The National Green Tribunal is the latest to point out that consultants are including “cooked data” in the key environment impact assessment (EIA) reports which determine green clearances for industrial projects. The Tribunal has told the government to come up with a mechanism to ensure authentic data.

The Tribunal made its comments last week while suspending the environment clearance given to Scania Steel and Power for the expansion of its sponge iron and captive power plant project in Chhattisgarh, on the grounds that no public hearing had been held.

It pointed out that in what seemed like a misguided effort to make the project look clean, the EIA report actually recorded pollution indicators well below possible levels. For example, the levels of sulphur dioxide reported in the area range between 5.1 and 5.3 micrograms per cubic metre, conveniently ignoring the fact that the minimum detectable limit of the pollutant itself was only 6 micrograms per cubic metre. The levels of the heavy metal mercury in the air had not even been estimated.

“The reflected data casts a doubt on the reliability of the ambient air quality data produced in the EIA report,” the Tribunal said. “It appears that the EIA Consultant has taken it in a very casual way.”

With regard to water quality data, the levels of fluoride are almost identical for both ground and surface water, which the Tribunal found “unrealistic.” The EIA consultant also collected its baseline data four months before the government even issued terms of reference, defeating the entire purpose of the exercise.

“In view of the infirmities noticed, we direct Ministry of Environment and Forests to develop appropriate mechanism, to check the authenticity of environmental data reported in the EIA/EMP report which would facilitate a more realistic environmental appraisal of project,” said the Tribunal. “Steps should also be taken for black listing Consultants found to have reported ‘cooked data' or ‘wrong data' and for producing sub-standard EIA/EMP report.”

This is not the first time consultants have been caught doctoring data. Last year, a Jodhpur-based consultant used a “cut and paste” technique to input identical air quality data for five very different projects. It was blacklisted for a three-year period.

Bottom line

The wider issue remains that since it is project promoters who pay for the preparation of the EIA report, consultants often manipulate data to suit their paymasters. Last year, Chief Justice of India S.H. Kapadia had also called for a change in the system. “If you leave report preparation to the project proponent, I am sorry to say, the person who pays will get the answers he asks for,” he said. While the Ministry had been considering a proposal to have government-appointed panels prepare EIA reports for key projects, no decision has been taken yet.