Public consultation is an important step in the environmental appraisal of projects. Many countries have instituted consultation as a part of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process. Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in India has provided guidelines for the conduct of the public hearing and for reporting the outcomes.
Public hearing is a complex process. It often has political overtones that are difficult to comprehend and manage. Public hearing is also influenced by corporate rivalries. Many believe that public hearing is the most crucial milestone of the EIA process. It can be a nightmare. Facing the technical committee in New Delhi for environmental clearance is comparatively less volatile and not so complex an ordeal.
Despite these challenges, public hearing is a step that is desirable. It provides an opportunity to the public to understand the project from both the perspectives i.e. development and environment. It’s a dialogue if conducted well can benefit everybody i.e. the project developer, environment, the affected public and of course the regulator. Unfortunately, the project developers often hide or provide incorrect information and environmental activists misinterpret and escalate the issues without much scientific basis to mislead the public. The public hearing then boils down to a negotiation between the project developers and the environmental activists to settle the matter.
My Professor Friend asked me to attend a public hearing on a Sunday. “Come dressed like a common man” he said.
“What is dressing like a common man?”, I asked the Professor
“Oh easy, look at the common man of the great cartoonist R K Laxman. You are already half bald like him and you were the coat just like he wears. You may wear some lose khaki trousers instead of the dhoti. But remember to make an ignorant and innocent face – that’s what the common man is about”
We reached the meeting place. It was a community hall that was not well maintained with paint peeling off from the wall. It had photos of stalwarts from both opposition and ruling parties hanging on the walls. Leaders of Congress were on the left and leaders from BJP on the right. A photo of Mahatma Gandhi was at the Center as if not sure where to be.
There was a long wooden table and chairs of different sizes stacked around. There were plastic chairs for people like us. The room was full. We took place in the last row. There was a wise looking man with a grey beard sitting next to me. He seemed to have experience of attending public hearing. He was wearing a pyjama and kurta – both not ironed.
One side of the long table was occupied by the environmental activists. I could recognize them because they had not shaved and were wearing spectacles of critical kind. Many were carrying cotton sling bags that did not seem to be washed on a regular basis. Few were smoking cigarettes and some were chewing paan (beetle leaves). Most had constipated and sad faces but a shine in the eyes that they were there to protect the world. The leader was wearing a bundee like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a green band on the head. He looked impatient.
The other side of the Table was occupied by the project developers I guess. These people were wearing safari suits and were carrying some project documents. They had faces of most humble kind and were listening attentively to the environmental activists
And there were officials as well. I could recognize amongst these the collector as he had the best chair to sit with a towel placed at the back of the chair. Man from the Pollution Control Board (PCB) could be recognized as he was already walloping the cashew nuts placed in the plate.
We were perhaps late, as the project was already presented by the Developers. “Did we miss anything critical?” I asked the wise man sitting next to me. “Oh, nothing much” he said “It’s a thermal power plant based on coal. The usual stuff. Clean coal, Tall stacks, closed loop cooling water system, well protected ash pond, green belt etc.” He said this in a rather weary tone.
“So, then what’s the issue?” I could not hesitate asking.
I must be loud as the Professor asked me to focus on the conversations at the long table instead of “whispering” to the wise man.
One of the environmental activist was asking a question “Sir, are you aware that the emissions resulting from the stacks, coal yard and the ash ponds are going to severely impact the air quality in the surrounding villages. People will not able to breathe. Their lives will be shortened as they will keep falling sick – have you ever thought about the plight of children and old people?”
The lead project developer cleared his throat and attempted to defend “Sirs, we are within the emission limits of those stated by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and in fact lower. The coal yard has a wall with 15-meter height all around and in addition there are water curtains. The ash pond will hardly have any air emissions as the particles are large and in a slurry form”
The activist said “I don’t buy your story. All this will remain on the paper and you will be flouting the norms, especially in the night”. The representative from the PCB nodded taking a bite of hot samosas. He was looking for the ketchup.
An activist who looked like someone from academia (probably not promoted for a long time) said “Apart from the threat of air emissions, I am really concerned about the thermal discharge that will lead to heating of the seawater. This is going to severely affect the biodiversity and the livelihoods of the fishermen”
There was silence.
A man with a laptop in the developer’s team responded (he must be a consultant). “Professor, we are using a closed-loop cooling that draws less water than open-cooling systems”
Professor activist was very angry with this response. He said in a raised voice “Mind you, I am talking about temperature and not quantity of water. If you really mean to minimize water consumption, then you should have considered dry cooling. These systems use little or no water; instead, they use air to cool steam.
“But Sir dry-cooling technology is much more expensive to build and is less efficient”. The Consultant tried to defend
“Oh, are you teaching me?” The Professor activist was now really upset as his voice started quivering and body trembling. “And by the way, your closed loop system will be using chemicals. The receiving sea water is surely going to be affected with these non-biodegradable compounds– the shrimp farming activities on the shore will simply be devastated”
The head of the activists who was wearing a green band on his head then spoke slowly, firmly and in all seriousness “Have you set aside a special compensation fund? This fund will have to operate for at least five years to ensure that alternate livelihoods are created for the fishermen”
I thought that the leader wasn’t much concerned about the dying shrimps.
The wise man sitting on my left whispered “See, this how the negotiation starts; listen carefully now. To me, all these activists are nothing but environmental brokers”
I was amused to hear this term – environmental broker.
And indeed, the wise man was right. Several issues were brought up subsequently that majorly included employment to the local people and demands were made that few contracts that must be awarded to the local businesses. The discussions that started with the environmental issues later turned towards the social and economic “opportunities”. Promises were being made and a frail looking man was jotting them down. The collector was on the mobile phone sending WhatsApp messages.
I decided to step out for a while to get some fresh air and visit the loo. I saw an old man waiting outside who probably couldn’t find a seat in the packed community hall.
“Sir, is the meeting over?” He asked me.
“Not yet” I said
“Well, I wanted to ask the company whether my grandson will get a job”
“What is his qualifications and experience? I am sure the company will find something – do get in and tell your expectation to the man wearing green band”
The old man decided to follow my advice
Before he was about to enter the community hall, I stopped him.
“Sir, are you aware that this power plant is going to worsen the air quality in the region over a period. People working and living here will face respiratory illness. One of the activists is questioning the company about this issue”
The old man said “Well, I don’t know how much of this will be true. May be this is an exaggeration”
And with some afterthought he said “A little bit respiratory discomfort against a job guaranteed for life is a better option, I guess”
I thought that the old man was wiser than the man sitting on my left
I re-joined the meeting to see how environmental brokers operate.
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