Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tribals Fight for Access Rights in North East India

There are reasons to smile for the members of the Idu Mishmi community in the North Eastern State of Arunachal Pradesh located in the Himalayan Mountain Ranges: The Government on 13-08-08 has cancelled the proposed Public Hearing for the proposed 3000 MW Hydel Power Dam to be located in Dibang District of Arunachal Pradesh.

For more than a year, local tribal communities have been protesting against the dam touted to be among the highest in the Country on the ground that it would devastate the fragile ecology and destroy the culture and livelihood of the Idu Mishmi Community numbering only 8000 Individuals.

The Dibang Dam is a classic instance of a fight of a local community for access to Information and Participation and a partial victory of the community. When the first Public Hearing was announced, local tribal community sent a legal notice through Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) requesting for postponement of the hearing in view of the fact that the Environment Impact Assessment Report was not available at designated places and only an electronic version was made available in a state where people hardly had access to Internet. The Government relented and directed that no Public Hearing be conducted till the required EIA

Reports are made available at the designated places for access to the community. The Public Hearing was planned over two phases. The first Public Hearing saw large scale protests by community members.

As the Public Hearing process was underway, in a shocking development aimed clearly at undermining the Public consultation process, the Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh decided to lay the foundation stone for the project at Itanagar, the State Capital located more than 500 Km from the project site ! This was met with stiff opposition both locally and nationally.

Finally, the date for the second Public Hearing was fixed on 20-8-2008. However, the community was shocked to learn that the place for conducting the Public Hearing was more than 100 Km from the affected villages and project site. The Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 provides for conducting the Public Hearing in or in proximity to the project site. In the North Eastern Part of the country characterized by undulating terrain and heavy rainfall travelling 100 Km could very well take even upto a day’s journey.

The Community members with the support of Neeraj Vagholikar of NGO Kalpavriksh contacted Rahul Choudhary, Environmental lawyer and member of TAI Himalayan Coalition who immediately shot off a legal notice during the first week of August, 2008 citing violation of Principles of Natural Justice and provisions of the EIA procedure by conducting the Public Hearing at such a distant place which would make it difficult for the affected community to participate and thereby defeating the whole purpose of Public Hearing.

On 13th August, Community members were pleasantly surprised to know that the proposed Public Hearing has been cancelled. Even more important was the fact that the Chief Minister of the State has called for a meeting with all the concerned organizations who have been raising the issue with respect to the Dam to be held on 20-8-2008. The happenings in the far eastern State of Arunachal has important lessons for the rest of the Country. The community is convinced that there is no use of Public Consultation unless it is based on adequate and proper information about the dam and its impact and the fact that people should be able to participate effectively in the Public Hearing. Easy access to the place where the Public Hearing is conducted is as important as access to information. In the absence of these pre conditions, the Public Hearing process becomes a mere formality and procedure to be accomplished in the EIA process. For the Idu Mishmi Community, it is their first step in securing their access rights.

By Ritwick Dutta

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Public Hearing at Munsiyari, Uttarakhand

