Sunday, November 28, 2010

Environmental Clearance to Navi Mumbai Airport – A Dangerous Precedent?

The Ministry of Environment and Forests finally accorded Environmental Clearance to the proposed International airport at Navi Mumbai on 22 November 2010. (Image from CIDCO website)

The MoEF press note of 22 Nov 2010, signed personally by the Minister Shri Jairam Ramesh, states that “a good agreement has been obtained to the optimal satisfaction of all sides concerned”. In principle, it is to be appreciated that optimality is the important goal in such matters, for any human action is certain to have an impact on the environment. As we cannot have zero human activity, we need to create a balance (optimality) between any developmental activity and the impacts on environment.

In this case, leaving aside for time being the question of whether all sides are really satisfied, it is important to note a serious problem with how this optimality has been achieved.

The MoEF press note states that “By August 2010, it was clear that, for various technical and non-technical reasons, the Navi Mumbai location has become a fait accompli.” With the Minister accepting the fait accompli “in good faith”, the clearance was as good as given. The only thing left was the matter of negotiating the conditions.

Considering a project for environmental and social clearance under the situation of fait accompli is nothing but pure arm twisting. It is a way of saying that no matter how high these impacts, the project has to go through because it is now irreversible. Unfortunately, this is a norm for many projects in India.

The MoEF press note implies the creation of the fait accompli in two ways. One, by arguing that there is absolutely no other alternative to the project. The MoEF press note describes how several other locations have been suggested but found unsuitable for the airport. Hence, the Navi Mumbai location is the only option left. However, this at best can make the location a fait accompli, but the location is conditional to the airport being established as necessary in the first place. Otherwise, this principle would necessarily make several projects like dams, mines fait accompli, as there are few alternatives regarding their locations. (You can have a mine only where there is a mineral or metal deposit!)

In other words, it is not sufficient for there to be no other alternative location, it is also necessary that the project itself is absolutely indispensable and that its overall benefits far outweigh any adverse impacts. The MoEF press note states that “With the constraints operating at the existing airport, the urgent need for a second airport for Mumbai, a public infrastructure, is obvious.” One hopes that this statement is figurative, for “obviousness” is subjective, and hardly evidence that something is necessary. The necessity of a project does not also automatically follow from the mere fact of it being a public infrastructure.

As I am not familiar with the studies assessing the need for the Navi Mumbai airport, I will accept that they would have been carried out in a comprehensive, transparent manner with ample opportunity for inputs from various stakeholders and stakelosers. However, it is a fact that many projects like dams and power projects are deemed as necessary on the basis of superficial studies, with the argument that the need for water and power is “obvious”, the “national interest” is “obvious”. Once the project is considered as indispensable, then the social and environmental clearances are considered as mere procedural hurdles. This is the case of a project being conceptually a fait accompli as it has to go ahead, no matter what.

The second way in which a project is rendered fait accompli is when work has been done, land has been acquired, money has been spent, or commitments have been made so that it is not possible to go back on the project. In case of Navi Mumbai airport, this factor also seems to be operating. The Government of India had even amended the CRZ Notification 1991 to allow for an airport at Navi Mumbai. The TORs for the Environment Impact Assessment were issued only after this amendment. Many projects in India fall in this category. In the state of Arunachal Pradesh, for example, the state government is taking huge sums of money from private hydropower developers as advances to “allot” projects to them. With such advances, it is difficult for the projects to be later rejected. Another important case is when projects are cleared piecemeal. For example, consider a coal based thermal power project. If the plant is given clearance without the coal mine being cleared, the work on the plant can go ahead, money can be spent and this creates tremendous pressure to accord clearance to the mine. It is learnt that MoEF has just brought out a circular saying that a thermal power plant or steel plant will not be cleared unless the mine is given clearance first. This is a welcome initiative, but needs to be extended to all such projects. Most notorious recent cases have been the Vedanta case where the refinery was functioning but the mine (Niyamgiri) had not been accorded the clearance, and the case of POSCO Steel Plant where the port and steel plant have been given clearance but it is not sure if the other components like the iron ore mines have been given clearances.

In sum, it is clear that while any developmental activity needs a balance between human intervention and environmental impact, such a balance cannot be reached under the condition of fait accompli. Unfortunately, forcing social and environmental clearances under the pressure of fait accompli has been the practice rather than exception in India.

As the processes related to the Navi Mumbai airport had been underway much before Shri Jairam Ramesh became the Minister for Environment and Forest, we can take his acceptance of fait accompli as an honest admission. We only hope that it does not set a dangerous precedent, but rather, the open admission signifies the recognition of a problem and leads to measures to root out such practises.

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