Local voices oppose a project but the public hearing report recommends it anyway. The experience of aggrieved villagers and activists present at the hearing for Vedanta Aluminium’s refinery expansion proposal at the foot of Orissa’s Niyamgiri Hills is not unique.

Environmental and civic rights activists have been complaining for some time that the public hearing — the only option for local people to have their voices heard in the Environment Impact Assessment process for government clearances — is not being taken seriously. Villagers and activists are now beginning to fight back.

Last October, in what activists say is a first, the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) stayed a clearance issued in Chhattisgarh due to a poorly conducted public hearing.

“The villagers were not even aware of the project. They did not have any idea what was going on, but suddenly a public hearing was organised without proper awareness,” says Ramesh Agrawal, recalling the January 15, 2009 public hearing for Athena Power’s 1,200 MW plant proposal in Janjgir-Champa district.

“They did not want to share their land and they objected about the lack of awareness. The presiding officer publicly said that the hearing was not done properly. However, the minutes he sent to the Ministry did not reflect any of that, and the project was cleared,” says Mr. Agrawal, a local activist with the Jan Chetana NGO.

Activists challenged the decision at the NEAA. Having viewed the video evidence and seen that there was a clear discrepancy between what was said at the meeting and what was recorded in the report, the Authority stayed the clearance in November 2009.

Violation of norms

Mr. Agrawal recently won a reprieve in another case. On June 30, 2009, the public hearing on DB Power’s power plant proposal was held over 35 km away from the project site, in clear contradiction to the government norms. “It was nothing but a deliberate attempt to exclude the voices of locally affected people,” he says.

Just as the protests and demands for the postponement of the public hearing on grounds of due procedure and ensuring participation started, the presiding officers said that since no one was speaking specifically about the project, the hearing was concluded. Mr. Agrawal appealed to Union Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh to intervene.

Last month, the Expert Appraisal Committee viewed the video of the hearing and deferred the case, pending government explanation of the way the hearing was consulted. These verdicts could give some hope to the local people affected by Vedanta’s mockery of a public hearing.

But activists say these cases are just the tip of the iceberg. “All over India, the same thing is happening,” says Mr. Agrawal.