New Delhi: A proposed thermal power plant now owned by the Adani Group in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, which has been locked in a legal tangle involving the National Green Tribunal and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, has got the go-ahead from a high-powered panel of the ministry.
The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) has recommended an amendment to a 2014 Environmental Clearance which had been quashed by the NGT in 2016.
The 1,320 megawatt plant was initially owned by the Welspun Group, but is now owned by the Adani Group. It was reported in October 2015 that Adani had signed an initial agreement to buy the Mirzapur plant and another plant in Madhya Pradesh from Welspun for Rs 400 crore. Welspun confirmed to ThePrint that the “agreement towards this stake sale was signed in the last financial year”.
The Adani Group did not respond to requests for comment from ThePrint.
ThePrint also reached EAC chairman Dr Navin Chandra through text messages and phone calls but he did not respond.
A disputed project
The thermal power project has been controversial since the beginning, with local environmental bodies contesting the grant of the clearance to the project, claiming the data had been fudged.
They claimed the site is surrounded by green cover, as opposed to the Environmental Impact Assessment report submitted by Welspun that claimed the project is proposed on barren land.
NGT’s 2016 order
In 2016, the NGT had quashed the Environmental Clearance (EC) granted to the project, terming the entire process of consideration and appraisal “tainted”. Even the review application was dismissed, with a clarification that the owners can apply afresh to the ministry.
“Undoubtedly, the approach road, rail line and water line have to pass through forest lands, and these being material components of the project, the Project Proponent (Welspun) ought to have revealed the involvement of the forest land… for the purposes of getting EC,” the NGT order had noted.
Welspun was ordered to follow all processes of the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification of 2006. However, rather than applying for a fresh EC, the group had approached the EAC for an amendment, on the condition that the group would follow certain conditions laid down by the committee.
The NGT had also accepted the claim that the public hearing for the project was flawed, as it had been conducted in the presence of armed police personnel as well as civilians, and that it was not free and fair.
“It is, therefore, difficult to call this public hearing as a free and fairly conducted public hearing,” the order had said.
Review plea dismissed
The ministry approached the NGT in 2017 to review its order, but the bench, headed by then-NGT chief, Justice Swatanter Kumar, disposed of the case, stating that the party (Welspun) is “at liberty to approach the MoEFCC or any other competent authority for processing of the applications for grant of EC”.
The court had ruled that such a clearance could only be granted after rectifying the defects pointed out in the verdict, and must be in “accordance with law while strictly adhering to the content of the judgment”.
The NGT had stated in its verdict that “facts revealed before us do not show that any member of the EAC or expert member of WII (Wildlife Institute of India) conducted any site visit of the project to assess the gravity of exception taken to the project upon the issues raised in relation to the forest and wildlife. Appraisal of the project in this regard, therefore, becomes questionable”.
EAC overrules NGT red-flags
The EAC is a part of the ministry — it is an appraisal body under the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2006, which assesses proposals and forwards its recommendations to the ministry, which then gives final clearance to or rejects the proposal.
The 10-member EAC, headed by Dr Navin Chandra, first met to hear this case in July 2017, but was inconclusive. It asked the various stakeholders to submit reports on the basis of which clearance could be granted to the power plant.
In February 2019, the panel recommended an amendment to the EC, subject to the fulfilment of three conditions: That the UP Jal Nigam would only supply treated sewage water and pipes to that effect would be laid down; that no fresh water from the river Ganga would be used for the proposed project; and that the RO water plant promised by the company would be built for the use of Banaras Hindu University.
Minutes of the EAC meeting in February accessed by ThePrint show that the panel did not agree with the NGT and ruled that the public hearing was undisputed.
“District collector, Mirzapur, stated that the public hearing conducted for the proposed power project was concluded in undisputable manner with the chairmanship of additional district magistrate,” the minutes state.
In response to the NGT’s objection that no experts visited the site, the EAC noted that “recommendations of standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife are not applicable”.
“…The project area neither falls within a national park nor any wildlife sanctuary notified under Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. No eco-sensitive zone notified under Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 also,” the minutes of the meeting state.
Dr S. Kerketta, member secretary of the EAC and a top official of the ministry told ThePrint that he “cannot comment” on the issue.
“I cannot comment on this as I am not supposed to. Whatever we had to say is there in the recommendation and minutes of the meeting. The only reference point is that,” Kerketta said.
‘Panel’s move not unprecedented’
The EAC ruling against judicial orders is not unprecedented, according to environmental activists and lawyers.
Kanchi Kohli, a researcher, writer and campaigner, said a similar thing recently happened in the case of Goa’s Mopa airport, when the EAC went against the Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court asked the petitioners to approach the EAC for review as it held that NGT ruling of granting the environmental licence was incorrect. However, the EAC concurred with the NGT,” said Kohli.
However, M.C. Mehta, the doyen of environmental law in India, told ThePrint that when NGT rules that a certificate is not valid, it’s the duty of the EAC to be more cautious.
“If the court says that an Environmental Clearance certificate is not valid, the EAC should go to the depths and ensure all precautions are taken and the conditions pointed by the green court cannot be diluted further,” said Mehta.
While the ministry is yet to take a final call on the Mirzapur plant, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar recently indicated that clearances could follow the same path in the future.
Speaking at the national council meeting of the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), Javadekar promised to further bring down the time taken to grant clearances to two to three months.
“Earlier, the environment ministry was addressed as ‘roadblock ministry’ or ‘tax ministry’. There was an atmosphere that there will be no progress of the country. But we showed that environment protection and growth can go together,” Javadekar said while addressing over 100 industrialists.