After Panama Papers, Bahamas: More Indians in secret tax haven list

The Indian Express, 22 September 2016

FIVE months after the Panama Papers, the biggest-ever leak of offshore entities registered by Panama-headquartered law firm Mossack Fonseca, comes the Bahama Leaks, which reveals incorporation details of more than 175,000 companies, trusts and foundations registered in Bahamas, the Caribbean tax haven.
This new cache of documents, received by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and its media partners, including The Indian Express, relates to companies registered between 1990 and early 2016.
It lifts the veil of secrecy that the Bahamas offers to multinational corporations and also rich and powerful individuals by revealing the names of office bearers, shareholders or beneficial owners of the offshore entities.

An investigation of the list by The Indian Express has shown that the Bahamas Leaks has 475 India-related files linked to corporate personalities across sectors such as mines and metals, electronics, real estate, media and entertainment.
Some of them have also figured in the Panama Papers global investigation, reported by The Indian Express in April this year.
Anil Agarwal of the Vedanta Group; Kabir Mulchandani of the erstwhile Baron Group who had made it big in the domestic consumer electronics sector with Akai, Aiwa and Hitachi tie-ups in the 1990s; Fashion TV India promoter Rajan Madhu; Aman Gupta, chairman and chief executive of premium Finnish water brand Veen Waters; are some of the prominent personalities associated with companies in the Bahamas Leaks investigated by The Indian Express.
Some names that figured in the Panama Papers investigation and have come up in the Bahamas Leaks, too. The two sets of data thus intersect at several points, uncovering hidden layers of offshore secrecy.
The release of the Bahamas Leaks comes days before the September 30 deadline of the government’s much-publicised Income Disclosure Scheme (IDS). The IDS opens a rare window for individuals and corporations to declare their hitherto undisclosed income and come clean by paying 45 per cent tax as penalty.
Within hours of publication of the Panama Papers investigation by The Indian Express, the government had appointed a multi-disciplinary task force to probe the revelations. Since then, almost 100 requests for information have been sent to 12 offshore jurisdictions. In all, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) has put 297 Indians covered by the Panama Papers investigation under the scanner.
The government may choose to include the details revealed by the Bahamas Leaks also under the on-going ambitious tax probe.
Unlike the Panama Papers, 11.5 million often-detailed emails, contracts, audio recordings and other documents from one law firm, Mossack Fonseca, the information listed in the new Bahamian documents are static in nature and provide only bare facts such as the company’s name, its date of creation, directors and the physical and mailing addresses.
But the new leak includes the names of 539 registered agents — corporate middlemen who serve as intermediaries between Bahamian authorities and offshore clients.
Among them is Mossack Fonseca and the latest ICIJ release shows that it set up 15,915 entities in the Bahamas, making the tax haven its third busiest jurisdiction. The Panama Papers showed how Mossack Fonseca helped clients use secrecy norms in the Bahamas to keep their name out of public filings.
Political and government figures named in the leaked documents include Colombia’s minister of mines and energy between 1999 and 2001, Carlos Caballero Argáez. He was listed as president and secretary of a Bahamas company, Pavc Properties Inc., between 1997 and 2008. Argáez also appeared as director of Norway Inc, a company registered in the Bahamas, between 1990 and 2015.
In the case of Neelie Kroes, European Union’s commissioner for competition policy from 2004 until 2010, records show her as a director of Mint Holdings Ltd from July 2000 to October 2009. The company was registered in the Bahamas in April 2000 and is currently active.
According to ICIJ, Kroes didn’t disclose her connection to this company in her declarations of personal financial interests in 2010 when she was European commissioner for competition or in 2014 when she was European commissioner for digital issues. Kroes, 75, is a director or a board member of several companies and also serves as an advisor to Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Uber. She remains an influential member of the Netherlands’ ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.
Kroes rejected any criticism of her business activities. Her lawyer said she denied “she was ever conflicted by ties to the private sector.”
Bahamian authorities did not reply to ICIJ’s requests for comment. In a previous statement, the Bahamas called itself “a clean, compliant jurisdiction having been deemed largely compliant with the OECD’s existing standards with respect to the exchange of tax information.”
Mossack Fonseca did not reply to ICIJ’s request for a comment. The law firm previously told ICIJ: “As a registered agent we merely help incorporate companies, and before we agree to work with a client in any way, we conduct a thorough due-diligence process, one that in every case meets and quite often exceeds all relevant local rules, regulations and standards to which we and others are bound.”

