Clearance for Jaitapur - Surendra Gadekar

Ever since Mrs Indira Gandhi set the fashion with her 20 point programme during the Emergency, Congress party politicians have been fascinated with numbered lists. The latest in this line is the Minister for Environment, Mr Jairam Ramesh. He gave environmental clearance to the Jaitapur Atomic Power Project but with 35 conditions. The announcement of the clearance was made well in time for Mr Sarcozy's visit. The project envisages the building of six French built pressurized water reactors of 1650 MW each at Madban village, a coastal site in Konkan region of Maharashtra.

35 conditions! Wow, I said to myself, that is impressive. But that was before I saw the conditions. There are 23 specific conditions and 12 general conditions. Most of the general conditions are not conditions at all but what one might term as sanctimonius platitudes. Like “ The sand for construction purpose shall be obtained only from the approved quarries.” Or, “ The installation and operation of DG (Diesel Generator) sets shall comply with notified guidelines.” Or, “ Disposal of muck during construction phase should not create any adverse effect on the neighbouring communities and be disposed taking the necessary precautions for general safety and health aspects of people, only in approved sites with the approval of competent authorities.” I ask you, does this all have to be written down as conditions for giving environmental clearance to a project? To save paper, I suggest that the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) in future print just one general condition: Follow the law of the land or else! I think that will cover almost all of these conditions. But then that would be like a death blow to n-numbered lists of the ruling dispensation.

The condition I found most interesting amongst all the general conditions was unfortunately placed the second last, condition number 34. It states, “Full cooperation shall be extended to Scientists/Officers from the Ministry / Regional office of the Ministry at Bhopal /the CPCB / the SPCB, who would be monitoring the compliance of environmental status.” This condition illustrates like nothing else the fact that the frustrations felt by ordinary citizens when dealing with nuclear power authorities are not unique in any way. Government officials especially of the Ministry of Environment & Forests are treated equally shabbily by nucleocrats. Hence, they need this condition just to ensure access into the premises after granting clearance. Personally I doubt that even with this condition in place, Environment Ministry officials will get any “cooperation” from the nuclear authorities once they are in charge, but let us wait and watch.

Now to the 23 specific conditions. Here too my suggestion regarding following the law of the land would take care of some of them. For example, “Prior clearance under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) 1991 and its amendment shall be obtained before initiating any activity in the CRZ area.” Or, “During construction of the township and other buildings, it shall be ensured that the buildings confirm to the energy efficiency, water utilization efficiency, as well as the GREHA norms.” Does Mr Ramesh hold the PWD portfolio in addition to the Ministery of Environment and Forrests? Otherwise, what all is this?

Some of the conditions can only be described as funny. Like, “To the extent possible the existing Alphanso Mango trees shall be protected. In case they need to be removed, efforts will be made to replant them within the project site.” Woe betide any mango that is not an Alphanso, and of course trees of any other species just doesn't stand a chance.

Some conditions are mutually incompatible. For instance condition 13, “It shall be ensured that the temperature differential of the discharged water with respect to the receiving water does not exceed 5o C at any given point of time. While condition 14 states that “Appropriate safeguard measures shall be taken to ensure that the biodiversities in the sea adjoining Ambolgad are not affected adversely due to the project.” On the one hand you dump large quantities of hot water and on the other you expect fishes to respect your wishes and stay put.

Some are in pure beaurocratese: “The requisite prior clearance from AERB for the plant design and their safety including fire and seismic risk shall be obtained and a copy thereof sent to MoEF for placing before the
EAC (nuclear) for its information.”

In fact quite a few conditions, actually six out of 23 mention the AERB (Atomic Energy Regulatory Board). They demonstrate the helplessness and impotence of the Ministry of Environment & Forests despite all the bluster. In matters nuclear, nucleocrats brook no interference from “Non-technical” people. All regulation is handled by members of the Caste and the nominal granters of clearances are reduced to writing “as per AERB regulations.” AERB unlike in other countries is not an independent regulatory body but a poodle organisation within the nuclear establishment whose chief reports directly to the Chairman of the Department of Atomic Energy.

