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Can infra go green?

Projects

Green’ is in vogue today and the construction industry too is seen fulfilling its environmental responsibility. In terms of statistics, the number of ecofriendly buildings is swelling with each day. Surprisingly, while there is so much to write and talk about green buildings, not much attention has been given to the construction of ‘ecofriendly infrastructure’.

For many, that may actually sound like an oxymoron because any infrastructural development entails – whether you accept it or not – a negative impact on the environment. However, given the world’s social, economic and industrial requirements, the human race will find it difficult to live without creating the infrastructures that fulfil these requirements.

Infrastructure development today holds the key to India’s quick recovery from the slowdown as well as to a steady rise as a global economic power. It is therefore essential to synergise infrastructure development with environmental consciousness and this can be done only by ensuring that all developmental activities are necessarily sustainable.

Assessing the impact
The word ‘synergise’ implies the acceptance that infrastructure projects will have an impact on the environment and that the project proponents having assessed the impact should incorporate appropriate measures to address this impact in all aspects of the projects – particularly, planning, design and execution. So far, so good. Now the question that we should be asking is whether our projects are getting properly assessed for their environmental impact at the right stage and if necessary measures are being taken at the subsequent stages.

Infrastructure projects are granted/rejected an environmental clearance only after the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report is issued. The EIA Notification was enacted in 1994, with the Environmental Protection Act (1986) as its legislative foundation [Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), 2008].

Accordingly, all developmental projects must obtain clearance from the MoEF, and prior to this, they must also obtain clearance from the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB).

Ideally, the EIA should link infrastructural activities with ecological concerns at the start and integrate mitigation measures at appropriate project stages. Is this evolution?

Obviously, no law or act can be frozen in time and it must evolve over time to ensure effective execution in the larger interest. Likewise, the EIA regulations too have been modified over the years.

Sadly this seems to have happened only with the sole objective of expediting the approval process. These ‘modifications’ comprise reduction in the number of interfacing agencies and approvals, and allowing parallel activities for clearances.

For example, authority has now been delegated to the state governments for granting environmental clearance for certain categories of thermal power projects. Following are a couple of examples that will illustrate how and why the environmental cause has been compromised vis-à-vis infrastructure requirements.

One of the many reasons why the work at the Commonwealth Games Village was unable to achieve the desirable speed was the various clearances it required. Key amongst these was the environmental clearance. Environmentalists had opposed a major part of the construction due to its impact on the ecology; it’s too close to the River Yamuna.

At that time, the Delhi High Court had ordered the formation of an environmental panel under noted environmentalist Dr RK Pachauri (who chairs the Nobel prize winning ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’) to assess the impact.

Later, a double bench of the Supreme Court brought a stay on this High Court order and directed it not to conduct any hearing on any issues related to the construction of the Games Village. The Supreme Court order was, of course, welcomed by the project proponents (the development authority and those involved in building the Village).

In a not very different case (again in the National Capital), Rites, a Government of India enterprise, had been consulted by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation to conduct the EIA study with regards to a railway line it was building over the River Yamuna, besides constructing a depot on its banks.

Rites concluded that urban transportation projects (railways, in this case) are not specified in the scheduled list of projects requiring environmental clearances. Hence, an environmental clearance and public consultations are not mandated in order to continue with the construction work.

The aforementioned cases emerge triumphant as examples of infrastructure development getting priority at the top level. Well, you won’t be surprised to know that such examples are in abundance.

Faster clearance
Sample this. The state of Maharashtra received 301 projects for environmental clearance under the EIA during the last two years (2006-2008). Of the 301 projects, a whopping 297 projects were approved. Shouldn’t we be happy about this? If certain environmental experts are to be believed, all’s not well when it comes to the way these clearances are granted.

So, in our mad rush for infrastructure development, are we compromising on the environment? Are we not looking at infrastructure projects from the long term perspective – particularly in the context of global warming and climate change? The answers are anything but simple. 