Ken-Betwa river linking project: Wildlife board panel gives nod for Phase I

The Indian Express, 20 September 2016

THE STANDING committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) cleared Phase-I of Ken-Betwa river link project in its first meeting with new Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave as chairman.
The minutes of the meeting, held on August 23, was approved Monday.
The Rs 10,000-crore project requires diversion of 5,258 hectares of forest land, including 4,141 hectares of Panna Tiger Reserve.
As reported by The Indian Express on May 12, the project was given in-principle approval in the 38th meeting of the NBWL standing committee on May 10. Facing flak, the ministry decided to hold further deliberations with engineering and hydrological experts “in view of differing opinions on the height of the water impending structures and resulting impact.”
At the 39th meeting on August 23, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) director “indicated that the (expert) group was convinced that reducing dam height by 10 metres will result in non-availability of water for linking”.
The proposal to drop the plan for power generation, given the project’s focus on fighting drought in the Bundelkhand region, was also shot down after the Ministry of Water Resources assured that power generation facilities would be outside the tiger reserve. Accordingly, the committee decided to recommend the project without any modification with these additional conditions:
* To compensate for direct loss of 105 sq km of tiger habitat, Nauradehi, Rani Durgavati and Ranipur wildlife sanctuaries will be integrated in Panna Tiger Reserve; affected forest villagers will be rehabilitated at project’s cost.
* The dam reservoir area will be retained as core tiger reserve with minimum activities.
* No fishing will be allowed at the dam site.
* No new mining leases will be allowed on tiger dispersal routes.
* A landscape-based plan for the area will be finalised with the National Tiger Conservation Authority in lead, assisted by WII, state forest department and the project proponents.

As Chhattisgarh coal corridor goes ahead, elephants passed over

The Indian Express, 19 September 2016

NINE months ago, Chhattisgarh East Railway Limited (CERL) informed the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that the corridor it’s building through the state’s worst man-animal conflict zone will have 24 bridges with “underpasses provided to ensure unhindered passage of elephants”. But records show that 22 of them are nowhere near established elephant routes identified by Chhattisgarh’s Forest Department.
Besides, these bridges do not meet the minimum width-height requirement — 300×5 metres — recommended by the Wildlife Institute of India for building wildlife underpasses. The NGT is scheduled to hold the next hearing in the matter on Monday.
Chhattisgarh East Railway Limited (CERL) — a special project vehicle comprising the state government (10 per cent), South Eastern Coalfields Limited (64 per cent) and Railways construction wing IRCON (26 per cent) — is developing the 180-km eastern corridor primarily to carry coal from the Korba and Gare-Pelma mines.
With a 2019 deadline, the Rs 4,000 crore project has made “15-20 per cent progress” in the first 74-km stretch, which passes through Dharamjaigarh forest division in Raigarh district, where 44 people and 39 elephants have been killed in man-animal conflicts in the last seven years.
The project will affect over 125 elephants — around half of Chhattisgarh’s elephant population — that move between Korba and Dharamjaigarh forests. These elephants mainly belong to herds displaced in the 1990s when mines came up in their native forests in Odisha and Jharkhand — Chhattisgarh did not have resident elephants earlier.
In 2005, Chhattisgarh decided to create two reserves for the migrant elephants to reduce conflict. The Centre cleared the plan in 2007, but the state backtracked later to keep its coal-rich forests open for mining.
In December 2014, while evaluating the corridor project, the Environment Ministry had underlined the need for a wildlife management plan and animal underpasses. In March 2015, Chhattisgarh’s Forest Department submitted a detailed plan for underpasses, listing established elephant routes across the proposed track in the Dharamjaigarh division. But the project got forest clearance in May 2015 without finalising either, on the condition that “sufficient underpasses for safe crossing of animals shall be made” and “an integrated wildlife management plan shall be prepared and implemented”.
CERL began work in July 2015, but two months later, the project was challenged at the NGT by Bilaspur-based lawyer Sudiep Srivastava. It was in its reply to the tribunal that the CERL listed the 24 bridges that were already part of the project that would provide as “underpasses” for elephants. Of these, only two are within 100 metres of an identified elephant path, leaving the animals to take long detours, negotiating water channels, in a conflict-ridden landscape, or risk crossing the railway tracks.
More than hundred elephants have been killed on railway tracks in India since 2003, when Bholu, the jumbo carrying a green signal lamp, became the Railways safety mascot. Already, seven deaths have been reported this year.
Asked how CERL was allowed to start work before specifying the underpass locations, Chhattisgarh’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests B L Saran said: “This is an important project and it will comply with all (clearance) conditions. Yes, these are elephant conflict areas and underpasses are required. We are still looking into the specifics.”
Parvinder Singh, Additional General Manager, IRCON, said that there was “full coordination” among the agencies. “It is a government project. We have given the wildlife management plan to the Forest Department. If they want us to build some underpasses, we will do it. Budget is not an issue. But these are for the departments, and not activists, to decide,” said Singh, who is in charge of the project.

