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ESG's 10 Year Anniversary Celebration - 10th January 2009

Celebrating a decade of engagement with Environmental and Social Justice initiatives

Dear Friends,

The Environment Support Group team warmly wishes you a Peaceful and Happy 2009.

This year begins on a very happy note for us as we celebrate a decade of our engagement with environmental and social justice initiatives. Many of you have been an integral part of our various initiatives over the years, and we thank each one of you for your continuing support and cooperation.

Much as we have many challenges to attend to, life is also about celebration.

We will celebrate our decade with the release of our Decadal Report by Dr. B. K. Chandrashekar, former Chairman of the Karnataka Legislative Council and two fantastic cultural performances - of Kalaripayattu by the Vallabhatta Kalari Sangam, Chavakkad (Kerala) and an Odissi performance by Diya Sen and troupe.

ESG's decennium of work will be celebrated on Saturday, 10th January 2008. You can download the invitation to the programme here. We will be very happy if you would join us in this celebration and request you to please confirm in advance your participation by calling any of our numbers or emailing us on nandini@esgindia.org and esg@esgindia.org. (Please confirm your participation no later than the evening of 8th January, Thursday and thus help us organise the programme.)

A decade of working with various local communities in Karnataka, across India, and with many organisations and networks across the world, is difficult to review in a brief letter. Our decadal report will soon be available on our website and we encourage you to visit our revamped site rightaway. For your immediate convenience we enclose a brief overview of our work.

Intiatives like ESG can only work with your dedicated support and contribution and we hope you would extend your generous contribution, as always.

We look forward to your continuing support and cooperation and wish you all peace and happiness in 2009.

Warmly and Sincerely,

Leo F. Saldanha, Bhargavi S. Rao, Mallesh K. R., Gitanjali Mahanti, Harminder Kaur, Nandini Chami, Dolly Kalita, Divya Ravindranath, Shankari, Sruthi Subbanna, Zeenath, Venkatesh, along with our Trustees Dr. Robert John Chandran and Arthur Pereira, our families, advisors, friends and associates.

Environment Support Group
105, East End B Main Road
Jayanagar 9th Block East
Bangalore 560069 – INDIA

Tel: 91-80-22441977/26531339/41489329

Fax/Voice: 91-80-26534364

Email: esg@esgindia.org

Web: www.esgindia.org

Responding responsibly to environmental and social justice challenges

An overview of a Decade of work of Environment Support Group, Bangalore (January 2009)

Restoring Commons to the Public:

2008 has been a very challenging year for us, and yet very satisfying. We remember this year with particular satisfaction because our legal challenge against the privatisation and commercialisation of lakes in Karnataka has met with success. On the direction of the High Court of Karnataka the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of the Karnataka Forest Department filed his fact finding report which endorsed our PIL. Consequently, the Advocate General of Karnataka confirmed in the Court that the State was withdrawing the highly controversial lake privatisation policy, and thus putting an end to further privatisation of lakes. But the four lakes that have already been handed over to various private profit making ventures, such as the Oberois, the State intended to let them complete their lease of 15 years. We disagreed with this position, and the High Court has now posted for final hearing our case to February 2009.

The interim relief is enormously significant on many grounds. Because of our PIL, a long pending case against encroachments of lakes in Karnataka was also heard, and the High Court directed the State to survey each and every lake in Karnataka, demarcate its boundaries and secure them for posterity under the supervision of the Karnataka Legal Services Committee of the High Court. In short, this is one of the most significant decisions in ensuring water and ecological security for all.

In addition, this decision puts beyond any doubt the fact that the State has to protect our commons in its role as a Trustee. This precedent if used innovatively can lead to major gains for social and environmental movements to safeguard against the ongoing trading of our commons such as lakes, forests, grazing pastures, etc. through corporatisation. (Read more.)

In a similar way our networked campaign in collaboration with Hasiru Usiru against needless road widening resulted in another PIL initiative before the High Court of Karnataka. In its interim direction, the Court agreed with all our cotentions and directed a committee of experts to review each and every proposal to widen roads and related transport infrastructure in Bangalore after ensuring that public had been involved in decision making, that projects were fully in conformity with law, and ensuring that the effort was economically and environmentally viable. The Court was particularly concerned that the rights of the weak and infirm should not be overlooked and directed the authorities to ensure that projects must be implemented only if the needs of the elderly, the differently able, children, pedestrians, cyclists, street vendors, etc. could be safeguarded. Further, it directed Forest officials to allow felling of avenue trees only as a last resort. Significantly, the High Court made our PIL a framework for decision making and appointed the Karnataka Legal Services Committe of the High Court to step in and resolve disputes as and when they arise.

