How to get 'heard'and why?
A group of students doing their Masters in Social Work have gathered in Chitroli, a small village. Predominated by a particular caste, the population of close to 6,000 practices agriculture and grazing as their main occupation. The students are on a field trip to witness an Environmental Public Hearing and are being guided by Mrs Kothari, their favourite teacher.
Mrs Kothari: (smiling) Good morning class! We are here at the panchayat plot of Chitroli to attend the public hearing of Shaila Pharmaceuticals. Before that happens, let's have a look around.
Pavan: Maam, there seems to be nothing here.
Mrs Kothari: (nodding in agreement) This is the venue as mentioned on the Pollution Control Board (PCB) website. The project site is six km away and we'll be taking a tour of the village and the project site before the hearing begins.
Till then, let me give you a brief overview about Environmental Public Hearing (EPH) and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process.
The class settles down and seats themselves in the shade.
Mrs Kothari: Let us start with the basics. Why EIA? Yes, all of you are more than aware of how important this process is. To put it in a nutshell, the EIA report is a document that systematically reviews the effect that a proposed project is going to have on the physical, biological, as well as the cultural, and socioeconomic environment of the region where it is going to come up. It helps decision makers (the authorities which are going to give the nod) to identify the problems and figure out ways of dealing with them. Now EPH is a part, probably the most important part, of this four-step EIA process to receive an environmental clearance.
The other three are screening the sites, taking into account the interests of all involved and scoping the alternatives. Also, it is very important to assess the impacts and development of a decision making document, and be planned for an improvement of the negavtive impacts. The EIA is a mandatory legal process in India according to the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2007.
Aarti: So the stock taking process is beginning today, right?
Mrs Kothari: Yes. Let's take water, the most vital resource, as an example. Look around you. Can you see that little pond there? And we did spot a couple of wells and hand pumps on our way here. So Chitroli gets its water supply from the ground. But if you explore the fields out there, resplendent with golden brown wheat crops, you can figure that canals flow in water for irrigation.
Now, here are the issues to worry about. The factory will require huge volumes of water and where will it source it from?? There is bound to be an increased stress on water use since the factory will use clean water and discharge polluted water. You and I?very well understand how this will lead to more waste. So basically, we are looking to spend more money on treating and disposing that waste?
Dhara: And maam, groundwater levels will be reduced, right? So eventually, villagers will be left with lesser water to utilise.
Mahesh: Yes and as the water table recedes, wells will dry up too. So, the local farmers will face problems irrigating their crops.
Mrs Kothari: Yes students. This is why it is important for us to look at the concept of environment justice.
Aarti: Maam, agreed there will be problems. But won't the factory employ villagers locally and generate income?
Mrs Kothari: It is the duty of the government to prevent problems for the local farmers and also generate employment for the local youth in these circumstances.
Mahesh to Aarti: (in an undertone) This village does not have a college and the nearest one is located 55 km away. I doubt the local youth are adequately educated to meet the requirements of a pharmaceutical industry. They have their own skills, but will they be able to perform as per the standard here?
Mrs Kothari: (interrupting them) Mahesh, what you are saying is relevant to the entire class. Please share it with all of us.
Mahesh: (apologetically) Sorry maam. I was just telling Aarti that factories like these require an educated labour force whereas this village has only a primary school. We do not know how many of them will actually qualify for employment here.
Mrs Kothari: Yes, that is true. Factories require both, skilled and unskilled labour but the general practice is to hire contractors who provide unskilled labour. Contractors hire the cheapest labour possible and often, they are not the locals in an area as they can organise themselves into a union and negotiate their wages. This is the reason why we see many migrants, tribal or displaced communities employed as labourers today.
Pavan: So maam, is environment justice to be understood in the context of human rights, social issues and pollution?
Mrs Kothari: (smiling) Yes, it has to do with exactly that and more. According to a definition given by the US Environment Protection Agency: Environment Justice is a fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, and a fair involvement of all decision-making therein regardless of race, income or nationality.
So you see, while environment justice is easy to understand, it is very difficult to implement it, due to various competing interests. Today, we are about to witness one of the tools used by our administration towards environment justice, a public hearing. In a hearing, the local people of the 'study area' (10 km radius of the project site) converge at one place to come face-to-face with the project proponents to understand the environment impacts it is likely to have on their village.
(Suddenly, a huge truck comes inside the village)
Mrs Kothari: It is time for us to clear this space and take a walk around the village. Come on class, let us get going. We'll follow Satish. He works with an NGO in Ahmedabad and is guiding us today.
As the class walks, Mrs Kothari answers their questions on the EIA notification and other laws relating to environment issues. By the time the students return, the EPH arrangements have been made and the open plot has a giant tent complete with a dais, projector, screen and chairs.
