“The community actually said that the ‘air is so bad and the water is so bad that we can neither cook nor make tea.’” This line, sobering in its daily reality, was delivered at a recent webinar entitled Building Evidence for Justice – Groundtruthing Environmental Compliance, by Kanchi Kohli, Legal Research Director at the CPR-Namati Environmental Justice Program in India. This reality is true in many countries across the globe, including India, where rapid industrialization is filling the skies, seas and forests with a pollution that threatens the environment and the communities of the world’s largest democracy.
The process of groundtruthing, as Kanchi puts it, is “as simple as being on the ground”. It seeks to determine whether environmental impacts of industrial projects are legal or illegal by examining if regulatory conditions or safeguards imposed on companies have been violated. This methodology is grounded within the community, by first working to develop a collective understanding of the approval process, and recognizing what the laws and regulations are and how they can be used as a tool to achieve justice. Once understood, the community then builds an evidence base of observable facts, photographic and satellite imagery, and official documentation. The community, or section of the community, then determines the best remedies to demand, and submits a call for relief to the appropriate regulatory authority.
Governments are often removed from the environmental and livelihood impacts of industrial projects, which is why Kanchi believes that groundtruthing also means “bringing the distant government closer, to see, smell, hear, and really sense the truth of the ground.” Lands and livelihoods are being severely transformed due to industrialization, and the groundtruthing process aims to begin the journey towards justice. The CPR-Namati Environmental Justice Program utilizes groundtruthing alongside its legal empowerment framework by partnering grassroots legal advocates with affected communities across India. Together, a lasting and working knowledge of the law and how to apply it is developed so communities can respond to the exploitation of their environments and livelihoods into the future, and indeed for the future.
After the Building Evidence for Justice – Groundtruthing Environmental Compliance webinar, participants had an opportunity to ask questions regarding environmental justice. You can watch the full webinar by clicking on the video below, or continue reading for a selection of the fascinating questions and answers.
How can one ensure that the agency doing the groundtruthing is seen as objective and unbiased? How important is that?
This is definitely very critical, especially in areas where there is a trust breakdown, where affected communities don’t also see eye to eye. However, there are methods by which you could ensure that the groundtruthing is objective, especially if it’s a group that comes together and it’s very clearly laid out up front what we’re trying to do through this process, that we’re not trying to get short-term remedies or responses. That we’re looking for long-term remedies through this process. I definitely agree that this is an important thing to take care of. One of the things that we try and do in this, as I mentioned, is in evidence collection, which talks about having at least three pieces of evidence, and that triangulation method ensures that this is not just an impulsive response to something that is happening – it is clearly a building of that evidence – and a lot of people who are not interested in that long and detailed process might not even continue. That’s one way we’ve tried to address it in some of the cases.
Groundtruthing seems a method to get a measure of real costs. What if the costs are just too high? Do you have examples where projects have been closed by a groundtruthing exercise?
Certainly not big-ticket projects. We’ve still not had that kind of experience. In fact, in the example of the community-led groundtruthing process in the slides that I showed you actually resulted in the government condoning the violations after accepting all of them, because it was not prudent to shut down the activity. However in instance of smaller projects, our experience especially through the CPR-Namati Environmental Justice case level work, whether it’s sand-mining or industrial pollution, plugging a pipeline, those kinds of things have definitely succeeded.
These environmental clearances, while the documents may be available in public, there may not be enough awareness among the affected people for them to be able to bring up these issues in the absence of a groundtruthing exercise undertaken by a third party. Does groundtruthing bring out such gaps also and how can these be overcome?
As I mentioned, in the six-step process the first step is really understanding the legal process and understanding which are the institution responsible for monitoring. It is in the heart of the groundtruthing process that the legal awareness of both the laws and the regulatory processes, and where the remedy actually lies, is part of it. That’s why we’re talking about linking it to legal empowerment. It’s not enough to just solve the problem, it’s also important to be legally aware so you can help other people solve the problem.
How effective can groundtruthing be in monitoring small scale industries and their levels of compliance?
There are many cases that we have as part of the legal empowerment/applied research program which are really small scale. They could be small scale in an industrial area, where there are legal safeguards and compliances applied to the entire industrial area, or it could be small scale at the community level. Often when there have been instances like really unregulated sectors such as sand-mining, where there is local participation in that activity, it gets difficult to do groundtruthing because a basis for the groundtruthing process is that there must be a need felt for it from the affected community. As part of the community led effort and the legal empowerment process, we don’t try to go anywhere were there isn’t a part of the community that is affected and wants a remedy. However, groundtruthing can be a very effective tool if you as an individual along with key informers wants to do it, it’s very possible, because almost every process requires some bit of license. It might not be an environmental law. It might be a mines and geology law, it could be somewhere else. There is definitely some paper that the person has to have to start operations.