The One-Rupee Trick: How banks cut their zero-balance Jan Dhan accounts

The Indian Express, 13 September 2016

In August 2014, a few weeks after the launch of Jan Dhan, the government’s flagship scheme under which the unbanked get bank accounts, Kamlesh, a housewife at Purnapur village in Uttar Pradesh’s Bareilly, opened an account at the Punjab and Sind Bank’s local branch. Wife of a farmer, the opening balance in her account was zero. This wasn’t unusual — in fact, accounts like Kamlesh’s, called zero-balance accounts, made up almost half of all the 17.90 crore Jan Dhan accounts a year later given that most of the holders were poor and had little by way of savings.
But on August 5 this year, when Kamlesh got her passbook updated, she was in for a surprise. “Re 1 had been deposited in my account on September 29, 2015. I didn’t deposit the money, I don’t know where it came from. I will ask the bank about this,” she said. It’s not just Kamlesh, and it’s not just that branch in Bareilly, or even that bank.
Investigating information obtained from more than 30 nationalised and regional rural banks under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, The Indian Express went to more than 25 villages and cities spread across six states, checked individual passbooks and interviewed account holders. To find that bank officials are quietly making one-rupee deposits, many from their own allowances, some from money kept aside for office maintenance. Their ostensible goal: to reduce the branch’s tally of zero-balance accounts.
As many as 20 branch managers and officials told The Indian Express, on the condition that they not be identified, that there is “pressure” on them to show that zero-balance accounts are falling in number. “There was a perception that so many zero-balance accounts means no one is using them, so there was pressure on us to change that,” said one official.
The short-cut was the one-rupee deposit.
Indeed, as per RTI information provided, 18 public sector banks and their 16 regional rural subsidiaries held 1.05 crore Jan Dhan accounts with deposits of Re 1.
From Ajit Kumar Das’s Syndicate Bank account in Guwahati to Lallu Paswan’s Punjab National bank account in Bihar’s Barh; from Guddi Devi’s Bank of Baroda account in Rajasthan’s Sawai Madhopur to Nizam Khan’s Bank of India account in Raatibad near Bhopal.
They all had Rs 1 deposited in their zero-balance accounts. There were a few cases of despoits of Rs 2 or Rs 5, and in one case, Prem Bai of Raatibad, near Bhopal, found 10 paise had been transferred to her zero-balance account in Bank of India on July 20, 2016.
Indeed, at the macro level, the number of zero-balance accounts has fallen sharply. From 76% in September 2014 to almost 46% in August 2015, then a steady fall to 24.35% on August 31, 2016.
In fact, RTI information obtained until August 2016 shows that the percentage of accounts with such deposits of one rupee is significant across banks and across the country.
Take, for instance, the case of Punjab National Bank, which has opened 1.36 crore Jan Dhan accounts of which 39.57 lakh (almost 29%) are those with deposits of Re 1. Bank of Baroda has 1.4 crore Jan Dhan accounts of which 12.97 lakh (9.26 per cent) have deposits of Re 1. There’s also UCO Bank with 74.6 lakh Jan Dhan accounts of which 11.06 lakh (14.83 per cent) have deposits of Re 1.
And those were just the top three. Punjab and Sind Bank, which currently has the least number of zero-balance accounts (0.40%), refused to provide details of Jan Dhan accounts with Re 1-Rs 10 in deposits.
6 states, 1 story: How they got the rupee
At the ground level, The Indian Express spoke to over 20 branch officials of various nationalised banks and their regional rural subsidiaries in Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh who admitted, on condition of anonymity, that the deposits of Re 1-Rs 10 were sourced from various perks and other expenditure heads that come under their jurisdiction.
These include entertainment allowance, conveyance allowance, canteen subsidy, office maintenance funds, and fee obtained for Demand Drafts and online transfers. At least 10 branch officials said they had deposited these amounts from their own pockets, just to keep the accounts alive.
They said that most of these cash deposits were done manually with staff filling pay-in slips in bulk. In a few cases, the money was transferred electronically by the banks’ Business Correspondent Agents (BCA) or Bank Mitras — contract staff who take banking facilities to rural clients — who are allowed to open accounts to deposit money they take from account holders under Jan Dhan before transferring them to individual accounts.
For example, in Rajasthan’s Sawai Madhopur district, out of 40 bank passbooks scrutinised by The Indian Express, 15 had Re 1 credited by transfer as the first entry. None of the account-holders knew the source of these entries.
When The Indian Express visited Barh in Bihar, around 200 Jan Dhan account passbooks with deposits of Re 1 were found in the office of a BCA. “I was asked by the branch manager to deposit Re 1 in around 120 Jan Dhan accounts between October 9, 2015 and October 11, 2015. The bank officials said they would give this amount to me later. In many other accounts, bank staffers themselves deposited the amount to remove the zero balance,” said the agent.
“We took money from expenditure head of the branch and put Re 1 or Rs 2 in the accounts having zero balance. This was just to keep those accounts operational,” said a senior official of Punjab National Bank in Barh.
“We have noticed some such cases. There was pressure from the top level and some bank staffers did it themselves. But such cases are only a few,” said an official at a Central Bank of India branch in Bareilly.
“In my branch, nearly 1,000 such accounts were opened. Due to pressure from the top level, I deposited Re 1 in many of those accounts myself,” said a branch official at Baroda UP Gramin Bank in Bareilly, a subsidiary of Bank of Baroda.
“I was heading another branch before being transferred here and I had personally put Re 1, Rs 2 and Rs 3 in around half of the around 1,000 accounts opened under Jan Dhan in that branch. It was the usual practice in the branch due to pressure from the top,” said an official of the Aryawarta Gramin Bank, a subsidiary of Bank of India, in Mainpuri, UP.
An official at Bank of Baroda’s Baler branch in Rajasthan claimed that the bank’s “business correspondents may have put Re 1 in those accounts to encourage banking practices” among villagers.
“The branches have certain targets and there is pressure. For the last one year or so, we have ensured that new accounts are opened with some deposit. But there are issues with accounts opened earlier in bulk. It is difficult to persuade those account holders to deposit money,” said the official.

