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Story Publication logo June 11, 2012

Letter from India: Democracy as the “Pressure Release Valve”



The hallways of government buildings in India do not always match the office décor of the powerful state servants in them. I duck as I walk up the staircase to avoid a spider dangling by a long, glossy thread. The musty air carries the scent of molding stacks of paper from the offices of bureaucrats' assistants. I am on my way to visit N. Baijendra Kumar, the head of the Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board. He also is a special aide to the central Indian state's chief minister.

A cool blast of air conditioning welcomes me as I enter Kumar's office. He sits behind the wide expanse of a glass-covered desk, his black polyester shirt glinting in the well-lit surroundings. A muted flat-screen TV flashes cricket highlights on the opposite wall. He is a busy man and knows it, but today he has made time to talk about India's environmental public hearings—a distinctive feature of Indian democracy that allows local communities to participate in the development process. As head of the state's Environment Conservation Board, Kumar is the top official responsible for overseeing these environmental public hearings.

Public hearings in Chhattisgarh have gained increasing relevance in the last several years as this state in India has ramped up plans for massive additions to its coal power sector. Dozens of major power projects await their environmental clearances, and the environmental hearings provide the one window for public dialogue on each project before government officials make a final decision.

Given that public hearings offer a forum for discussing and addressing community issues, one might think these events would be a showpiece of Indian democracy and a model for expanding citizen participation. However, it would be hard to find anyone who is happy with the process. Power companies find the hearings adversarial. Citizens feel their views are not taken into account. And government officials charged with overseeing the process, such as Kumar, find fault with who shows up to participate.

Kumar hunches over his desk to explain, "The concept of a public hearing is an outstanding concept. But at the same time, local interest groups—the sarpanch (head of village council), an NGO, or some activist—they know they have 'nuisance value.' They know that they can extract their pound of flesh from the project proponent company.

"These professional activists seem to be in every place at once. The public hearing is supposed to be for locally affected people, not these activists who travel all over for these hearings," he bristled.

But residents of regions potentially affected by huge power projects say the public hearing process is subverted from start to finish, and their own passionate views are disregarded.

The Janjgir-Champa District is a case in point. Janjgir-Champa, a rural part of Chhattisgarh best known in the past for its agricultural output, is the site of more than 30 proposed large-scale coal power projects. Eventually the district will supply about 30,000 megawatts of power for use all over India, depending on how many projects earn clearances. The state of Chhattisgarh already has the nickname 'the power hub of India.' The district of Janjgir-Champa, therefore, would be the power hub of the power hub.

The biggest project planned for the district is the massive KSK Mahanadi Power Project, a 3,600 megawatt behemoth that would be the second largest private power plant in all of Asia. KSK acquired a 130-acre reservoir for the project—only to drain it, pave over it, and build the power plant on top of it. The public hearing occurred in 2009 and construction began in 2010.

On a visit to the community on the edge of the KSK project site, I spoke with Arun Rana, a resident who served on the local Agricultural Produce Committee and attended the public hearing. During the 52 years the reservoir existed, neighboring communities enjoyed rights to use its waters for fishing and for drinking. But in the environmental impact reports prepared by the company, and in discussions with the community, Rana said, the fact that the KSK project was to be built on top of the reservoir "was never mentioned."

Another resident, Deependra Singh, elaborated on just how little the community knew about the KSK project or its potential consequences before the public hearing: "It wasn't the case that the environmentalists and politicians weren't informed about the land loss," he said. "The land losers themselves did not know that they were going to be losing land. I didn't even know which parts of my land would be taken away for the project—let alone that the whole reservoir would be destroyed."

Singh attended the public hearing, but he says his comments were excluded from the official minutes, as were his written objections.

The list of grievances went on: the KSK project's public hearing was only for a 1,800 megawatt power plant (the additional 1,800 megawatt expansion was announced only after the public hearing). There was no publicly available environmental report before the public hearing. In fact, the community did not receive a full version of the report until a year after the hearing, and the report still did not mention that the project would acquire the local reservoir.

Back in Kumar's office, I press him on how much local villagers actually know before a public hearing happens. "They might not always fully understand—this is true," he acknowledges. "But most of the time they do know about the public hearing, that it is for the environmental aspect, that there is some chance of pollution and so on.

"It is for the world to decide if they want these things—power, steel," he continues. "There will be pollution somewhere. Though the system of the public hearing looks democratic, it is constantly co-opted by NGOs, people on the ground."

The leather chair squeaks as he leans back in it and turns philosophical. "The real objective is to go through the motions of the public hearing. But to consult the mob is not a way to get things done. The public hearing is an aggregation of complaints, and then nothing is done," he says. "It is just a pressure release valve."

Nick Wertsch is volunteering with Samata, an NGO that focuses on development issues and land rights for tribal people in India.


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Democracy and Authoritarianism

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