Recently held Public Hearing for Rupsiabagar – Khasiabara Hydro Electric Project at Munsiyari District of Uttarakhand is an example of the establishment and corporate playing farce with the provisions of public hearing provided in the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 (EIA Notification). The EIA Notification provides for conducting Public Hearing in the project-affected areas for the projects which fall under the schedule of the EIA Notification. The Public Hearing is a platform where the persons who have any objection to the project can register the same, and the proceedings of the public hearing with objections of the public are sent to the Ministry of Environment & Forest to decide over granting Environmental Clearance to the project.
The Project proponent of Rupsiabagar – Khasiabara Hydro Electric Project, National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) scheduled the public hearing on 11.06.2008 when most of villagers are out to higher altitude of mountains to collect ‘Yarsagumba’ ( or cordyceps sinesis is a rare herb and grows above 3,500 meters of the Himalayas) knowing very well that most of the villagers will not be able to participate in the public hearing. The NTPC scheduled the public hearing at this time to complete the formality of conducting public hearing without any opposition. The way this public hearing was conducted shows that NTPC and the State Machinery did not want Public Hearing to be conducted in fair manner.
The number of families who will be losing land is almost 1362, according to the NTPC, which is generally careful not to reveal the true figures. It is true for other projects and will happen in this project also that the villagers who are dependant on agricultural land for livelihood are paid very less compensation for their land, and the money given is not sufficient to buy similar kind of land. The money given as compensation does not last long and the farmers end up becoming labourers on the construction site or working in small hotels or dabhas in Delhi and living a miserable life. The government has developed a great law for acquisition of land, where under Section 17 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, invoking urgency clause it can acquire the land without entertaining any objection, but at the same place there is no proper policy about the rehabilitation of the person affected by the project.
This situation is similar as stated by Karl Marx in Capital Vol-1, referring to legislations against the expropriated of France, Netherland and Holland, that “Thus where the agricultural people, first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded by laws grotesquely terrible, into discipline necessary for wage system”.
The Public hearing held on 11.06.2008 was opposed by the local people on the grounds that:
* Almost all the villagers of 8-9 villages of the project area would go to collect ‘Yarsa Gumba’* The other villagers were not informed about the project properly.* No sufficient information about the public hearing.* The executive summary of the project was not made available.* The Environment Impact Assessment report of the project was available almost at the distance of 150 K.M from the project site, which was not possible for the villagers to access.* The Procedure of conducting Public Hearing has not been followed as provided in the EIA Notification, 2006.
The Public Hearing was scheduled at 11 AM, and just at the start of public hearing the locals got hold of dais and asked from the panel members of the public hearing to postpone the hearing. There were villagers like one Gram pradhan and Block Head who wanted to continue the public hearing for the reasons that they will get petty contracts from the NTPC during the construction of project. For almost three hours the hearing was stalled and the panel of the Public Hearing decided to postpone it. However the NTPC gave the presentation highlighting the benefits of the project and very obviously missing out the impacts of the projects. No questions or objections were raised to the panel members as the public was told that this public hearing is postponed and it will be held again in October when the villagers are back. Only two-three persons who were expecting favour from the NTPC in terms of getting contracts spoke in support of the project, to which the NTPC personnel were not tired of clapping.
The very next day on June 12, 2008 it was reported in the newspaper like ‘Amar Ujala’ and ‘Rashtriya Sahara’ that the public hearing was postponed due to protest. But the NTPC did not allow the media to ruin their plan to show the public hearing of June 11 as the final hearing to get the Environmental Clearance. The very newspaper ‘Amar Ujala’ which reported that the Public Hearing was postponed published an advertisement in its 13th June edition, that the public hearing was held for the Rupsiabagar – Khasiabara Hydro Electric Project amidst protest. This is clearly an indication that the NTPC will submit this as a final Public Hearing, showing the Ministry of Environment & Forest that the project was supported by the locals.
To paraphrase Marx, capitalism flourishes only by breaking down all resistance. Evidently, this public hearing is also an example of a strong corporate-state-media nexus, which undermines public objections and opposition, looking for every means to breakdown the resistance of the maginalised people.

By Rahul Choudhary

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Grass is going to be Greener this year!

