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February 20, 2012

Sierra Club India: Green Tribunal Halts Coal in Kutch

As India's coal crisis deepens, local communities have grown increasingly frustrated with the rubber stamp approval process new coal projects enjoy. The problem is so endemic that even the so called "green-crusader" Jairam Ramesh approved record numbers during his tenure. But just as communities had given up on the legal system for recourse, they now have a crucial ruling from the newly established National Green Tribunal (NGT) that may prove a watershed in the anti-coal movement's efforts at halting the enormous pipeline of projects.

The NGT was set up by Parliament as the ultimate authority over environmental grievances in the country. It provides communities with the ability to challenge projects on environmental grounds and its rulings are only superseded by the Supreme Court. The newly formed institution has wasted little time in reversing the Wild West nature that pervades coal development in India today.

First, the NGT sided with communities and advocates by pointing out that consultants are including "cooked data" in environment impact assessment (EIA) reports which determine clearances. EIAs in the country run from bad to worse with blatant copy/paste jobs and absent or blatantly inaccurate environmental baseline 'data' being widespread.

After acknowledging the flawed EIA process and demanding the government take steps to ensure its authenticity, the NGT issued a potentially landmark ruling in support of communities in Kutch, Gujarat. Local fisherman there are facing proposals for anywhere from 20-30 GW of coal power (equal to roughly 40-60 average US coal plants). With their liveilhoods severely threatened they hired legal advocates in Delhi to help challenge a 300 MW OPG Group coal plant based on the commencement of construction without the requisite forest, environmental, and coastal regulation zone (CRZ) clearances. The NGT recognized this clear violation ordering a halt until all approvals are obtained by the Project Proponent.

It is important to note that not only had construction already commenced, the Forest Clearance application had actually been rejected by the Government of Gujarat and the MOEF issued a Show Cause to OPG Group as to why the CRZ Clearance should not also be held up. While OPG can and likely will reapply, their reckless disregard for the law will lead to long delays and cost overruns that may threaten the projects ultimate viability.

While it may seem a small step in ensuring the integrity of the EIA process and the rule of law, this is in fact a watershed ruling. Corporations have been running roughshod over largely powerless villagers often with the full support of local governments. In places like Sompeta and Kakarapalli this has led to violent clashes and death. That the NGT bucked this trend and upheld the rule of law is no small matter and deserves international praise and recognition.

It is increasingly acknowledged that coal won’t fire India’s future. But as Indian policymakers waver on how to make a break with this destructive and dirty source of energy communities and ecosystems continue to face the ravages of unchecked land acquisition and environmental destruction.  Now the NGT is proving capable and willing to provide much needed recourse and not a moment too soon.

-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International Program


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