Castigates minister for overruling expert panel without reasons

The National Green Tribunal has cancelled the clearance given by the environment minister to Parsa East and Kante-Basan captive coal blocks in Hasdeo Arand forests of Chhattisgarh, overruling the statutory Forest Advisory Committee.

The forest clearance was given by the then Union environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh in June 2011, overriding the advice of the ministry's expert panel on the two blocks for mining by a joint venture between Adani and Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited.

The coal mine has reserves in excess of 450 million tonnes and was slated to produce 15 million tonnes of coal every year. The block requiring 1989 hectares of forest land fell in an area that the government had initially barred as it was considered a patch of valuable forest and demarcated as 'no-go' area.

The Forest Advisory Committee and the ministry has been asked to revisit the proposal from scratch based all factors including questions that the tribunal put down in its order.

In what is bound to have more far-reaching impact, the tribunal held that “mere expression of the fanciful reasons relating to environmental concerns without any basis in fact situation, scientific study or past experience would not render the advice of FAC – a body of experts – inconsequential'.

It further said, “Minister rejecting the recommendation of such expert body must bear in mind that he is countering an expert opinion/viewpoint and in doing so he must meet it with such opinion or viewpoint which it would outweigh both by content and quality as aforesaid.”

Under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, the FAC is required to appraise projects that require forestlands and advise the environment ministry to grant approval or reject the proposals.

But in this case, the NGT noted, the minister had taken all of one day and relied upon on his “understanding and belief” without any 'basis either in any authoritative study or experience in the relevant fields”. The court added, “From the records its not very well understood as to what made his (the minister's) mind change overnight after having appreciated the ecological value of the Hasdeo-Arand forests when considering another coal block in the same forest belt.

“It appears that the minister did not think it necessary either to ask the FAC to examine worth of his views, particularly those in respect of which the FAC was not candid, in light of their knowledge and experience, or embark upon such enquiry singlehandedly or with the aid of such other experts,” the five member bench of the tribunal said.

While the then environment minister came in for scathing comments from the tribunal, the FAC was also hauled for not paying attention to all the parameters. The tribunal noted that the FAC had “failed to give due regard to material issue/questions while tendering its advice to the ministry and the ministry largely over taken by anthropocentric reasons ignored these material and relevant eco-centric issues.”

The minister, while over-ruling the FAC and clearing the coal blocks had given six reasons to do so including that the coal blocks are linked to a super-critical thermal power plant, imperative to sustain the momentum generated in XI plan to increasing power production and that the states of Chhatisgarh and Rajasthan have been following up consistently with the ministry. These 'anthropocentric' considerations, the NGT held were not valid to evaluate the project.