The benefit of Right to Information and citizens participation
in environmental issues is not just limited to NGO’s and citizens
but can also be of great help to government officers and specially to those trying to implement the law and Judgments of Court but face resistance from other departments. The recent instance in the famous Tea growing Darjeeling Hills In India provides an interesting example. As the example of Darjeeling shows, the petitioner got the relief before even the case was heard by the Supreme Court special committee on Forests in view of the strong evidence obtained through the Right to information Act, 2005. The issue relates to an ecologically fragile part of the Himalayas located in Darjeeling viz the Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary which is home to several endangered Species. A part of the Sanctuary which comprises of grasslands was used for dumping old vehicles by the local government i.e the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council and in the process it encroached upon 20 acres of land of the Protected Area. This was done in violation of the provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and even the orders of the Supreme Court. The forest officer in charge of the Sanctuary, Ms Sumita Ghatak directed the Hill Council to remove the Vehicles. The Hill Council resisted it and continued to dump its old vehicles and thereby polluting and destroying the fragile ecology this continued till April 2008. The orders from the Forest Department not only met with strict resistance but also led the Hill Council making a formal Complaint before the Government for strict action against the Forest Officer for harassment and undermining the authority of the Hill council. It was at this moment that conservation groups and concerned citizens got together. Using the Right to Information Act, 2005, local citizens obtained all inter departmental correspondence which reveled shocking level of arrogance of the Hill council to the provisions of law as well as orders of the Supreme Court. It was clearly seen that the manner in which the Hill council responded to the direction of the Forest Officer, prima facie constituted contempt of the Court. The Hill council sought to overlook the provisions of all conservation laws. Using the various information obtained under RTI, a Petition comprising was filed by a national level NGO : Wildlife Trust of India, before the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court praying for initiation of contempt proceeding against the Principal Secretary of the Hill Council. As is required as per the Court procedure, a copy of the petition was sent to the Hill Council. Surprisingly, within three days of receiving the copy of the Petition and without even the case coming up for hearing, the Hill Council wrote to the Forest officer informing that in view of the petition filed in the CEC, the Hill council would like to surrender the entire 29 acres immediately and also take away all the vehicles dumped by it !. And yes, within days (first week of (first week of May 2008) the Vehicles was removed and the land is back with the wildlife and Forest Department.
Is it a case of effective judicial remedy or the benefits of RTI or responsive civil society intervention ? Well it is a mix of all and the beneficiary is obviously the wildlife of Darjeeling hills which will get to munch in an extra 29 acres of grassland free of rusting vehicles !

By Ritwick Dutta (with inputs from Vyom Raghuvanshi, WTI)

