When the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) has dismissed all the cases (except one in the Polavaram dam case in 2007) filed before it in past 13 years, one cannot expect anything when you approach it but another dismissal. The NEAA is the sole statutory body to challenge the environmental clearances granted to the projects like mining, thermal power plant, hydroelectric projects etc. The authority is composed of a retired Chief Justice of a High Court or a retired judge of the Supreme Court as the chairperson, one vice chairperson and three technical members. Interestingly for last eight years, there is no chairperson in the Authority and no vice chairperson for last six years, and the so-called technical members are all retired bureaucrats. Now there is only one member in the Authority who is deciding the Appeals against the grant of environmental clearances.
The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) granted environmental clearance on August 17 2009 to the 1200MW Thermal Power Plant near village Singhitarai, District Janjgir-Champa, Chhattisgarh by M/s Athena Chhattisgarh Power Pvt. Ltd. The project was approved by the MoEF even after the process of public hearing was incomplete. At the time of public hearing, the presiding officer came to declare that the hearing is cancelled. Interesting part is that the Presiding officer said that the project proponent has not informed the public about the project in proper manner, and hence the public hearing is cancelled. But when minutes was prepared, it was recorded that the public hearing is cancelled due to the law and order problem because 400-500 people entered the public hearing place and started shouting slogan for cancelling the public hearing. As per the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, the expert committee recommending environment clearance has to do detailed scrutiny of outcome of public hearing. But in this case the Athena Power Ltd. manipulated the public hearing proceedings and must have influenced the expert committee as the owner of company is late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s family.
The granting of environmental clearance was challenged by Villagers of Singhitarai before the NEAA. The main issue of challenge was incomplete process of public hearing. Now the NEAA has only one member and is hearing all the cases. Taking the precedent of the NEAA, when case came up for hearing there was no expectation of relief even after such a blatant violation of the EIA Notification. After watching video recording of the public hearing, the member of the NEAA was convinced that the minutes of the public hearing is different from what has happened during the public hearing and the process of public hearing was incomplete.
In a surprise move, first time in the history of the NEAA, the member stayed the Thermal Power project. This sudden spur of prudence has left many bewildered and guessing, but this stay of the project on the reason of incomplete public participation process will have impact on conducting future public hearings. In the whole process of Environmental Clearances, the Public Hearing is the only stage where the affected person can participate in the decision making process.