Incidentally, the MoEF has proposed to further modify the EIA notification 2006. It came up with draft notification on January 19, 2009, which has now been put up for public comment. According to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), this ‘draft notification is a major disappointment for civil society as it proposes to further dilute the environmental clearance process, which could pose a major risk to environment security of the country’.

In a letter (copy available with us) written to the Secretary of MoEF, Sunita Narain of CSE says: “We believe that the draft notification, particularly its clause which allows for exemption of expansion projects, will dilute and weaken the EIA process.
This will only lead to further delay as it will exacerbate conflicts around development projects. It is important for project proponents to understand that the EIA process can in fact assist projects as it will help to identify problems which can later lead to conflict with local communities or can increase the risk of the project because of environmental degradation.”

Similarly, a high profile panel constituted by the finance ministry while emphasising that infrastructure creation should be given the highest priority has recommended that one of the ways of doing so is subjecting infrastructure projects to simpler environmental clearance rules.

In this regard, Narain has written to the secretary of the planning commission saying that “We have to strive for a balance – an efficient process of environmental clearances but also an effective process, which safeguards the environment and local livelihoods.”

There’s hope
While it is critical to look at the environmental concerns objectively, it is equally important to acknowledge the industry’s efforts towards the green cause. One must acknowledge that while being driven by the infrastructure imperatives, not all infrastructure builders are insensitive to the environmental issues.

Whether their endeavours are sufficient (and whole-hearted) or not only time will tell. However, it would be unfair not to mention about their work. Let us start with the example of the Dhamra Port.

Dhamra Port
We couldn’t have had a better example than the Dhamra port (in Orissa) because of its infrastructural significance (post completion), its sensitive relation with the environment and the involvement of two big names from the Indian industry. The Port is being developed by the Dhamra Port Company Ltd (DPCL), which is a 50:50 joint venture between the Tatas and L&T.

(When it comes to setting examples, these two giants are second to none and nobody can question their contributions to the cause of nation building). Together, their vision is to create the infrastructural hub of India’s eastern coast by developing the deepest (draught of 18 meters) and most efficient port facility for the industrial and economic development of the region as well as the country.

Construction work at the site has already started and the port is scheduled to be operational from April 2010.

The port’s master plan envisages 13 berths with a huge capacity of handling 83 million MT of multiple cargos per year. It can accommodate super cape size vessels up to 180,000 DWT. All this and its proximity to the mineral belt of Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal give Dhamra port a distinct strategic advantage.

Notwithstanding the economic benefits of the Dharma port, some environmentalists (including the international group Greenpeace) have alleged that the port activities will have irreversible environmental harm.

Dhamra port (named after the River Dhamra) is located between Gahirmatha, one of the world’s largest nesting sites for Oliver Ridley Turtles, and the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary.

According to the protesting environmentalists, dredging activities, ship traffic (once the port is operational) and possibility of oil spills will have an adverse effect on the turtles as well as the environmental surroundings.

Also, use of powerful lights during and after construction is likely to disorient hatchlings. Incidentally, DPCL has received all its environmental clearances both from the Union and State Governments.

Construction Week (India) sought answers from the authorities at the Dhamra Port about the measures undertaken by them to address the environmental issues. Santosh K Mohapatra, CEO, DPCL, was prompt in replying.

He says: “Although situated about 15km north of the northern most boundary of the marine sanctuary for Olive Ridley turtles, and although situated at a location which has been confirmed by the National Environment Appellate Authority as a place where turtle nesting cannot take place, the port is not taking any chances with regard to any indirect or remotely possible impact on the turtle habitat at south of River Dhamra. The port has engaged the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), to act as its scientific advisor during construction and to lay down an environment management plan to be followed during operation. For the first time along the Indian coast, dredgers have been fitted with special devices known as ‘turtle deflectors’ and a constant monitoring is done by observers under the supervision of IUCN to ensure that dredging does not destroy marine life.” 