A Public Hearing without the 'real' public

The TAI assessments in Northern India were conceptualized as
Research for Action and not just plain academic research. As planned, the action would take place once the research findings and assessments are completed. However, we are happy to share this story on how action seems to have started before the assessments are completed ! The field study for the two northern Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are at advanced stages. As part of our field assessments, the TAI research team had to visit the picturesque remote town of Pithoragarh, Uttrakhand. Sharing its border with Nepal, the task of the TAI team was to assess the emergency response system especially with respect to access to information for a Hydel Power project in operation.
The team interviewed local community members informed by local activist Ramnarayan about a Public Hearing to be held within the next two days for a proposed Hydel Power Project called the Rupsiyabagar-Khasiabara of the National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd (NTPC). The villagers knew very little about the project and its implication and Ramnarayan has been guiding them in making them aware of their rights.
The TAI Research team which comprised a group of three environmental lawyers immediately worked out a strategy with local activist Ramnarayan. A copy of the EIA report was immediately procured which before now was not made available, and a rapid critique of it was prepared based on consultation with the local community. TAI researchers assisted the local groups in preparing Representations before the concerned authorities.
The most disturbing aspect which was raised by local groups was the fact that the Public Hearing was being held at a time when most of the villagers have gone to the higher altitudes to collect medicinal plants, grazing as well as collecting a extremely valuable Yarsagumba’ Cordyceps sinesis : a highly priced Fungi which is much in demand in Chinese Medicine. In fact, almost all the villagers in the 6-8 villages in the project area had gone for collection of medicinal plants. Further, the EIA document was made available over 150 Km away (in difficult terrain, this could take a lot of time given a weak network of roads).
From the biodiversity point of view, the area is the home to the endangered Musk Dear besides other Himalayan Species. The EIA has failed to take these factors into account.
The Public Hearing on 11-6-2008 at Munsiary met with stiff resistance. Most of the people opposed the Public Hearing since it was meaningless in view of the affected community not being present and the required document not being made available. Predictably, some of the Village leaders supported it in view of the petty and short term contracts they are to get. The Public Hearing was scheduled at 11 AM, and just at the start of the public hearing the locals got hold of dais and asked the panel members of the public hearing to postpone the hearing.
For almost three hours the hearing was stalled, and then the panel of the Public Hearing decided to postpone it. However the NTPC (the Project proponent) gave the presentation highlighting the benefits of the project but very obviously ignoring the negative impacts of the projects. No questions or objections were raised to the panel members as the public was told that this public hearing is postponed and it will be held again in October when the villagers are back.
The very next day on June 12, 2008 it was reported in the newspaper like ‘Amar Ujala’ and ‘Rashtriya Sahara’ that the public hearing was postponed due to protest. But the NTPC did not allow the media to ruin their plan to show the public hearing of June 11 as the final hearing to get the Environmental Clearance. The very newspaper ‘Amar Ujala’ which reported that the Public Hearing was postponed published an advertisement in its 13th June edition, that the public hearing was held for the Rupsiabagar - Khasiabara Hydro Electric Project amidst protest. This is clearly an indication that the NTPC will submit this as a final Public Hearing, showing the Ministry of Environment & Forest that the project was supported by the locals. TAI-Himalayan Coalition will be assisting the local groups in ensuring that the affected communities are heard and the ecology protected.
Public Hearing such as these become unfortunately a stage-managed show. Unless there is active and meaningful involvement of the people in the decision making process, the implementation of Principle 10 at the local level is still a far away. Yet, as the happening at Munsiary, Uttarakahnd show, local people if effectively informed and supported do have the capacity to raise critical question on the wisdom of the project and the purpose of such so-called Public Hearing. Earlier, the local people would have been silent or ‘silenced’ spectators to environmental vandalism. Today, the engagement of Civil Society as well as greater access to information is opening new vistas of engagement and at times resistance. Governments and Corporations cannot delay for long the voices from the field.

By Ritwick Dutta

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Minutes :TAI Workshop

TAI Workshop Dehradun 20th and 21st of February 2008


The initiation training of the North India Coalition of ‘The Access Initiative’ (‘TAI-NIC’ for short took place at the Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India on the 20th and 21st of February. The aim was to introduce TAI to the Research team formed to carry out the research in the two states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. The members of the Advisory Panel for the study were also present in order to understand the process better and to guide in the implementation as well as provide strategic guidance for the project.

The Training programme was jointly organized by TAI NIC lead group i.e Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) and the Environics Trust with financial and technical support of the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The training was done by Joseph Foti, Associate at WRI and Lorain Gatlabayan from the School of Government, Philippines.

Overall, the participants benefited a lot from the workshop. The applicability of the Version 2 Software was also tested and all participants felt that the indicators are very much relevant in the Indian context and there seems to be no specific problem that one can foresee in applying the software in the Indian context.

Day 1:
Welcome note by
Dr. R.Sreedhar, Managing Trustee, Environics Trust. He welcomed all the participants and hoped this to a fruitful experience. In particular, he highlighted as to why the two states were selected for the Assessment. The need for Assessment arises in view of the continuous requirement that access rights are properly implemented and evaluated.

Ritwick Dutta, Convenor LIFE, and TAI-NIC Team Leader, highlighted the relevance of Principle 10 of the Rio declaration and the need for effective implementation of the Principle 10 in the local content. He stressed on the fact that the Right to Information Act combined with the EIA notification provides a strong basis for implementation Principal 10. There is a need to focus on how Principle 10 has been implemented in the context of India’s environmental law as well as how seriously it is taken by the Court, the State as well as other Institutions such as the Courts.