Facing green hurdles, Rio Tinto pulls out of diamond mine in MP

The Indian Express, 19 August 2016

Asked to explore the possibility of underground mining and wait until the Ken-Betwa river linking project was finalised, mining giant Rio Tinto on Friday decided to close its Rs 2,200-crore diamond mine project in Madhya Pradesh.
“As part of its ongoing efforts to drive shareholder value by conserving cash and cutting costs further, Rio Tinto has decided to not proceed with development of its Bunder project in India. Accordingly, we will be seeking to close all project infrastructure by the end of year 2016,” Rio Tinto Exploration India Private Limited said in a statement emailed to The Indian Express.

It is a setback for the Madhya Pradesh government as Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan had himself pushed for the statutory clearances required for the project. The diamond mine was expected to yield Rs 2,058 crore and Rs 208 crore towards royalty and taxes, respectively, to the state once excavation began.
Rio Tinto, say company sources in India, has already invested over Rs 400 crore on prospecting etc and hired more than 300 people at the project site. “Rio Tinto will offer a fair and equitable Voluntary Severance Scheme to contractors employed at the project site,” the company’s Indian arm said in the statement. 
The country’s first private diamond mining project was red-flagged for undermining the wildlife corridor between the Panna Tiger Reserve and the Navardehi Wildlife Sanctuary. This July, a report by the National Tiger Conservation Authority said that the project “has the potential to disrupt tiger dispersal around Panna landscape”.
Accordingly, the environment ministry sought to limit mining only to 76.43 hectares out of the total 971 hectare project. In a letter to the state government on August 10, the ministry further conveyed that surface extraction “would entail greater extent of forest land use leading to permanent loss of the high quality forest areas” and “the project proponent may also explore the possibility of underground (mining)”.
As per government records, the estimated deposit of diamond at the site is 34.2 million carat. While pulling out of the project, Rio Tinto has reiterated that “the Bunder deposit is a high-quality discovery” and offered to help the state and the Union government in finding a “third-party investor to carry forward the development of the project”.
Madhya Pradesh granted reconnaissance permit to Rio Tinto for diamond mining in Chhatarpur’s Bunder area in 2004. The Shivraj Singh Chouhan government signed a support agreement with the company in 2010 and subsequently issued a letter of intent for a 30-year lease in 2012. Indian Bureau of Mines approved the mining plan in 2013 and the project is awaiting forest clearance since 2014.

Machli: Death of a tiger legend

The Indian Express, 18 August 2016

Machli alias, T16 alias, the Lady of the Lake. The tiger legend is dead. Finally. The news has shocked tiger lovers across the globe. But to many, it has also come as a relief. Because it also put an end to the pathetic spectacle of an amazing wild tiger being reduced to a living relic.
Without the tethered baits the forest department provided her for the last seven years, Machli would have long been dead. There was a reason however, that the majority in the wildlife fraternity were desperate not to lose her.
As tigers disappeared from Rajasthan with poachers striking at will in the first half of the last decade, the very sight of Machli — strolling, stalking, ambushing, still raising more cubs or just minding her own business — was one of the few reassuring constants.
The once reigning queen of the three majestic lakes beneath the craggy fort at the heart of Ranthambore, Machli was indeed a very special cat. The envy of every single mother, she raised nine cubs in four litters between 2000 and 2008. Every day, hundreds of tourists scoured the forest to seek her out. Every year, thousands of pilgrims walked all over her territory on their way to Ranthambore’s Ganesh temple. The fiercely protective mother always held her nerve.
Machli’s courage and determination make her a remarkable survivor. She repeatedly took on deadly marsh crocodiles bigger than herself and overcame them. Even after those mortal combats cost her two canines, she continued to hunt successfully and went on to raise five cubs in two litters.
As her legend grew, Machli became the biggest and the best advertisement for tiger conservation. In 2009, when she was awarded for lifetime achievement, it was rather conservatively estimated that she had generated $10 million for the local economy through tourism. Millions of tourists on Machli pilgrimages have visited Ranthambhore since.
But that was not her biggest miracle.
Almost single-handedly, Machli steered India’s fragile westernmost population of tigers through an ominous decade. Her bloodline has produced at least 50 tigers in Ranthambhore, including her own nine cubs from three males, and two other females sent to repopulate Sariska.
Against all odds, Machli raised her fourth litter at the ripe age of 11 and without two canines. Eight years on, all Machli had was half a canine, a little patch of her once vast territory, and some of her indomitable spirit. While she still made occasional kills, the forest department fed her under public glare.
Machli’s last years added to her legend but she had long stopped serving any purpose in nature’s scheme of things which does not allow an old unproductive individual to hang on and waste finite resources. Yet, we kept Machli alive because it gave us an emotional and moral high.
Machli’s life taught us that given an opportunity, a single cat can turn a wild population around. Her death should make us realise that by not letting her go, we probably made it a little more difficult for her successors to do a Machli.
Now that the legend is dead, young tigresses will follow in her pug marks and hopefully rival her many feats. If they succeed, let’s vow not to do a Machli on them once they are done being wild tigers.

