Environment ministry’s expert panel copy-pastes approval for coal projects in Goa

The Expert Appraisal Committee plagiarised its approval to a Mumbai project in order to clear controversial coal projects in Goa that will help JSW, Adani and Vedanta Resources.

ByNihar Gokhale
Environment ministry’s expert panel copy-pastes approval for coal projects in Goa
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Can debris dumped in Goa block a water body in Mumbai? How about a concrete structure built on Goa’s coast: can that block the water body in Mumbai?

Obviously not, because Goa and Mumbai are 500 kilometres apart.

But if you are an expert panelist with India’s environment ministry, the answer to both questions is a resounding yes.

This expert view was recently delivered by the environment ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee, or EAC, when it approved the environment clearance for two projects in Goa. The projects are part of a controversial central government plan to turn Goa into a hub for coal imports. One project will help large coal ships to arrive at private terminals run by Adani Ports and the JSW Group, the other will allow Vedanta Resources to build a third coal terminal.

Residents of Goa have opposed the projects, saying coal is already polluting the air and causing lung cancer and breathing illnesses. At the public hearing for the projects in April 2017, thousands showed up to oppose the projects and the hearings ran for a record-setting eight days.

The EAC, a body of scientists and experts, was supposed to evaluate these submissions and give its recommendations. The EAC’s approval, decided in its meeting on January 27, does not address any of the issues raised by the public. Instead, its recommendations tell the projects to not block the “Thane creek”, a water body in Mumbai. It turns out the text was copy-pasted from another much smaller project in Mumbai.

Text from the EAC minutes.

Text from the EAC minutes.

Text from the clearance for the Mumbai project.

Text from the clearance for the Mumbai project.

Goans do not see the copy-paste as a silly error; it has sparked concerns of whether the EAC was simply rubber-stamping projects that have been backed by the highest offices in Delhi. Two cabinet ministers openly broke environmental laws for the projects, and it has caused even local BJP leaders in Goa to oppose their central leadership.

“These recommendations are completely deaf and blind to the reality at the ground,” said Abhijit Prabhudesai of the Federation of Rainbow Warriors, an environmental campaign group in Goa. “Despite the attempts of the coal lobby to derail the people's opposition, the residents of Goa are fed up and are determined to stop the projects.”

Goa, an upcoming coal hub

Every year, around 12 million tonnes of coking coal, a high-grade variety of coal used in producing steel, arrive by ship at the Mormugao Port. The coal is dispatched by rail and road to steel factories in northern Karnataka, including JSW Steel’s Vijayanagar steel plant, one of the largest in India.

After the National Democratic Alliance came to power in 2014, the central government proposed several projects at the port to expand its coal handling capacity to nearly 51 million tonnes per year by 2030 – more than four times the current quantity. The government also appointed Vedanta Resources to build a third coal terminal at the port, in addition to Adani and JSW’s coal berths.

But from the beginning, the government violated rules to push the projects, especially the project to deepen the seabed near the port, a process known as dredging.

In 2015, the environment ministry cancelled the public hearing for the project, even though the hearing was a legal requirement under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2006. Then in early 2016, Nitin Gadkari as shipping minister openly violated the notification when he inaugurated the project when it had not received environment clearance. The clearance was issued more than a month later.

Nitin Gadkari inaugurating the project in 2016. Source: Ministry of Shipping

Nitin Gadkari inaugurating the project in 2016. Source: Ministry of Shipping

Later in 2016, the National Green Tribunal struck down the clearance and stopped the project after hearing an appeal filed by fisherfolk living near the port. In its judgement, the NGT said that the environment ministry had “not only failed to apply its mind to the factual aspects of the project” but had “for unexplained reasons indulged in misinterpreting” the EIA notification.

The tribunal criticised the shipping ministry and the port for putting “undue influence” on the environment ministry and questioned how a minister could “bypass or subvert statutory provisions”.