He further explained as to why the assessment were felt necessary in the Indian conetext. He explained that an assessment is currently ongoing in Karnataka and this is the first time that an assessment of these two states are being undertaken.

Introduction by Participants and advisors: All the 29 participants for the two states introduced themselves focusing on their current work

Introduction by Mr. Joseph Michael Foti from World Resources Institute, Washington followed by the presentation on aspects such as;
The Accesses Initiative;
The expectations & objectives of the TAI workshop;
Discussed 10 step approach to TAI assessment;
An overview of the TAI Global Network.

Discussions made on how TAI could contribute to the National Advocacy priorities and objectives.

Suggestions on the Team formation for the TAI National Coalition and decided that it should be a mixed bag with representatives from the Government, Local NGO’s, Activists, People from the Media.

Mr. R.Sreedhar discussed the possible case studies made in Himachal and Uttarakhand. The cases being;
The Pong Dam Himachal.
Pancheswar Dam
Sirmour Mining
Ascot Mining,
Rima Soap Stone Mining,
Closure of canal in Doon Valley,
Case of Urban Supply Management in Dehradun,
Slum services and redevelopment program,
Shivalik watershed development program,
JFM programme and Van panchayat in the State of Uttaranchal,
The Case of Taungyas in the context of the Tribal Act.
The Chakrata; the impact on Tourism.
State of Environment Reports Uttaranchal and Himachal,
Study of the geological Report on the Chamoli Earthquake and its implications,
Bhararisain Farm and Bhainsiyas,
Pancheswar Dam: - Its International Dimensions.

This was followed by a presentation by Ms. Loraine Gatlabayan
An overview of the Structure of the TAI indicators and the content of the indicator worksheet.
TAI methodology,

This was followed by general discussion on the role of media especially with regards to their role in the advisory panel. There were suggestions such as the advisory panel should consist of retired senior journalists, the scholarship programme for Journalists etc.

Day 2:
Cases were finalized under the following subheadings;
Eight Cases were finalized under five different headings such as; Air Quality Monitoring System; Water Quality Monitoring System; Environmental Emergency; State of Environment Report and Industrial Facility with records of Compliance with Environmental Requirements. The Cases were as follows;
· Darlaghat – Barmana Cement Plants and the resultant air pollution:
This study would focus on the cluster of Cement plants which have lately been the cause of severe air and other pollution and how information on the same has been provided to the communities.
· Urban Water Quality in Dehradun, Uttarakhand
The application of the TAI methodology will concentrate on the availability of quality water and information about water quality been made available to the consumers.
· Dhauliganga Power project phase 1 (Tunnel Leakage), Uttarakhand
Focusing on disaster preparedness, the issue of leakage of the tunnel and the disaster which followed the nature of institutional arrangement which exists for informing about the same to those likely to be affected.
· Baddi-barotiwala Pharmaceutical/ chemical industry pollution Issue. Himachal Pradesh
Analyzing the setting up of a Special zone for locating pharmaceutical industries and resultant pollution and other health impacts due to hazardous chemicals and the information system that exists.
· Chamoli Earthquake, Uttarakhand
Although the Earthquake happened more than a decade back the analysis would specifically focus on the issue of disaster preparadness.
· Kashipur Industrial Estate/Zone, Uttaranchal. The industrial estate has had multiple impacts on farmers. The extent to which information was provided to the affected communities at the time of acquisition of land as well as the current information access system will be the focus of the study.
· State of the Environment Report, Himachal Pradesh
· State of the Environment Report Uttaranchal 2004


Six cases were finalized under three headings: Policy-making, Regulatory decisions and Project-level decisions. The cases were as follows:

