The Union environment ministry on Monday issued guidelines on holding public consultations for various large infrastructure projects like mining or industry which were on hold since March.
Environmental experts have red-flagged certain clauses in the environment ministry’s office memorandum because they could dilute the consultation process in remote areas where local people have no access to internet or other means of submitting responses in writing.
The guidelines state that 100 people can gather for a hearing while maintaining social distancing as per the home ministry’s order under Unlock 4. If more than 100 people are required to gather then hearings can be staggered to more than one hearing. The guidelines have also provided the option of holding online or virtual hearings in addition to physical public hearings. The guidelines also state that state pollution control boards can obtain responses from local communities in writing “from concerned persons having plausible stake in the environmental aspects of the project or activity, through electronic means”. The guidelines do not clarify if the written submissions are in addition to physical hearings.
On completion of the virtual or physical hearing the pollution control boards will submit a summary of the issues raised during the hearing in person or virtually or through email along with a response of the project proponent along with a certificate of the district magistrate or his authorised representative to the ministry or other regulatory authority, the guidelines, seen by HT state.
“For the ministry or project proponents, public hearings may be just one step closer to the grant of an environment clearance. For affected people, these are not just platforms for receiving information but a rare and critical opportunity for a direct interface with their government. The guidelines are designed to push through public hearings and not take socio-ecologically informed decisions. Those who choose to attend them will do so at a grave health risk and for many others, particularly in remote areas the hearings will be efficiently wrapped online or offline, even before people can wrap their heads around these new guidelines,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research.
“Demand has reduced across sectors including mining leading to a slump. Public hearings had stopped. We had been demanding that public hearings should begin so that our operations can start again,” said Ashish Das, Federation of Indian Mineral Industries joint director.
Senior environment ministry officials were not reachable for a comment on the clauses on Monday but press information bureau representatives confirmed that the office memorandum had been issued on Monday evening.