Karnataka Must Revive State Environmental Clearance Committee To Safeguard Environment And Protect Human Lives

ESG Press Release: 23 February 2021: Bangalore

Yet another explosion has taken place in a quarry in Karnataka, this time in Chikkaballapur, killing six people. Just about a month ago, eight people had died in another quarry explosion in Shimoga, the Chief Minister’s own constituency. The Principal Bench of the Karnataka High Court headed by Chief Justice Mr. Abhay Oka has taken cognizance of the seriousness of systemic lapses that cause such disasters, and has directed the State Government to evolve a scheme to prevent such disasters. Such a scheme used to exist in Karnataka, but was discontinued, as we explain below.

The Government of Karnataka was forewarned about the critical need for regulating with transparency and accountability all activities which have any environmental and social impact, especially those that involve hazardous substances, chemicals and explosives, even if they were small or medium. Such activities were considered too insignificant for review and thus not placed under the purview of the Environment Impact Assessment Notifications (1994, 1997 and 2006).  

This forewarning came in the form of a detailed report entitled “A study with regard to significant impact of the activities that are not covered under EIA notification 2006 ” which was commissioned by Government of Karnataka’s Environmental Management and Policy Research Institute (EMPRI) and Karnataka Dept. of Ecology, Environment and Forests, and was undertaken by Environment Support Group (ESG). The ESG study focused on a comprehensive review of the functioning of State Environment Clearance Committee (SECC) in Karnataka and recommended how it could be improved. 

The SECC, in fact, was one of the earliest appraisal instruments created in the country with the purpose of reviewing environmental and social impacts of various projects and also associated risks. In finalizing the report, ESG studied 447 projects from 20 sectors in all districts of Karnataka which had been cleared during 2002-2012. A 526-page report was submitted in March 2014 for the consideration of the Government, which was co-authored by Leo F. Saldanha and Bhargavi S. Rao, amongst others. The study recommended that an SECC-type mechanism must stay, but needs comprehensive revamping and strengthening, so that it can work as a transparent environmental and social impact regulator with public, local government and expert oversight. 

Even as the report was being brought out, the State Government took action to discontinue the SECC. It then proceeded to not accept the study and also blocked it from public release.  ESG, however, proceeded to share a copy of the report online in consonance with the terms of reference commissioning the study. The report is accessible at: http://tinyurl.com/gnvj59g.

The Shimoga and Chickaballapura quarry blasts indicate that the dissolution of the SECC has created a critical void in environmental appraisal and governance of projects, particularly those not covered under the Central Government’s Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2006. Coupled with the continuing dilution of labour norms, such systemic lapses are manifesting in avoidable disasters, resulting in deaths and casualties of the innocent besides advancing environmental destruction.

It is thus critical, now more than ever before, that the Government of Karnataka revisits the study and its recommendations, and revives and reforms the SECC mechanism.  This could be one small step towards ensuring that the so-called small and medium-scale activities are conducted with the highest regard to occupational health, labour rights and safety, and environment and human rights.

Shrestha Chowdhury and Malvika Kaushik

Research Associates

Environment Support Group

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