A Public Hearing Without The 'Real' Public: Notes From TAI Himalayas

By Ritwick Dutta (Posted: July 13, 2008)

The TAI assessments in Northern India were conceptualized as Research for Action and not just plain academic research. As planned, the action would take place once the research findings and assessments are completed. However, we are happy to share this story on how action seems to have started before the assessments are completed!

The field study for the two northern Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are at advanced stages. As part of our field assessments, the TAI research team had to visit the picturesque remote town of Pithoragarh, Uttrakhand. Sharing its border with Nepal, the task of the TAI team was to assess the emergency response system especially with respect to access to information for a Hydel Power project in operation.

The team interviewed local community members informed by local activist Ramnarayan about a Public Hearing to be held within the next two days for a proposed Hydel Power Project called the Rupsiyabagar-Khasiabara of the National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd (NTPC). The villagers knew very little about the project and its implication and Ramnarayan has been guiding them in making them aware of their rights.

The TAI Research team which comprised a group of three environmental lawyers immediately worked out a strategy with local activist Ramnarayan. A copy of the EIA report was immediately procured which before now was not made available, and a rapid critique of it was prepared based on consultation with the local community. TAI researchers assisted the local groups in preparing representations before the concerned authorities.

The most disturbing aspect which was raised by local groups was the fact that the Public Hearing was being held at a time when most of the villagers have gone to the higher altitudes to collect medicinal plants, grazing as well as collecting a extremely valuable Yarsagumba’ Cordyceps sinesis : a highly priced Fungi which is much in demand in Chinese medicine. In fact, almost all the villagers in the 6-8 villages in the project area had gone for collection of medicinal plants. Further, the EIA document was made available over 150 Km away (in difficult terrain, this could take a lot of time given a weak network of roads).

From the biodiversity point of view, the area is the home to the endangered Musk Dear besides other Himalayan Species. The EIA has failed to take these factors into account.

The Public Hearing on 11-6-2008 at Munsiary met with stiff resistance. Most of the people opposed the Public Hearing since it was meaningless in view of the affected community not being present and the required document not being made available. Predictably, some of the village leaders supported it in view of the petty and short term contracts they are to get. The Public Hearing was scheduled at 11 AM, and just at the start of the public hearing the locals got hold of dais and asked the panel members of the public hearing to postpone the hearing.

For almost three hours the hearing was stalled, and then the panel of the Public Hearing decided to postpone it. However the NTPC (the Project proponent) gave the presentation highlighting the benefits of the project but very obviously ignoring the negative impacts of the projects. No questions or objections were raised to the panel members as the public was told that this public hearing is postponed and it will be held again in October when the villagers are back. 

The very next day on June 12, 2008 it was reported in the newspaper like ‘Amar Ujala’ and ‘Rashtriya Sahara’ that the public hearing was postponed due to protest. But the NTPC did not allow the media to ruin their plan to show the public hearing of June 11 as the final hearing to get the Environmental Clearance. The very newspaper ‘Amar Ujala’ which reported that the Public Hearing was postponed published an advertisement in its 13th June edition, that the public hearing was held for the Rupsiabagar - Khasiabara Hydro Electric Project amidst protest. This is clearly an indication that the NTPC will submit this as a final Public Hearing, showing the Ministry of Environment & Forest that the project was supported by the locals. TAI-Himalayan Coalition will be assisting the local groups in ensuring that the affected communities are heard and the ecology protected.

Public Hearing such as these become unfortunately a stage-managed show. Unless there is active and meaningful involvement of the people in the decision making process, the implementation of Principle 10 at the local level is still a far away. Yet, as the happening at Munsiary, Uttarakahnd show, local people if effectively informed and supported do have the capacity to raise critical question on the wisdom of the project and the purpose of such so-called Public Hearing. Earlier, the local people would have been silent or ‘silenced’ spectators to environmental vandalism. Today, the engagement of civil society as well as greater access to information is opening new vistas of engagement and at times resistance. Governments and Corporations cannot delay for long the voices from the field.

Ritwick Dutta ritwickdutta@gmail.com Team Leader: TAI Himalayan Coalition