Amid a popular show of support for the big cat, three things India could pledge this Tiger Day

The Indian Express, 29 July 2016

July 29 was designated as the International Tiger Day at the Global Tiger Summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 2010. This is an annual event when NGOs and forest authorities host celebrities and school children — and media invites experts — to create awareness about tiger conservation.
Today, tiger enthusiasts can walk a mile under golden-black banners, adopt a tiger for as little as $55, or just pray for Jai, the alpha male gone missing in Maharashtra. The new option is to click a selfie with a tiger sculpture or photo — a tourism promotion concept probably inspired by the bizarre spectacle of safari tourists presenting their back to wild tigers and twisting themselves into knots in pursuit of that ultimate frame.
While walking, donating, praying or posing for the tiger today, it may also be worth noting that this Tiger Day follows a few startling developments.

It is entirely coincidental that Parliament cleared the CAMPA Bill yesterday and — barring the minister’s assurance — there is nothing in it to benefit the traditional forest dwellers, the natural custodians of tigers. Instead, the huge funds may well trigger mindless afforestation drives, destroying rootstocks and even standing community forests to further imperil both.
Instead of squandering the bulk of Rs 41,000-crore booty in leaky plantation drives that have been chronic failures, India can pump that money into protecting existing forests and corridors (they regenerate given a chance), into securing the future of all endangered species including the 16 that demand urgent attention (and were never allocated even Rs 100 crore in all), into empowering forest communities as custodians of local wilderness.
That is the first thing India could pledge this Tiger Day.
If this day is about securing the big cat’s habitat, the second imperative is to designate no-go forest areas. India needs to exit the paradigm that allows destruction of wilderness for monetary compensation. We do not allow destruction of heritage buildings on the ground that the evicted would do just as well in plastic tents provided by builders. Plantations can never ‘compensate’ the loss of long-standing natural forests and time we accept it as a policy.
And if this day is about raising awareness, the third thing we should do is hold NGOs and governments accountable. For a start, officials must stop blaming every tiger death to in-fighting and start accepting that poaching can happen under anybody’s watch. Tigers are not suicidal and no system is crime-proof.
While the social media is abuzz with Jai’s disappearance, the absence of an individual tiger doesn’t matter in conservation. But we need to ask how did the impossible happen? How did a collared tiger tracked 24×7 under a Rs 1-crore research project go missing without alerting anyone?
Hundreds of crores of foreign and Indian (including government) funds are spent on sundry projects on conflict mitigation, awareness drives or monitoring through different NGOs. We need to ask how NGOs implementing the same projects using identical templates end up submitting drastically different financial accounts. We can’t have only volunteers saving the tiger — it is time to guard against plain profiteering.
This Tiger Day, India will also do well to hit at the foundation of this symbolism. Conservation as an elitist fad has never worked. The engagement of forest communities — not as photo props but as the lead partner — can make the next Tiger Day a little more meaningful.
The other part of the symbolism — using the tiger as the mascot — is perhaps inevitable. The cultural impact of the striped cat is unparalleled. We may not be able save everything in saving the tiger. But if we fail even the all-important tiger, chances are we will not be able save much else.

Consultations seek the ‘correct picture’ on upper Ganga dams

The Indian Express, 27 July 2016

To dam or not to dam? That was the question asked by the Supreme Court soon after floods and landslides devastated Uttarakhand in 2013. The Environment Ministry set up an expert committee, and subsequently told the court in December 2014 that dams had exacerbated the 2013 disaster.
A year and a half later, the Ministry of Water Resources in an affidavit last month also opposed construction of any more dams on the Ganga and its tributaries in Uttarakhand. This consensus should have settled the issue. But the Environment Ministry had, meanwhile, changed its 2014 position.
So, two days ahead of the crucial hearing scheduled in the Supreme Court on July 13, counsel for the Union of India wrote to the Court Registrar and sought “an adjournment by 12 weeks to enable the Government of India to carry out inter-ministerial consultations for arriving at a common policy framework as the matter involves three ministries”. The third Ministry being Power.
Consequently, the case was not listed for hearing on July 13.
By all indications, “arriving at a common policy framework” seems like a laboured euphemism for what is likely to be a three-month effort at justifying a foregone conclusion in favour of more hydel projects in Uttarakhand.
Soon after it criticised dams in December 2014, the Environment Ministry was told at a meeting held at the Prime Minister’s Office in January 2015 that it was “necessary to place the correct picture regarding the critical need of the projects in Uttarakhand for green power and for livelihoods before the court”.
The PMO also set a one-month deadline for the Environment Ministry to finalise the clearance norms for the dams in coordination with the Power Ministry and the Uttarakhand government.
So, in February 2015, the Environment Ministry contradicted its second expert panel’s recommendations by telling the Supreme Court that the six hydel projects — which were earlier struck down by the apex court in the aftermath of the 2013 disaster — were “worthy of clearance”. To justify the volte face, the Ministry set up yet another expert panel in June.
Around this time, Minister for Water Resources Uma Bharti joined the fray and asked the Central Water Commission to oppose the construction of new dams, as the existing ones were already a challenge to the ongoing river cleaning mission.
To bridge differences, an inter-ministerial group (IMG) was formed in November 2015 with the Ministers of Environment, Water Resources and Power as its members. If the brief was to build a consensus in favour of the “correct picture” suggested by the PMO, Bharti didn’t oblige.
In an email to then Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar on January 5, 2016 — the day the Environment Ministry shared its draft affidavit with other IMG members — Bharti pointed out that she was “unable to understand how the policy decision of the government as stated in the draft affidavit was arrived (at)” because an inter-ministerial committee under the Secretary, Water Resources, was yet to file its report.
Disregarding Bharti’s objections, the Environment Ministry, however, went ahead and submitted its affidavit before the Supreme Court, recommending five of the six stalled projects. Further, referring to a consensus on the Ganga’s water requirement arrived at a conference held in Haridwar in 1916, the affidavit proposed to clear any hydel project that did not take the natural flow of the river below 1,000 cusecs.
However, based on media reports of Bharti’s objections that were brought to its notice, the apex court asked both Power and Water Resources to file their own affidavits. In May, the Power Ministry obliged, backing the Environment Ministry’s January 2016 affidavit in favour of hydel projects.
In its affidavit submitted last month, the Water Resources Ministry, however, referred to the recommendations of various expert committees set up by the Environment Ministry in the past to conclude that “any further projects will have a substantial impact… leading to severe damage for the fresh water resources base” and “if the origin of the Ganga is compromised, then the rejuvenation of the river will be impossible”.
Underlining the need to review clearances accorded to various hydel projects, the affidavit asked for a cumulative study “of all the projects for assessing the cascade formation as well as the natural flow of the river”. It also cautioned that the “region around these projects is located in the geologically unstable and seismically active area” and any mishap “will have a devastating effect on the people, flora and fauna and on the entire eco-system”.
These concerns echo the conclusions drawn by the Environment Ministry in its affidavit filed on December 5, 2014: “…Large & small hydro power projects on the Ganga & her tributaries all over the Himalayas are a threat to the aviral dhara of the Ganga. The absence of this is leading to a serious threat to the biodiversity of the Himalayan ecology… anthropogenic activities (have) also led to massive over-exploitation of the local environment, thereby loosening the top soil and making the region susceptible to landslides and flash floods.”
It seems odd that the government should be caught trying to bypass the collective wisdom and scientific insights of its own expert committees that formed the basis of two affidavits, filed 17 months apart by two different Ministries, but were united in their recommendations. Minister Bharti would be counting on the new incumbent in the Environment Ministry, Anil Madhav Dave, her former aide from Madhya Pradesh and fellow river conservationist, to back her through the “inter-ministerial consultation”.