According to Mohapatra, the Regional Research Laboratory is constantly monitoring the water quality around the dredging area to ensure that the marine productivity parameters are maintained within normal limits. “The National Institute of Oceanography is monitoring impact of dredging on the shore profile to allay fears that dredging may adversely impact the geomorphology of islands in the neighbourhood,” he says.

With regards to the lighting issue, Mohapatra clarifies that IUCN scientists are interacting with DPCL’s lighting contractors to evolve a lighting manual and design the port lights in conformity with what is known as ‘dark sky friendly lighting’. “When implemented, this will be the first time that such a lighting system will be introduced in India which can be followed in coastal development in other areas.

IUCN is working on a lighting legislation for coastal areas which can be recommended to the government for adoption,” he informs. In addition, Mohapatra says that DPCL along with IUCN is also undertaking awareness programmes in the local area, particularly with the fishing community as the greater part of turtle mortality is due to incidental catch during fishing.

The active involvement of IUCN definitely gives credibility to the work done by DPCL. It definitely does make sense in taking the guidance and advice of organisations that have worked substantially for the environmental cause.

The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) is another such organisation that’s helping the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) create green belts at its plants.

Will nuclear spell green?
According to Dr SK Jain, chairman & managing director, NPCIL, the green belts developed around NPCIL plants – in consultation with BNHS – have now started to attract migratory birds.

Will this change our perception of nuclear plants that are set to be a major part of our infrastructure development going ahead? While civil nuclear power plants are likely to emerge as key energy sources in the future, there are apprehensions about the environmental impacts of these plants.

Dr Jain quells the fears. He says: “To start with, nuclear power plants do not generate any air or water pollution. Our collaboration with BNHS is an example of how our plants are actually contributing positively to the environment. So there’s no question of any conventional pollution.”

But what about other critical issues like radiation, nuclear waste and safety (who can forget the Chernobyl disaster)? Dr Jain answers: “The radiation released by a nuclear power plant during normal operations in one year is equivalent to the radiation received during a Mumbai-Delhi flight (due to the flight’s increased proximity to the Sun by 10km). So there’s nothing to worry about on that count. Coming to accidents, the reactors that we have now designed are so safe that the operators can safely shut them down in case of accidents and either continue to be in the plant or walk out without any harm. And as far as used waste fuel is concerned, we have a closed fuel cycle so we re-process it.”

However, even after re-processing, there is some amount of waste generated. “That can now be vitrified and stored by using a technology developed by the Department of Atomic Energy,” says Dr Jain adding that NPCIL is very conscious and aware of its responsibilities towards the environment.

Going ahead, unconventional and renewable energy sources  are likely to emerge as the green options to conventional energy. Speaking about power generation, it would be worth mentioning the mini hydel power plant at Kabini at Karnataka, developed by Subhash Projects & Marketing Ltd (SPML).

Recognised as a non-polluting, ecofriendly project, it taps surplus water which otherwise would not have been utilised. The Kabini project, which earns carbon credits for SPML, has been certified by the Government of Karnataka and Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Ltd. According to Anil Sethi, chairman, SPML, all their projects ensure the highest levels of compliance to environment safety standards.

“We conduct regular camps for our engineers and our contractors, sensitising them to the environment protection norms and safety measures,” he says.

SPML is also one of the established players in the field of environmental engineering in India. “Our projects are aimed at solving long-standing sewage disposal problems to create a clean, green future,” adds Sethi.

Green is sensible
Today, all stakeholders need to understand that protecting the environment is not a matter of choice. It is actually a much bigger imperative since it involves the survival of our very planet.

Thankfully, it has been proved several times that going green makes sense not just from the ecological but also from the economical perspective. When the Mumbai airport was getting expanded, environmentalist opposed it as it involved harm to the ecology of Mithi river.

But it was still given a go ahead with the river’s water diverted through two tunnels that run under the domestic airport. With heavy rains, the domestic airport today faces water logging problems bringing to halt several flights. We also all know what happened on 26/7. This is just one example. But isn’t it enough to wake us up? Infrastructure development ‘must’ move ahead but not at the cost of environment.

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