploring the possibility of “sulphur recovery (for reuse) from sulphide-bearing effluents, by December 2005,” was also removed from the charter.

The chlor-alkali industry benefited the most from such omissions. The draft charter had proposed shutting down all chlor-alkali plants based on mercury cell technology by December 2005 and had directed them to adopt membrane technology. The deadline was removed from the charter. Had the timeframe for compliance been retained, it would have seemed consistent with the incentive given in that year’s Union budget to encourage the shift to membrane cell technology. The incentive related to a 10 per cent reduction in customs duty on components of membrane cell technology. This was to make their import cheaper.

The charter requires the industry to reduce mercury consumption to below 50 gm for every of product manufactured, which is still very high. As of now, mercury-based chlor-alkali units are being allowed to release approximately 25-30 tonnes of mercury annually to produce 500,000 to 600,000 tonnes of caustic soda, in comparison to best-practices of Western Europe, where only 9 tonnes of mercury is consumed to produce 6 million tonnes of caustic soda.

Although the petrochemical sector and refineries is included in the list of highly polluting industry, it was treated with notable softness. When asked about punishing the industries which do not comply, Baalu had once said that the charter incorporates voluntary initiatives and the industry would self regulate.

Needless to say, there was no civil society consultation in drafting CREP. The two-day seminar at Ashoka Hotel, Delhi, where the charter was released, resembled a corporate launch.

Not surprisingly, less than 50 per cent of the projects cleared in 2003 had monitoring reports generated by the MoEF, and only 150 of the 223 projects cleared in 2003 had at least one compliance report submitted by project authorities.

Clearances by the DMK environment ministers ignored issues like soil erosion and land degradation for projects impacting about 146.82 million hectares of the country’s total geographical area of 328.60 million hectares, besides generation of 4.4 million tonnes of hazardous waste across the country during this period, and poisoning of the food chain as evidenced in Punjab where 287 toxic chemicals were detected in the umbilical cord blood in a mother’s womb. The resulting human costs due to callous and corrupt decision-making put the financial loss in the spectrum scam to shame.

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