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In Conversation with Ms. Kanchi Kohli – Environment Impact Assessment, Public Consent and Dismal Condition of Mining Sector

Kanchi Kohli is a researcher working on environment, forest and biodiversity governance in India. She is Legal Research Director to the Centre for Policy Research-Namati Environment Justice Program and member, Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group. She has written widely on environmental issues in Economic and Political Weekly, DNA and The Wire. She is author of the books, “Communities And Legal Action” & “Business Interests and the Environmental Crisis”. In recent conversation with IJLPP, she talks about EIA procedure in India, populism and environmental policies, Sustainable growth and much more. 
Q. To start with, when it comes to Environment Protection, almost everything is perceived to conflict with it whether it is religion, development, industrialization etc. This can be part of a bigger picture where environment considerations were always taken part of later stage of the negotiation process. You have worked on interface of Environment with trade and industrialization. “Frame environmental policies keeping people and conservation in mind
Where do you think the problem lies, is it the government serving other interests or lack of expertise/enough awareness on their side?
There is no lack of awareness or expertise with the government about the impacts of the decisions being taken. Any government is not a monolith and trying to do many things, invite investments on the one hand and fulfill an environment protection mandate on the other. The question is which priorities and decision are the dominant focus.. There are certain policy decisions which require all government departments to move in a  certain direction. With priorities being fixed, a trade-off is made between commerce, trade at one hand and environment at other. We know that government orders involves, even from the environment ministry are driven by strategic, ‘economic and political considerations. These trade offs are not necessarily based on environmental ethics or justice.
Q. In January this year, government came up with “National Clear Air Programme where the objective has been “augment and evolve effective ambient air quality monitoring network across the country besides ensuring comprehensive management plan for prevention, control and abatement of air pollution”. Despite this, you have criticized NCAP claiming it is limited to monitoring.
Why do you think that despite government claiming to have different objectives it is focused more on monitoring?
NCAP is attempting to be a comprehensive plan, but is not. It may be trying collect long term data to understand health impacts and establish attribution, but what is needed are clear and time bound targets and enforcement of existing safeguards. One of the considerations to understand any plan is how does that push you to act. In mining areas or cities like Delhi or Vapi, the compliance with existing laws and standards is quite low. You could read our take on the NCAP here: https://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-national-clean-air-programme-continues-to-remain-hazy-2610504, where we say that the NCAP needs proactive measures rather than being a long term research project.
Q. This year William Nordhaus has won noble prize for his work on how economies can develop sustainably. You yourself has worked on it. One of the criticisms that comes for this idea is that it is insufficiently ambitious because it requires if not all, atleast majority of countries to come together. When we look at Paris Agreement, 2015 where it was recognized that it is rather domestic politics which is governing environment policies.
With this in background, is international action for sustainable growth simply a myth?
There are good intentions behind such actions. One problem with the wording of international documents is that they are too vague and broad. Domestic government policies either find it difficult to pin them down, or simply don’t attempt that task. In such situation, hard decisions have to be taken which would require impeding growth, domestic policies or industrial plant in ecological area. Every government has their own domestic policies and any action at international level needs to be more precise and accountable to needs of different member countries.  
Q. Talking of Sustainable growth in particular to one sector i.e. mining. SC in February this year has said “rapacious and rampant exploitation of natural resources is the hallmark of iron ore mining sector in India”. Such a general observation by highest court of the country shows a grim reality of mining sector. We all have talked about it, suggested solution, governments has taken steps.
A direct question here: Why the will power of government still fails to be enough?
No attempt has been made by government to review the mining sector footprint from environment and social justice point of view. There is a no hold bar policy by government. Different governments have been assuring people living in mining areas for improvement, there have been special funding mechanisms that have been set up, but it is status quo for people affected by mining. In  many places people have lost faith in  successive governments. This has resulted in polarization and conflicts.
A lot of action is taken in the name of national interest but they in reality it is driven by securing private interest. Large areas of forests and agricultural land have been approved cleared, even for captive mines. The SC’s observations clearly reflect the ground reality where real lives of real people and wildlife are impacted.
Q. Recently, after Sterlite Plant Controversy the provision of Public Hearing has again came into question. EIAs have eventually become a ritualistic farce in addition to governmental prejudice against environmental activists. These public hearings are mixed with violence, sometimes misrepresentation etc. You have commented that EIA proceedings are “hardly thought of as important decision-making tools”.
What are changes we need for EIA proceedings to become effective after struggling for such a long time.
EIA procedure was brought in 1990s as a tool to help government take environmentally sound decisions. This when India got its ‘environmental clearance’ under the first EIA notification in 1994. Public hearing is an essential part of this procedure today but the process has been systematically diluted. There is chipping away from original framework and the spirit has eroded. Few problems with this process are:
Firstly, the process if funded by the project proponents, creating conflict of interest
Secondly, the report so prepared is most of the time inadequate, incomplete and often plagiarized. EIA consultants very often don’t collect primary data for these rapid EIAs.
Thirdly, there is impunity for these poor assessments. Applications are approved on poor assessments and pending studies become mere post approval conditions.
Lastly, there is serious non-compliance with post approval conditions and framework for monitoring. As a result some areas are serious contaminated and people there are living in conditions of “Environmental Emergency.”
Q. A lot was claimed by the present government on the front of river preservation and protection specially Ganga with Namami Ganga Project etc. But the recent sad demise of Prof. GD Agarwal has brought forward that nothing major has changed on government attitude. There is still mining observed in Haridwar.
What has been the reality of present government policies on river protection? Are such claims simply for popular vote?
With politician it is always about popular vote. Thee is nothing wrong with it, as long as it there are good environment justice outcomes. Infact  it will be good to politicize environmental policies so that more and more people are in part of designing them. It will help in reducing alienation over environmental issues. In past masses have been kept away from environmental decisions, that have been pushed by a few: sometimes environmentalists, sometimes corporations and several times either of these constituencies with the bureaucracy.
New policies such as Ease of Doing Business, Sagarmala, Bharatmala all need to be assessed with environment lens, before rolling them out. Politicians can certainly push this and inform popular opinion on such issues.
This interview was taken by Pranav Tanwar (Editor in Chief) and Saurabh Pandey (Managing Editor).

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