Opinion: Blood on your hands? Guard the safeguards

eia-hill-country-sri-lanka

By the Commuter

The politicians have a new excuse. So do the bureaucrats, and seemingly some segments of the public. Apparently, projects are getting delayed due to regulatory requirements to safeguard environment and citizens’ rights. Such as having to do a proper EIA. Or comply with equitable procedures in land acquisition. And the “smarter” ones claim that they will “fast-track” EIA approval and land acquisition. Especially when it comes to mega projects in which the impacts are high.

EIA
Let’s get the facts straight about the EIA and CEA. Environmental Impact Assessment – EIA is a study which must be done by the project proponent, be it a governmental agency or private sector. The objective is to investigate the impact on the environment and propose mitigation measures which should be inbuilt to the project.

The CEA (Central Environmental Authority) is the regulator, whose role is to check both the quality and the findings of the study based on their expert review and public comments, and decide whether the environmental impacts and mitigation measures are acceptable or not. CEA has all the legal power and authority to say no, even if the project is as sexy as Port City, hyped like the Central Expressway or incorrigible as Sampur Coal.

We, the public should understand safeguarding the environment is in our own interest, and CEA should not under-estimate its responsibility and authority. As for those who claim that they will magically get “CEA/EIA approval” for projects, they should be investigated by the relevant law enforcement arm since doing that is akin to insider dealing or bid fixing.

Land Acquisition
How many of our politicians, bureaucrats or public are even aware of the existence of a parliament-approved National Involuntary Resettlement Policy (NIRP) which Government and its institutions are expected to follow in conducting land acquisition for projects? Through blood, sweat and tears of many of our citizens, over the years the land acquisition legislation was slowly but steadily getting amended in line with the NIRP. It is not there yet, but has the potential to get there.

Yet, after criticizing the former administration for unethical practices in land acquisition, the current administration is doing the same in different modes. Not only are they resorting to section 38(a) which is meant to be used only in exceptional cases of urgent national need for any and every project – especially road projects, but also trying to short-cut that fast track by further undermining public’s rights. The results are evident in the reactions of the affected people in larger projects such as Central Expressway whose voice has received some media publicity, and smaller projects such as Rajagiriya Flyover which hasn’t.

Sole Guardians
We live in a country which has no mandatory requirement, mechanism or capacity to consult the public and scrutinize feasibility before projects are approved and even tenders floated by the Government. Rajagiriya Flyover and the elevated highway project from Peliyagoda to Athurugiriya are prime examples. Both have been approved by the Cabinet and the former is under construction. Yet there has been no proper feasibility study, public consultation or EIA for either. So how could there be scrutiny?

When the required due diligence does not come from the Cabinet, the EIA and NIRP processes become the sole guardians of public interest. They provide the only opportunity for the public to voice their concerns and have some say – however meager- in protecting at least their most fundamental rights when politicians run roughshod all over them.

Sacrifices
The argument that sacrifices should be made for development projects in the national interest is a misnomer. All those who argue for such sacrifices should put themselves in the shoes of the directly affected people. Imagine you were a resident in Sampur right next to the now-fortunately-canceled coal power plant, and your livelihood and life was under threat from coal dust. Would you sacrifice your family’s health so that somebody somewhere else could get power?

Or, imagine you are a resident in Rajagiriya whose land is being acquired by the Government without being allowed the necessary time or the amount of compensation to replace the losses, for a Flyover you are not even convinced is of benefit to anybody. Even if it were, would you think it’s fair to be asked to give up your property in which you have invested your life’s earnings and not get replacement cost? To add to the pain of the affected people, all these projects are done with public funds – so in effect, they pay to enable their own sacrifice!

Sustainable Development
The Prime Minister in his economic statement 2016 said, “…The economic vision of the National Government will yield prosperity to all Sri Lankans. It is an economy that will share the benefits of development among all. One that will be friendly to all, beneficial to all, keeping its focus on including sustainable development as well.”
He also mentioned the vision of “..establishing a society in which every citizen has access to equal opportunities and individual rights are safeguarded”. Mr. Prime Minister, so walk the talk. It is your responsibility to fix this flawed system which allows projects to be approved and implemented without due diligence or oversight just because the subject Minister and/or the project sounds flashy enough. A comprehensive feasibility study should be mandatory to decide if a project is to be done or not.

And if development is to be friendly to all instead of some, and individual rights are to be safeguarded, then the EIA and NIRP processes must become inherent parts of the project. The time and resources required for those should be part and parcel of project cost and duration. If that increases both, so be it. That is time and cost well spent, in the interests of the public, to ensure it is beneficial to all.

Until and unless our PM and Government get their act together, the few public officials with integrity, be it at CEA, RDA, CEB, Divisional Secretariats or any other relevant agencies, your responsibility is so much greater. You become the custodians of the rights of the public. The EIA and NIRP processes are your weapons and not obstacles. And please don’t forget, you yourself are a member of the public. What you are safeguarding is your own interest – because tomorrow, cabinet may approve a coal power plant next to your house, or a flyover or highway going through your garden.

And as for the rest of us lesser mortals, let’s imagine for a minute Sampur coal happened. Each time you turn on a light, somebody’s kid would have got a little more poisoned from fly ash. And as you drive over that flyover in Rajagiriya, somebody’s elderly parents would be suffering because they cannot recover what they lost. That would be blood on your hands. And mine. I for one, don’t want to be party to that. Do you?