New Delhi: In an open letter to environment minister Harsh Vardhan, over 50 experts on issues related to rivers, waterways and other such have urged him and the ministry to make prior environmental clearance “mandatory and legally binding” for inland waterways projects.
This after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) sought suggestions from the environment ministry on whether such a clearance – and an environmental impact assessment – should be required for projects relating to inland waterways. The ministry has been given time until January 31 to respond.
The signatories to the letter dated January 1 further urged bringing these projects under the ambit of Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 in order to put to rest the “current uncertainty that has been sought to be created to exempt these waterways from the ambit of environmental clearance, in spite of their serious adverse impacts”.
Among the reasons to make such clearances mandatory is the substantial environmental and social impacts of waterways as well as a recommendation of the ministry’s own expert committee that waterways should be brought into the ambit of the environmental clearance regime.
“The creation, maintenance and operation of inland waterways has huge adverse environmental and social impacts on the morphology, habitats, ecology, flora and fauna of rivers and other waterbodies, and on livelihoods of communities depending on them,” the letter states.
Experts and activists further reason that waterways involve interventions like dredging the river bed, which they state is “a highly intrusive activity that can damage the river bed habitats”. Also, activities like “river straightening and training works” as well as “river protection works” cause “severe impacts on the river habitat and ecology”.
The work on the Ganga waterway – including the dredging work, as well as the multi-modal terminal on the Ganga at Varanasi among others – has been exempted by the ministry from requirement of environmental clearance. This exemption, the signatories note, “has no legal basis, no rationale, no logic and seems to have been done under pressure bypassing extant laws and regulations”.
They further note that the government – through the National Waterways Act 2016 – has designated the creation of 111 inland waterways to facilitate large scale, commercial navigation for the movement of large barges, container vessels and cruise ships. Movement of vessels leads to increased noise, turbidity and spillage of oil and lubricants. “This is leading to huge impacts, many of which are likely to be irreversible in nature,” the letter notes. Yet, the work on many of the waterways is being allowed to proceed without any legally binding environmental clearance.
For some of the waterways, the implementing agency has commissioned environment impact assessments, but they aren’t “sufficient to protect the environment” since they being done “outside the framework of the EIA Notification 2006, and hence are not subject to independent scrutiny of the Expert Appraisal Committee of the MoEFCC, or post-clearance independent monitoring and compliance review”.
Thus, as part of its response to the NGT order, the environment ministry has been urged to:
A. Clarify that dredging in all waterways has to seek prior environmental clearance as it is covered by item 7(e).
B. Clarify that all river ports, terminals, jetties for inland waterways would have to seek environmental clearance as they are included in Item 7(e)
C. Clarify that A and B above will apply to all waterways including the Ganga
D. Amend the EIA Notification 2006 immediately to include in the Schedule, waterways in their entirety and all components including but not limited to dredging, river training works, river protection works, river ports, river terminals, jetties, operation of barges and vessels in the waterways etc.