The proposal to widen roads seems deceptively simple and the right way out of congestion. But carefully understood, it forms the most disruptive activity of any urban area, besides being utterly senseless and counter-productive. Widened roads are likely to be filled in with traffic, and thus get congested in no time - in fact in less than 5 years what with 1,500 vehicles being registered daily in Bangalore! This raises serious questions of what actions could then follow? More widening?

The current proposal is demonic - it involves widening 100 roads running into a length of approx. 400 kms, costs at least Rs. 4,000 crores (USD 888,888,888 only for civil engineering works only), and potentially displaces thousands of homes and businesses. The worst environmental disaster of the city would be that at least 40,000 avenue trees will be felled – the real heritage of the city - leaving its population reeling under the merciless heat of the tropical sun and ensuring there would be no space for birds, butterflies and other forms of living in the city. In short, Bangalore will be so fundamentally transformed that its very soul would be sacrificed merely for the comfort of those lobbying for more private transport. More intelligent options exist and we are currently engaged in fighthing this arduos battle for people centred, economically viable, socially just and environmentally sustainable development of India's fastest growing metropolis. (Read more)

Power needed, but at what cost?

Another significant achievement for collective action in the year was the order of the Karnataka Electricity Regulatory Commission on 19 May 2008 advising the Karnataka Government to review its decision to locate a massive coal fired thermal power plant at Chamalapura, near Mysore, on the banks of the Kabini and neighbouring Bandipur and Nagarahole National Parks.

ESG worked with the petitioners Mysore Grahakara Parishat in advancing a variety of legal, technical, and environmental concerns - in particular the fact that there was no water in the Kabini to support the power plant and also downstream water demands. Our submissions were exhaustively relied upon by the Commission in its decision and called to question the veracity of the decision making process advancing the project, advising the State to review the entire proposal taking into account “all the aspects involved in the project such as environment and heritage, Land Acquisition, Fuel linkage, water supply etc.” Subsequently, the Karnataka Government has announced its decision that it would not advance with this project. (Read more.)

Diluting environmental decision making standards: A Race to the Bottom

2007 witnessed ESG making a significant contribution to the debate on environmental decision making in India by its publication “Green Tapism: A Review of the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification – 2006”. We were compelled to write this book as we witnessed that the Government of India was pursuing with its disastrous policy of diluting environmental clearances standards by pushing ahead with an amendment to the EIA Notification, despite opposition from Parliamentarians and peoples everywhere. Brazenly, the Notification was amended, for the worse, and our publication exposed its consequences so our efforts to regain lost ground was not defeated. (Read more)

Former Environment Secretary Mr. R. Rajamani reviewed the publication for The Book Review (Volume XXXII Number 8 August 2008) and had this to say:

“This book is a must read for policy makers, engineers, scientists, contractors, independent thinkers and even investors who should be sensitive to India's environment. The passionate plea at the end of the book for scrapping this notification and reinstating the 1994 notification minus its deficiencies does not seem to have been heard so far amidst the din and noise of the need for growth and investment, but a heavy price will be paid by future generations of Indians if such cautionary signals emanating from publications such as this are ignored.”

ESG's responses to community struggles:

During the late nineties, ESG worked with communities in Dakshina Kannada district to stop the location of a dirty coal fired thermal power plant by Cogentrix Inc. of USA. Soon after, we worked with communities in Kadandale, Udupi district, to stop a dirty chemical dyes factory that was built without any clearances whatsoever by M/s Engelhardt Highland Pvt. Ltd. of USA. We continued our work with fishing communities in Dakshina Kannada in their struggles against the pollution and expansion of Mangalore Refineries and Petrochemicals Ltd., a relationship that has has renewed recently in our work with communities directly affected by the Special Economic Zone for Petrochemicals. Needless to state, our role was supportive, and often times, integral to the success of community struggles. Equally, there have been instances of the lack of success, which only egged us to work harder. (Read more)

By 2000, we were deeply involved in questioning the need for the Bangalore Mysore Infrastructure Corridor Project, promoted by a consortium of American and Indian companies under the banner of M/s Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprise, touted as an effort to decongest Bangalore. We contested this proposal suggesting instead that developing existing towns between Bangalore and Mysore along with high-speed rail links would be a far more viable and socially inclusive option, which of course the Government cared to discard, to our common peril. Working with farmers groups, social action networks, and a variety of affected communities we have helped expose what has turned out to be the single largest land scam in the history of the state of Karnataka and a project that is anything but in the wider public interest. The project is still languishing in its initial stages, and many, or all, of the questions we originally raised, which were rebutted by the Government then, are now supportively used as arguments by the State against the company implementing the project. Many critical decisions are awaited on the fate of this project, the affected communities and voiceless ecosystems in the months to come from the Judiciary. (Read more)

Protecting critical ecosystems from certain disappearance:

Our work in the thickly forested district of Uttara Kannada centred initially around the proposal to locate the seventh dam across River Kali – one of the most dammed rivers in the world. We worked to successfully expose that the international consultancy Ernst and Young had plagiarised the EIA for the dam, and subsequently also exposed that the next EIA commissioned from Tata Energy Research Institute was no better. This was the first major expose' of how deep the rot had set into the process of environmental decision making in the country. (Read more)

This brought us to investigate deeper into the quality of the Kali River, polluted as it was for decades by the West Coast Paper Mills, one of the largest paper mills in Asia. In collaboration with Parisara Samrakshana Kendra, Sirsi, the extensive impact of the pollution on local communities, wildlife and the waters of the Kali was exposed, forcing the Central Pollution Control Board to step in and conduct a review, which was promptly hushed up. Not very surprisingly thereafter, the company announced massive expansion plans, trebling its production illegally with the financial support of International Finance Corporation of the World Bank. We questioned this decision on many grounds, which have never been satisfactorily explained by the Bank, the company or the statutory authorities. We also exposed that the proposal to expand the production was concomitant with the single largest transfer of common lands (termed C and D degraded lands by the Government) to the company to develop captive pulpwood plantation – an area of 68,000 ha. (680 sq. Kms.) in four districts of North West Karnataka. Our efforts continue to ensure IFC backs out of the project and that the State does not surrender common lands to corporate control. Read more.

Other significant campaign efforts include the networked action to stop the destruction of Handigondi forests and rocks for commercial exploitation masked as a proposal to replace the destrcution of Bamiyan Buddha near Bangalore. (Read more).

Prior to this, we helped forge a wide ranging collaboration to stop mining in Kudremukh National Park (Read more). Our efforts to save India's critically endangered biodiversity continue every day, even as we advance the importance of involving forest dwelling communities in ensuring timeless protection of our natural resources by implementing the Forest Rights Act.

What we do with our precious learnings working with affected communities:

Responding to community requests for support to secure their environmental and social justices provides us immense satisfaction, makes us partially suffer their pain, and also helps us learn critically about how we should respond to the growing environmental and social challenges of our society. Our bottom up approach has helped us gain insight into developing systemic approaches to resolve problems confronting our society, and thus benefit the wide public with options that aren't merely short term. To ensure such advantages gain credibility with a wider community of decision makers, planners, elected representatives, academicians, media, etc., ESG constantly engages in various research initiativies.

Over time we have worked with United Nations Environment Programme and Indo Norwegian Environment Programme in advancing socially just solid waste management approaches (details here). Following up on this we have worked with a variety of partners in an European Union – Asia Pro Eco funded initiative on managing hazardous waste entitled: SACODI (Read more)

Hope is when future generations learn not to repeat past mistakes:

Our campaign may seem a reaction to what happens now, and our research hopes to forestall the degradation of our ecological and social security. A most certain way to ensure hope is in advancing innovative education approaches and building awareness amongst student and affected communities. In this regard ESG has worked to develop a variety of audio visual and print publications. But nothing replaces the satisfaction of engaging with learning opportunities that we do with immense satisfaction with students.

The International Honors Programme has been a consistent partner with ESG, and we reciprocate this kind gesture by organising the “Cities in the 21st Century” and “Health and Community” courses. Based entirely on the pedagogy of experiential learning, we encourage students in the discovery of a world unaffected by text book prejudices and guided by direct exposure to learning situations and the way the world is. Such learning has been largely considered life transformative and we work actively with more and more educational institutions to open up to a world full of learning, rather than be caged in the confines of a classroom. (Read more)

How do we sustain ourselves?

ESG has worked almost entirely without institutional support. This is not an argument against such support, but merely a statement of our reality – money flow to work such as what we do from foundations and grant giving institutions is very limited, and becoming even more so. This is quite in contradiction to expectations, considering that the world's biggest challenge today and for centuries to come is climate change and its consequences. We remain hopeful of secure greater institutional support in the months and years to come, not merely for our survival, but so that initiatives such as ours, which we consider critical for a socially and ecologically just world, will continue.

Over the decade many institutions and organisations have helped us by supporting our research projects and educational initiatives, and sometimes our campaigns. We thank International Honours Programme, New World Foundation, Association for India's Development, Green Grants Fund, European Union – Asia Pro Eco and Asia Urbs, Indo Norwegian Environment Progamme, United Nations Environment Programme, Ford Foundation, World Resources Institute, Environmental Law Institute, Oneworld, and many many individual donors for their generosity and support. As we begin a new year, we look forward to newer challenges, even as we secure our past successes.

We sincerely look forward to your continuing support as we commence our engagement into the next decade on environmental and social justice initiatives.

Thank you.

Leo Saldanha and Bhargavi S. Rao


Environment Support Group

January 2009

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ESG is an independent not-for-profit organisation that promotes the cause of environmental and social justice through research, documentation, advocacy, training and campaign support. We aim to support the rights of local communities and voiceless ecosystems in a responsible, progressive manner that keeps contextual complexities in mind.

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