· Hydro power policies of Uttarakhand
Over 100 dams have re in different stages of operation as well as construction and an analysis of the policy in terms of the access principles is important.
· State Board for Wildlife of Uttarakhand:
The State Board for wildlife takes crucial decisions on wildlife as well as on developmental projects located in the state. The Board has rarely been the focus of attention.
· Kataldi Limestone Mining, Uttrakhand:
The mining on a forest was opposed by local villagers and was ultimately taken up before the High Court and a stay on the same has been continuing. It will be interesting to analyse in terms of TAI methodology in terms of access to justice.
· Hydro power policies of Himachal Pradesh.
Very much like the state of Uttarakhand, series of dams are operational and being approved. The policies will have to be evaluated in order to understand how they fare in terms of TAI Methodology.
· The Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 :
Significant area of both the states comprise of Forest areas. The new law intends to confer land rights to forest dwellers. The process of law formulation as well as the mechanisms for implementation of the same would be an urgent necessity.
· State Biodiversity Board of Himachal Pradesh:
Biodiversity Boards are mandatory under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002. Like the Wildlife Board, the Biodiversity Boards have rarely been focused in terms of their role and functioning specially in the context of how far the public views and concerns are taken in the decision making process.
· Working Plan for Badrinath Forest Division:
The Working Plan is a mandatory process for felling of trees in Government Controlled Reserve Forests. Legally, Working Plans are to be formulated after taking into consideration, the concerns of the local people. The analysis will help in focusing to what extent the Working Plan takes into concern the needs and aspiration of the communities.
· Management Plan of Corbett Tiger Reserve:
Management Plans are mandatory plans through which activities are regulated and priorities worked out in National Parks and Sanctuaries. Management Plans have impact on the communities living in and around the Tiger Reserves.


Five cases were finalized under four headings:
Denied rights to Access to information, Denied rights to Public Participation, Environmental harm and Non-compliance. The cases are as follows:
· Pala Maneri Hydro electric project (NEAA)
The local affected people took up the issue of faulty Environmental Clearance before the National Environmental Appellate Authority for the 416 MW HEP. The Authority gave limited relief to the affected people but was still important with respect to certain crucial aspects with regard to cumulative impact assessment for series of different dams coming up in the area. The assessment will focus on how the NEAA fared as an avenue for justice for the affected people
· Askot Multimetal Mining (Public hearing panel)
Although the Public Hearing Panel is not a judicial forum, it is crucial forum for recording the views of local people and other groups concerned about the impact of the project. Askot mining is crucial issue due to involvement of a Canadian Gold Mining company and the resentment of local communities to the proposed mining as well as its adverse impact of the endangered Musk Deer found in the Askot Wildlife Sanctuary. The assessment will focus on how the Public Hearing Panel heard and dealt with the concerns expressed by the people of the area and the response of the regulatory authority i.e Ministry of Environment and Forests in the matter.
· Pong Dam Himachal (BBMB).
The setting up of the Bhakra Beas Management Board as a authority to deal with the issues emerging from rehabilitation and other connected issue.
· State Highway through the Corbett Tiger Reserve and the role of the Central Empowered Committee (CEC)
The matter concerning the construction of the State Highway through the Corbett Tiger Reserve was challenged before the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court by villagers as well as wildlife groups. The Assessment will focus on the CEC as an avenue for justice for concerned groups and individuals
· Rima Soapstone Mining (PLIA-DM-NETA)
This will focus on the implementation of the Public Liability Insurance Act (PLIA) as well as the role of the District Magistrate as well as National Environmental Tribunal Act, (NETA) in awarding compensation to victims of hazardous industries as well as compensating for the loss of the ecology in accordance with the Polluter Pay Principle.

Discussion on Methodology and Indicators

Software exercise: TAI Version 2.0 exercise.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

About TAI Himalayan Coalition:

TAI-Himalayan Coalition is member of the TAI Global &TAI India network. The Access Initiative (TAI) is a global network that promotes access to information, participation, and justice in environmental decision-making.

Led by Legal Initiative for Forest & Environment (LIFE) & Environics Trust, it seeks to assess government progress by using the TAI methodology so as to raise public awareness & set priorities for improvements in policy & practice.