Anybody who has had any experience with the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) authorities (the Central pollution people are too distant for the likes of me) knows that they plead helplessness when confronted with nuclear matters. “Our jurisdiction stops at the 1.6 kilometer boundary of the nuclear power plant,” is what one official told me long ago. This is not entirely their fault. They have neither knowledge nor training to deal with radioactive pollution. Education in nuclear matters is a zealously guarded preserve of the nucleocrats and as long as this state of affairs remains, public health and safety will remain in jeopardy irrespective of 35 or 3335 conditions that the MoEF might put.

The very first condition itself is deeply flawed. It states, “The environmental clearance granted shall be reviewed in terms of its impact on environmental components as envisaged in the EIA report and to determine the adequacy of conditions imposed after the first two units are made operational.” Normally this ought to be a perfectly valid condition. But since there is no independent nuclear expertise in the country, the EIA (environmental impact assessment) report itself is a piece of junk. It has been prepared by NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute). They have no understanding whatsoever of nuclear pollution and reproduce whatever crap that nucleocrats feed them. Thus the EIA has long chapters on a hagiographic history of nuclear power in the country and the imperative need for nuclear power to meet burgeoning electricity demand. It is no wonder that these people see nothing environmentally damaging in producing almost one eighth of the country's total electricity in an earthquake prone “ecologically fragile” region of the Western Ghats where already a number of other environmentally destructive “development” projects have been allowed to run riot.

The other great flaw with this condition is the time scale. There isn't any. Even Mr Ramesh does not expect the first two units to be ready before 2018. After that it would be quite a few years before one could conduct meaningful studies of environmental impact. In the meantime other reactors would also get built, so that if the environmental studies do show significant harm, there would be nothing to be done. Also not to put too fine a point about it, by that time Mr Ramesh and other present day functionaries of the MoEF would have retired for a well deserved rest and the country would go on making the same mistakes again and again and wondering why things are not different this time.

What Mr Ramesh needs to do, in fact should have done as soon as he laid hands on this portfolio is to institute studies of environmental impacts of existing nuclear (as well as other) facilities most of which have been operational for many years now. By doing so, he would not have been as much in the dark and decisions could be made on merits.

Condition 7 seems tough at first sight. “No additional land shall be acquired for any activity / facility of the project beyond the land requirement mentioned in the EIA to the tune of 938.06 hectares. My alma mater IIT Kanpur acquired about two and a half times less land in the 1950s and even after half a century of expansion has still not built anything on 70% of the acquired land. Projects in India project their land requirements so far in excess of their real needs that this condition is just redundant. If instead, Mr Ramesh had just added that any land lying fallow after fifteen years, shall be returned to the rightful original owners with user fee charges to be paid personally by the people who determined the land requirement for the project, he would have created a revolution and seen that the land requirement for all kinds of projects suddenly dropping precipitously.

Condition 8 is even tougher. It states, “No groundwater shall be used in the project either during construction phase or during operation phase. Sweet water requirement shall be met from the desalination plant and the condensor cooling water requirement from sea water only.” Nucleocrats have realized that farmers are willing to fight for their water and it is no longer easy to divert enormous quantities of water from them. Hence this talk about desalination plants. But then shouldn't there be an EIA on the desalination plant? Neither the EIA for the project nor any other document that has surfaced till now has talked of the environmental problems connected with withdrawing crores of litres of sea water every day and their affect on fisheries. There are coastal areas in the country, in fact in Konkan itself where drinking water has become a serious problem. How come this desalination wonder technology has not been used any where in the country till now to ameliorate this desperate situation? Is it that the desalinated water obtained is too costly for drinking even for habitual bisleri users but not too costly for use in gigantic quantities in nuclear power plants because if costs
were ever a consideration no nuclear power plant would ever get built.

