Bullet train: Govt of India "ignores" Japanese investor JICA's guidelines on social, environmental impact

By Rohit Prajapati and Krishnakant*
The Japanese government investors, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), signatory to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government of India (GoI) for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail Project (MAHSR), popularly known as Bullet Train Project, in its documents has repeatedly stressed on environmental and social impacts, which must be followed for ensuring assistance in the form of technical cooperation, loan, or grant aid for the projects funded by it.
While the final responsibility for environmental and social considerations for projects lies with the project proponents, JICA lays down certain crucial baseline principles as also a set of guidelines for environmental and social considerations that need to be followed for execution of projects by host country governments, including local governments, borrowers, etc.
If during the execution JICA finds that relevant environmental and social impacts have not been considered in letter or spirit, it will withdraw loan aid, grant aid, or technical support to the project.
There has been much debate about how the Bullet Train Project violates the Indian Constitution, laws, and due processes. At the same time, JICA guidelines for investing in international projects are also being violated as much, if not more. And, to no one’s surprise, these violations are by the GoI and its agencies responsible for carrying out the MAHSR.
The violations are in public domain and known to almost everyone who cares to know. The concerned authorities might have some “explanations” and “excuses” to offer, but they cannot deny certain facts and ground realities.
It is also pertinent to note that the Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) Charter, August 2003 assures fairness and attention to environmental and social impacts while contributing to sustainable development in developing countries.
At the onset, JICA guidelines state: “Japan’s ODA Charter states that in formulating and implementing assistance policies, Japan will take steps to assure fairness. This will be achieved by giving consideration to the conditions of the socially vulnerable and to the gap between rich and poor, as well as the gaps among various regions in developing countries.”
In the absence of such considerations, can JICA offer other sustainable and financially viable options to the Bullet Train? The project proposal submitted to JICA by MAHSR justifies the need for a Bullet Train Project over other inter-regional and multi-modal transit options.
The bullet train route
If such a need study exists, then has it been put in the public domain and discussed with the stakeholders? The Bullet Train venture has been promoted in spite of existing reports calling for the strengthening and upgrading the existing rail system, which have been postponed due to lack of resources.
The JICA Guidelines for Environmental and Social Considerations explicitly state the significance of environmental and social considerations in extending its support and aid towards any project in a developing country. At various stages in the process, right from inception to implementation, the guidelines clearly and repeatedly suggest ways and means to communicate, incorporate, and mitigate environmental and social considerations and impacts.
In doing so, JICA endeavors to ensure transparency, predictability, and accountability in its support for examination of environmental and social considerations. JICA has a policy of actively supporting the enhancement of environmental and social considerations in developing countries, to achieve its goal JICA provides support to the project proponents in a number of ways to help them abide by its set guidelines.
However, it is clear that there are discrepancies, deviations, and violations observed during the Bullet Train Project planning and decision making process. The following is sections and points highlight and give details of the same.
JICA guidelines commit to the establishment of an Advisory Committee for Environmental and Social Considerations as an independent body comprising of external experts having the necessary knowledge to provide advice regarding support for and examinations of the environmental and social considerations of cooperation projects.
JICA reports to this committee and seeks advice as needed for the environmental and social monitoring of the project. Meetings of the advisory committee are open to the public and minutes of each meeting are duly prepared and disclosed to public.
There has not been an announcement of such an advisory body in the public domain. If this body exists, then details of members, their expertise and deliberations are not available for reference by the stakeholders. No information regarding the meetings is available on websites, nor have minutes been made public.
The Guidelines clearly state that adequate information needs to be provided by project proponents in order for JICA to assess impacts on the environment and local communities. JICA not only assists project proponents to help with this disclosure but JICA itself also discloses information on environmental and social considerations in collaboration with project proponents, in order to ensure accountability and to promote the participation of various stakeholders.
The main project proponent, the National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL), a joint venture of the GoI, bears the ultimate responsibility of environmental and social considerations for the project and must disclose all information about the same to JICA as well as to all the stakeholders in public domain.
Gujarat's rural poor: Stakeholders whose view has been ignored
The response by JICA to the reports prepared by the project proponents is not available in the public domain. Hence, there is no transparency in the process of planning and decision-making.
The Environmental and Social Impact Assessment reports of 2010 do not address majority of these factors. Surprisingly, in the Joint Feasibility Study for Mumbai Ahmedabad High Speed Railway Corridor, July 2015, prepared by JICA and Ministry of Railway, Government of India, four chapters -- Chapter 12 - Project Cost of the High-speed Railway System, Chapter 13 - Project Implementation Plan, Chapter - 14 Project Scheme Financial Option, and Chapter 15 - Economic and Financial Analysis -- are missing for reasons best known to them.
Though JICA begins reviewing the project through information disclosed by the project proponents, when necessary it consults with the proponents to conduct field surveys and such and also applies a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) while working out the Preparatory Survey. All final drafts are duly disclosed on its website promptly after completion.
Specifically for Category A projects (Bullet Train falls in this category), whenever JICA concludes preparatory surveys, the final reports and equivalent documents are disclosed on its website. These have not been made public.
As per the guidelines, alternatives to the Bullet Train Project are also to be presented, but details of the same are not available, at least in public domain either in any of JICA’s or GoI’s public document.
Project proponents are supposed to disclose all information well in advance of the meetings with local stakeholders in cooperation with JICA. To achieve this, JICA supports project proponents in the preparation of documents in an official or widely used language and in a form understandable by local people. In response to third party requests, JICA ensures fair disclosure by providing all information related to environmental and social considerations.
In stark contrast to the JICA mandate, the Joint Feasibility Study for Mumbai Ahmedabad High Speed Railway Corridor, July 2015, remains unavailable in Gujarati and Marathi, the primary languages of the affected stakeholders, even on the JICA website.
Additionally, the subsequent impacts of projects, as well as impacts associated with indivisible projects, will also need to be assessed with regard to environmental and social considerations, so far as it is rational. The life cycle impacts of a project period are also to be considered. This information and consideration is also not available in public domain.
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*Excerpts from paper by Gujarat's senior environmental activists. Contact:  rohit.prajapati@gmail.com, tokrishnakant@gmail.com. Click HERE to read the full paper 

Comments

Uma Sheth said…
This project is obviously a matter of personal prestige for the PM and he is not going to give up no matter what the consequences are.