Environment Ministry’s rules for polluters in India, copied word for word from the US

The Ministry notified and put up the draft on its website on May 10, inviting public feedback over a two-month window.

More than three quarters of the Environment Ministry’s Environment Supplement Plan (ESP) — around 2,900 words of the 3,850-word draft — is a direct lift from the Supplemental Environmental Projects Policy (SEP) document adopted by the United States in March 2015.
The draft notification proposes to allow those who go ahead with project work without prior environmental clearance under Environment Impact Assessment Notification (EIA), 2006 to “remediate the damage caused” and compensate by implementing the ESP. Under existing laws, these are criminal offences punishable with imprisonment.
The Ministry notified and put up the draft on its website on May 10, inviting public feedback over a two-month window.

Consider these substantive samples of the cut-paste that became the notification:
— US (Introduction A): Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP) is an environmentally beneficial project or activity that is not required by law, but that a defendant agrees to undertake as part of the settlement of an enforcement action.
India (Clause 1): An Environmental Supplemental Plan (ESP) is an environmentally beneficial project or activity that is not required by law, but that an alleged violator of Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 agrees to undertake as part of the process of environmental clearance.
— US (II D): SEPs provide defendants with an opportunity to develop and demonstrate new technologies that may prove more protective of human health and the environment than existing processes and procedures.
India (4 iii): Innovative Technology: Environmental Supplemental Plan will provide the proponent and the Expert Group with an opportunity to develop and demonstrate new technologies that may prove more protective of human health and the environment than existing processes and procedures.
— US (IV A III): The project must demonstrate that it is designed to reduce:
a. The likelihood that similar violations will occur in the future;
b. The adverse impact to public health and/or the environment to which the violation at issue contributes; or,
c. The overall risk to public health and/or the environment potentially affected by the violation at issue.
India (5): The project must demonstrate that it is designed to remediate the ecological damage caused due to violations and it will reduce,
a. The likelihood that similar violations will occur in the future;
b. The adverse impact to public health and the environment to which the violation at issue contributes;
c. The overall risk to public health and the environment potentially affected by the violation at issue.
— US (X B): With regard to the SEP, Defendant certifies the truth and accuracy of each of the following:
a. That all cost information provided to the EPA in connection with the EPA’s approval of the SEP is complete and accurate and that Defendant in good faith estimates that the cost to implement the SEP[, exclusive of _____ costs,] is $_____;
India (12): With regard to the Environmental Supplemental Plan, the project proponent shall certify the truth and accuracy of each of the following:
a. That all cost information provided to the Expert Group in connection with the Environmental Supplemental Plan is complete and accurate and that the proponent in good faith estimates that the cost to implement the Environmental Supplemental Plan is Rs. —————;
Joint Secretary Manoj Kumar Singh, who issued the draft notification on May 10, denied having copied the content from the SEP document of the United States. “We borrowed the idea (of ESP) from the US. Most Western countries follow this practice. But the language of our draft is different. Nothing was copied,” Singh told The Indian Express.
When comments were sought from Anil Madhav Dave, who took charge as Environment Minister on Wednesday, he sought details over email. He is yet to respond.
Seeking to make violators comply by paying compensation, one of the contentious lifts from the US document in the draft notification even accommodates the possibility of future violations. Clause (5) of the draft notification says the violator “must demonstrate that it is designed to remediate the ecological damage caused due to violations and it will reduce. the likelihood that similar violations will occur in the future.”
The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 provide for a minimum period of one-and-half years of imprisonment for commencing activities without a valid consent to establish or operate.
By proposing monetary penalties for such violations, the government, say experts, is misusing its delegated executive power to frame rules that amount to dilution of laws passed by the legislature.
“Environmental violations form civil charges in the US. In India, these are criminal offences under the law. So while settlements such as SEP may not be out of place in the US, the idea of proposed ESP violates the heart and soul of EIA which is the need for prior approval. That is the law as it exists. It cannot be undermined by borrowed executive wisdom,” said environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta of Delhi-based EIA Resources and Response Centre.


