(Mail Today, June 16, 2009)
By Dinesh C. Sharma in New Delhi
Industry man hired as the chairman of eco appraisal body
THE MAN in charge of giving environmental clearance to new river valley and hydropower projects himself sits on the boards of almost a dozen private energy firms.
P. Abraham is the chairman of the expert appraisal committee on river valley and hydropower projects of the ministry of environment and forests. In that capacity, he presides over the approval of projects from private companies in which he is himself a key management member.
The government has been blind to this blatant case of ‘ conflict of interest’ involving the former IAS officer, who retired as Union power secretary a few years ago.
The expert panel was set up under the environment impact assessment ( EIA) notification issued in 2006 and is supposed to screen all applications for dams and hydropower projects for clearances at various stages.
In a sense, this is a regulatory body and it is being chaired by an industry person.
Pointing this out to the new environment minister Jairam Ramesh in a letter, green activists on Monday called for Abraham’s immediate removal from the post.
Abraham is on the boards of several power companies including Lanco Infratech, GVK Industries, JSW Energy, PTC Ltd, Flex Industries, Nagarjuna Construction, Himalayan Green Energy and Maharashtra Power Generation Company.
In the past two years, there have been at least six occasions when a project of one of the companies where Abraham is a director or holds another key post came up for consideration before the committee he chairs.
Last month alone, the committee considered two hydropower projects of GVK Industries — 170 MW Bogudiyar- Sirkari Bhyol and 200 MW Mapang Bogudiyar, both in Uttarakhand — for deciding on ‘ terms of reference’ of EIA. In January and October 2008, the committee recommended environmental clearance to two projects of Lanco — Phata Byung and Rambara Hydroelectric Project. Several other projects — including the 3000 MW Demwe hydroelectric project — of companies where Abraham is a board member came up before the panel in the past two years.
Curiously, Abraham ‘ abstains’ from meetings whenever these projects relating to private companies come up for consideration, as shown in the minutes of these meetings. But the reason for his abstention is never recorded in minutes. The agenda of these meetings is set in such a way that the cases of companies in which Abraham has an interest are taken up at the end to facilitate his abstention.
He is present for the rest of the proceedings.
“ This is an eyewash. He can significantly influence other members of the committee.
Even in his absence, decisions can be influenced, directly or indirectly,” pointed out Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
“ The committee deals with policies that could turn out to be beneficial to private companies.
His role on the board of these companies could provide them undue insights into the working of the committee and thus an unfair advantage in the decision- making process.” The committee held a meeting on Monday under Abraham.
When asked, Abraham replied: “ I don’t sit in the committee… I don’t chair when proposals from these companies come up before the committee.” Asked if his overall chairmanship of the panel constituted a conflict of interest, he said “ No, no… not at all.” Besides Abraham’s immediate removal, activists have demanded that all decisions taken by the committee be reviewed and the ministry develop guidelines for the appointment of members and chairs of such committees. The letter has been sent on behalf of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, Affected Citizens of Teesta ( Sikkim), All Idu Mishmi Students Union ( Arunachal Pradesh), Peoples Movement for Subansiri- Brahmaputra Valley ( Assam), Gopal Krishna and Waterwatch Alliance.
This is not the first time the issue of questionable EIA has come to light. In 2005, a score of green groups had pointed out serious problems in the process to grant environmental clearance for industrial and power projects. Various appraisal committees, they pointed out, were crowded by members who were engineers and the number of environment and wildlife experts was limited to just one or two.
All the chairmen then were former secretaries of government departments or ministries. In some cases they have been secretaries of departments or ministries that are proposing the projects coming to their committee.
Some panels had as members and office bearers of DMK — the party of the then minister of environment and forests. Most of the members of expert committees were either from Delhi, Noida or Tamil Nadu.