The District Collector (DC) arrives and the proceedings commence. First, an audio-video presentation is made by the industry representatives. Deepti, a member of the student group realises how various enviro-technical issues as mentioned in the EIA report are not mentioned in the presentation. The consultant barely explains anything to the villagers that could enbale them to understand and ask pertinent questions.
The house is open for questions. Only environment related questions please, the DC announces. Few villagers ask the committee and the industry representatives questions related to employment and facilities the factory could provide to the village.
Dhara (visibly distured), makes a quick note: The villagers were clearly not given the right information or guided. Clearly, the industry representatives are taking advantage of the villagers ignorance. While the hearing is on, an employee of the PCB moves around the venue taking down names of the attendees and asking them for their signatures. Another colleague records the hearing. Soon, the students realise that apart from the sarpanch (village headman) and few other prominent members, only a handful of villagers are actually aware about the EPH.
Pavan is shocked to see how the marginalised population of the villagers are not included in the hearing. He observes how social factors are connected to environmental issues. He turns to Satish and says: God, I never realised the caste system still exists. Satish told us that as per the Notification, the panchayat is given the executive summary of the EIA report one month prior to the hearing. Yet, the Sarpanch did not inform all the adult members of his village, especially the dalit members. The EPH is a meant to be a 'public' meeting where all villagers have an equal right in sharing their concerns of the future status of their village. But disparities still exist. Satish nods but remains silent.
The DC then concludes the public hearing. The minutes of the hearing will be available after a month from the office of the PCB or the website. This is not a court and we will not be passing any judgement. I hereby conclude this meeting.
The class stays in the village till the evening, interacting with the villagers and probing Satish with numerous questions on various environment laws and policies. They even have an audience with the project proponents and the future managers of the factory. On the two-hour long bus ride back to the city, Mrs Kothari engages them in a discussion.
Dhara: (impatiently) The villagers were not adequately informed, maam.
Mrs Kothari: I agree with you, Dhara. Officially, it is the duty of the District Collector and the Regional Officer to ensure that the information is made known to everyone present. They are like a quasi-court regulating the public hearing.
Dhara: (indignantly) This means there is a nexus between the committee and the factory owner. He must have bribed them beforehand.
Mrs Kothari: (smiling) That may or may not be true, Dhara. But we must remember not to come to a hasty presumption. While corruption is rampant, we must also remember that the DC and RO of the PCB are overburdened. In addition to their regular functions, they are made to serve in the EPH committee.
You see the EIA process is highly complicated. Many officers are themselves not aware of it and those who are, are keen on implementing it in the fastest manner possible. It will take us at least four intensive lectures to understand the EIA, an EPH, the issues involved and the role we can play in making it more effective. How can we expect the EPH committee to do the same in two hours to a confused audience?
(Mahesh looks at her intently)
Yes, Mahesh? Do you want to ask me something?
Mahesh: Satish works for an NGO and he fully understands the legal and technical aspects of the EIA report of this factory. He had even brought some villagers to speak up and ask a few questions on water consumption, air pollution and whether this factory could commit to a minimum number of local labour employments guaranteed. Why didn't he speak or ask more questions himself?
Mrs Kothari: (Nodding in agreement) I am glad you noticed this. He could not ask questions himself because he is a resident of the city and works outside the study area of this project. He himself had submitted his questions and comments to the Committee in writing beforehand as per the Notification. This EIA Notification, 2006 has a major amendment to the previous Notification of 1994. NGOs, other than local NGOs are excluded from taking part in a public hearing. This clause was introduced because NGOs would often intervene and cause delay in the process of obtaining an environment clearance due to lengthy or controversial public hearings.
Mahesh: So maam we as social work students can only take part in public hearings that take place in the town or city where we stay?
Mrs Kothari: Yes, that is why you might have noted that every villager was required to state his name and village before he spoke. But we should not let such a clause impede our basic role as social workers or just as the citizens of our country. We still have a role to play and that shall be your chief exercise in the months to come.
Class, I would like to bring to your attention that as per the Forest Rights Act (FRA), the Gram Sabha and not the Panchayat is the representative unit of a village. So, in theory, the Gram Sabha, not an elective but the most representative body of a village, is needed to give a no objection certificate for any EIA process to be completed. This is one of the biggest leaps in democracy and we need to create awareness about this reality.
The action plan
The Indian democracy is one of the most vibrant in the world and the responsibility is on us to implement and execute the provided platforms and tools. Come to think of it, how many of us the educated elite really know about our rights? And if we don't, how can we work our democracy to make sure it delivers?
Research and copy: Chiteisri Devi