When I investigated the story in 2017, one source told me there was pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to clear the project.

The NGT decision was upheld by the Supreme Court, which ordered a public hearing to take place.

When the public hearing was conducted in April 2017, hundreds of affected persons showed up and spoke about how coal pollution affected their lives. The hearing went on for 14 hours straight , until 1 am, causing the government to extend it to the next day. After a similar turnout, it extended the hearing by another day, until it concluded a record five days later.

The massive turnout included local Bharatiya Janata Party MLAs. Towards the end of the year, even Manohar Parrikar, by then the BJP’s chief minister of Goa, began to speak against coal expansion, and wrote to the environment ministry in 2017 and 2018, asking it to reject the projects.

Copy-pasting and other blunders

The public hearing records were to be analysed by the EAC, a panel of scientists, and ex-bureaucrats. The EAC analyses public hearing feedback and environment impact assessments to give scientific decisions on whether a project should come up and, if so, then tell the projects what they should do to minimise environmental impacts.

The public hearing.

The public hearing.

In a meeting on January 27, 2020, the EAC approved both projects in Goa — the dredging and Vedanta’s coal terminal. It imposed more than 44 conditions on the projects, but made no mention of the public concerns. The conditions were copied from a much smaller port project in Mumbai. This was revealed when the conditions (that were released in early February) said that dredging activity should not block the “Thane creek” over 500 kilometres away from the project site in Goa.

Both projects were given the same list of conditions, even though they were quite different: one wanted to dig under the sea, and the other to build a concrete platform on land.

The other EAC conditions are also incoherent or incorrect.

For example, one recommendation said “no underwater blasting is permitted”. But just a few sentences later, the EAC said that “rock blasting” is planned and that “there are chances of fish mortality due to blasting”. It did not acknowledge that these would include dolphins, corals and sea turtles well-known to inhabit the port area.

The EAC inserted only one condition specific to the Goa project, but even that is incorrect. It said the port should follow the “recommendations of apportionment study carried out by IIT Bombay”. But the IIT Bombay study is only meant to measure how much coal dust is in the air near the port, and not make recommendations, as this RTI response shows.

“The EAC is supposed to be that one body that really applies thought to whether a project is viable or appropriate to the area where it is being proposed,” said Tania Devaiah, an independent researcher in Mormugao who recently published a community led ground-truthing study of the coal expansion projects. “I don’t see any application of mind here.”

This isn’t the first time the EAC has rubber-stamped a high-profile project. In 2019, the Supreme Court had termed the EAC’s approval of an upcoming airport in Goa as “sketchy and perfunctory” and said its work revealed a “lack of comprehension” of its functions.

There is always some copy-pasting between projects that are similar in nature, “but to copy a Mumbai project for Goa is just stupid,” said Pushp Jain, an expert on the environment clearance process and former director of the EIA Resource Centre in Delhi. “It is shameful. It can be grounds for litigation.”

The copy-pasting often happens not by the experts but by the EAC’s member-secretary, who is a ministry bureaucrat who coordinates the meetings, Jain said. After the EAC verbally approves a project, the member-secretary copies conditions from some other project, he explained.

Subrata Bose, the member-secretary of the EAC, declined to comment, saying he is not authorised to speak to the media. When I pointed out the copy-pasted sections, he said, “This is not a news report. This seems like a complaint. Complaints can be filed with the ministry.”

The EAC’s approval comes at a time when the Bombay High Court is hearing a public interest litigation demanding the closure of all coal operations. Sherwyn Correia, a law student living in Vasco and the lead petitioner in the case, has written to the environment ministry asking it to withdraw the EAC’s approvals. Correia, who suffered breathlessness as a child, had made headlines with a speech at the public hearings in 2017.

“Not a single speaker spoke in favour of the projects,” his letter sent on February 17, said. The “copy-paste job” on the approval, he wrote, “discloses nonchalance and no application of mind.”

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