Explorations and Investigations into the Indian Wild

By Jay Mazoomdaar


Endling (noun) The very last individual of a species. 

These are not trophy tales of the wildlife photographer or his ancestor, the hunter. Nor are these entreaties of the save-the-world variety. Curious and clinical, irreverent but reasoned, these essays and exposes by one of India’s best-known investigative journalists and wildlife reporters, Jay Mazoomdaar, raise fascinating questions to better understand the Human-Nature interfaces in an increasingly crowded and edgy India. 
Alongside the gripping whodunit and the sobering myth-buster are the stories of a cursed river, a tiger reserve on sale, a desert snake that ‘breathes’ death, a tribe that threatens to die if forced out of its forests and a species destined to become the loneliest on earth. 
The result of over a decade of investigations in the Indian wild and the human ecosystem around it, The Age of Endlings is as compelling as it is unflinching.

Under ED heat, Robert Vadra’s firm sheds pvt ltd tag

The Indian Express, 26 June 2016

BARELY A month before the Enforcement Directorate issued a notice under provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) to Sky Light Hospitality Pvt Ltd, owned by Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, he had converted the private limited company to a limited liability partnership (LLP).
Private limited companies need to comply with extensive regulatory requirements, but a limited liability partnership only needs to file its annual returns and statements of account and solvency. Even auditing is not a mandatory requirement for LLPs, which enjoy further flexibility in functions, such as ease of dissolution, etc.
According to records maintained by the Registrar of Companies (RoC), Sky Light Hospitality LLP came into being on May 13, 2016, with Vadra and his mother Maureen Vadra as directors. The records also show that the new entity’s listed address in Delhi — 268 Sukhdev Vihar — is the same as that of Sky Light Hospitality Pvt Ltd registered in 2007.
Responding to a request for comment by The Sunday Express, Robert Vadra’s office stated in an email on Wednesday that it had been referred to the company’s lawyers and chartered accountants. “They will examine the same and will revert in due course,” said spokesperson Manoj Arora in the email.
On Wednesday, Vadra’s wife Priyanka Vadra had confirmed that the firm linked to her husband had received an ED notice in connection with alleged money-laundering in a land deal in Bikaner.
In its notice, ED asked Sky Light to submit financial statements and other documents related to the reported purchase of 275 bighas in the Kolayat area. Last year, the agency had registered a criminal case of money-laundering on the basis of FIRs based on a complaint lodged by the local tehsildar.
Other companies set up by Vadra and his mother have witnessed similar changes in structure. On April 24, 2015, the duo set up Blue Breeze Trading LLP and subsequently dissolved Blue Breeze Trading Pvt Ltd, another company linked to the controversial land deals in Bikaner.
Records show that the duo started converting their Pvt Ltd companies into LLPs in January 2015, when they set up Real Earth Estates LLP and North India IT Parks LLP. In July 2015, they dissolved the original entities, Real Earth Estates Pvt Ltd and North India IT Parks Pvt Ltd.
As reported by The Indian Express on November 28, 2014, three companies owned and controlled by Vadra made profits up to 600 per cent within three years of investment in real estate in Bikaner.
The three Vadra firms — Sky Light Realty Pvt Ltd, Sky Light Hospitality Pvt Ltd and Blur Breeze Trading Pvt Ltd — sold land in 2012 at three to seven times the price they bought it for in 2009-10.
In January 2010, Sky Light Hospitality Pvt Ltd bought 69.55 hectares in two deals for Rs 72 lakh — at a little over Rs 1 lakh per hectare. In January 2012, it sold the land in two separate deals to Delhi’s Allegeny Finlease Pvt Ltd for Rs 5 crore — at Rs 7.41 lakh per hectare, seven times the price paid two years ago.
In four deals in June 2012, Sky Light Hospitality purchased nearly 70 hectares at an average of Rs 80,000 per hectare — less than what it paid in 2009.
In January 2013, the company sold a plot for Rs 6 lakh to Meetu Agarwal of Bikaner, ostensibly to bring down the company’s holding below the ceiling limit.
Subsequently, the Rajasthan government in January 2015 cancelled the mutation (transfer of land) of 374.44 hectares, after the state land department claimed to have found that the allotments were made in the names of “illegal private persons”.