Actually this condition has already been violated. All the NPCIL authorities who have conducted surveys (supposedly for bauxite), all the police personel who have provided 'security' to the population through repeated arrests and other such have guzzled plenty of groundwater. But I suppose this does not count since this is neither in the construction phase nor in the operational phase. But seriously, how is this condition ever to be met. Won't the thousands of construction workers who will come for the project use any water at all till the desalination plant starts working?

On the whole these set of conditions make depressing reading since they demonstrate the utter helplessness of environmental laws to control nuclear power. However, it is the second conditions (and I use the plural deliberately since there are several lumped into one) that are the most pathetic. The statement of the condition begins, “The following additional details shall be submitted within 12 months:” ... The question that naturally arises is that why the hurry to grant clearance for the project while there is no comprehensive biodiversity conservation plan in place or no measures delineated to preserve the 150 hectares of mangroves in the area or no studies conducted regarding the extensive fisheries which provide livlihoods to thousands and food to many more. Condition 2 asks for all this to be done in the next 12 months. It also asks the NPCIL to set up a monitoring unit with the help of organisations like the BNHS and local universities. Asking the NPCIL to set up monitoring cells is like asking the fox to guard the hen house or the otter to guard the fish pond. Instead of the polluter pays principle we have here the polluter decides whether there is pollution in the first place. It is not going to happen. Tobacco companies for decades specialized in studies that showed that the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer was unproven. Chemical companies making pesticides sponsor studies showing their pollution to be innocuous. It is just because one cannot let hazardous industries to decide on the extent of the hazard they create that we need independent regulation and a Ministry for Environment. Abdication of responsibility as Mr Ramesh has done is not an acceptable answer.

Mr Ramesh needs to be congratulated on elaborating on the reasons why he gave environmental clearance to the project now despite all the objections to it. He says, “The NPCIL – AREVA joint vernture is significant not just from an energy generation but also from a strategic point of view.” Further he adds, “Very soon, NPCIL and AREVA are to sign a Gereral Framework Agreement as well as an early Works Agreement. The
final contracts are to be signed in the first half of 2011. A decision on environmental clearances is essential to facilitate all these agreements even though the first unit of 1650 MW is expected to become operational only by 2018.” He goes on, “We now have to be extremely concerned about the impact of the increase in electricity generation on our emissions of carbon di oxide. The impact can be kept in check by a variety of means of which an increase in the share of nuclear energy in the fuel-mix is one critical option.”

Mr Ramesh does indicate that he is not totally unaware of the havoc his actions are going to unleash on Konkan. He says, “A very large number of development projects particularly power plants are planned here. The total power generating capacity proposed on a narrow strip of coastal land 50 to 90 km wide and 200 km long is around 33,000 MW.” (Konkan's requirement of electricity today is probably less than 200 MW). “It is clear to me that in areas like Western Ghats, we have to go beyond project wide assessments and look at cumulative impact. I would like the Maharashtra government to initiate such studies immediately through reputed independent institutions. This is extremely urgent and crucial given the very large number of power plants, mining projects, port projects and other pollution intensive industries on the anvil...” Mr Ramesh concludes, “The decision to accord environmental clearance for NPCIL's Jaitapur power generating complex has been difficult. On the one hand there have been many issues raised on the preservation of marine biodiversity, an area in which India has been very weak. But at the same time there are weighty strategic and economic reasons in favour of the grant of environmental clearance now.”

As a Konkani myself, what I hear from Mr Ramesh is this: Most of you guys don't live in Konkan. What do you care what havoc we create in your ancestral homes. The powers that be in the government and party have decided to sacrifice Konkan so that our money making machine can continue to churn. Live with it.

In a democracy, it is not their representatives, but the people themselves who are the ultimate masters. It is for the people of Konkan to decide whether they are willing to accept being sacrificed for “economic and strategic” reasons of the elites indulging in one scam after the other in Delhi.


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