And the rivers be dammed

In June 2013, massive flash floods killed at least 6,000 people in Uttarakhand. Three years after that catastrophe, governments of the state and at the Centre appear bent on unlearning the lessons.

The Himalayas are young mountains, and naturally restless. In the last century and a half, the middle Himalayan region — now Uttarakhand — has suffered at least 50 major tremors and flash floods. But the biggest disaster since the 1803 Garhwal earthquake was more than just a natural calamity. Worse, the 2013 catastrophe had been long in the making.
In 2009, a series of flash floods and landslides killed more than 70 people in the state. This was a warning — which was repeated in another killer flash flood in 2012. That same year, two centres of excellence — the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, and the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee — submitted conflicting reports on the collective impact of hydropower projects in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins.
While IIT-R merely recommended a string of measures to reduce the dangers of harnessing these rivers so intensively at such altitudes, the WII said 24 out of the 39 proposed dams would cause irreversible harm to the rivers, and should not be allowed. By then, another 31 projects had already been commissioned or were under construction on the rivers concerned.
This called for a difficult policy revision. Soon after it became a state in 2000, Uttarakhand was showcased for its hydel potential, second only to that of Arunachal Pradesh, by the A B Vajpayee government that announced dozens of projects in 2003. By 2006, new dams were coming up in the state. In 2009, Uttarakhand drafted its Vision 2020 statement on the theme of ‘Pahad Ka Pani, Pahad Ki Jawani’.
While governments in Delhi and Dehradun remained indifferent to any course correction, calamity struck in June 2013. Although shaken, the state government stood its ground — and reiterated days after the tragedy its goal to make Uttarakhand power surplus by 2016.
However, the Supreme Court took suo motu cognizance of the disaster — and stopped clearance of any more hydel projects until further orders. It also directed the Environment Ministry to set up an Expert Body (EB) to assess the role of “mushrooming of hydropower projects” in escalating the impact of the flash floods.
In April 2014, the EB, led by Ravi Chopra of the research and development non-profit People’s Science Institute, submitted its report, which agreed with the WII on the potentially disastrous impact of the 24 proposed projects.
In its affidavit to the Supreme Court in December 2014, the Environment Ministry accepted the EB’s findings that hydel projects had exacerbated the disaster both directly (by blockage) and indirectly (by ecological damage).
The SC Bench of Justice Deepak Misra, to which the case had been shifted after Justice K S Radhakrishnan retired in May that year, lifted the statewide ban on hydel projects. Only the 24 projects in question were put on hold until the EB report had been analysed and policies finalised.
Six aggrieved developers then joined the case with the plea that their proposed hydel projects be allowed to go ahead since they already had clearances from the Environment Ministry. The apex court narrowed the scope of the case and directed the Ministry to set up yet another committee — now to consider these six hydel projects as a cluster.
This four-member committee under Vinod Tare of IIT-Kanpur, in its report submitted in February 2015, acknowledged that the six projects had all necessary clearances — but warned against allowing these proposed dams, which could have a serious impact on the region’s ecology. The Environment Ministry, however, presented before the court only the fact that the six projects had all clearances.
Following a media outrage over the selective reading of the report, the Supreme Court asked the Ministry for the entire report. Unfazed, the Ministry decided, in May 2015, to form yet another committee, under the chairmanship of B P Das, to decide the fate of the six projects. As vice-chairman of the Ministry’s expert appraisal committee, Das had earlier cleared 3 of those 6 projects.
In October 2015, the Ministry told the court that the Das committee had recommended all 6 projects, but it would still consult the other stakeholder ministries — Power and Ganga Rejuvenation — before finalising the policy. Thereafter, it claimed in a January 2016 affidavit that the government had reached a policy decision — based on a 1916 agreement between Madan Mohan Malviya and the colonial government — to allow any hydel project that releases at least 1,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water into the Ganga or its tributaries.
However, Uma Bharti, Minister for Ganga Rejuvenation, wrote to her counterpart in the Environment Ministry, expressing shock that the latter had made a submission to the court even though no policy consensus had been reached. Following media reports, the Supreme Court in April asked both the Power and Ganga Rejuvenation ministries to file their own affidavits.
For many, 2013 revived the nightmares of 1991 when a deadly earthquake hit Uttarkashi. The floods laid bare the risks of unbridled growth — and a quake of that magnitude is likely to cause much greater damage today. Yet, the zonal master plan for the Bhagirathi Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) — in which 4,179.59 sq km between Gomukh and Uttarkashi was to be designated as a green zone to fight unplanned growth — was buried even before the wounds of 2013 had healed.
On January 13, 2015, at a meeting chaired by Nripendra Misra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, the Environment Ministry accepted that an ESZ could not be declared without a proposal from the state government. Uttarakhand had claimed that it had not been consulted while notifying the Bhagirathi ESZ, which restricted most development projects in the area, and impacted livelihoods.
The agenda of that meeting held at the Prime Minister’s Office was “to discuss issues relating to Hydro-Electric projects in Uttarakhand”.
The Power Ministry has already submitted its affidavit in support of the Environment Ministry’s century-old 1,000-cusec formula. If Uma Bharti relents, it may soon be business as usual in Uttarakhand, and work will begin on new dams.
For wilful amnesia, it appears three years is a long time.