In The Press

Of NGOs, civil society and investors at large

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Environmentalists, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society and the media at large are an important part of a sustainable development process. Every country needs them and needs them to be operating freely, without hindrance or undue pressures from the government or any other authority. On the other side of the coin, there is also a need for these organisations and the media, to be fair, balanced and accurate in their reporting and activation in order for a country to have a healthy investment environment. It is this balance that can propel development.

When we look at today’s climate for sustainable investment versus development, the NGOs and the media play important roles in scrutinizing the environment impact, assessment reports, approvals given by the government authorities and even feasibility studies that are carried out. The Right to Information (RTI) Act helps the media on the transparency aspect and this writer saw it used quite effectively in a recent report by a leading weekend newspaper. The writer had used the RTI to obtain the central environment authority letter and pointed out various conditions attached to a licence.

While there is a need for a sophisticated approach towards analysing environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports, approvals and licences, one thing that is found lacking amongst the local NGOs is their lopsided approach towards activation programmes. Their general tendency is not to concentrate on the details and get to the bottom of an issue but rather, skim the surface and look for a sensational path. Most often this path leads towards riling up the local populace and inciting them to protest action, without spelling out all the facts to them.

There is a dire need for the grievances of communities affected by the development projects to be voiced and heard. But there is also a need for restraint when it comes to allowing false accusations to permeate the media. If such reports go unchecked and unverified by the relevant authorities and left solely for investors and developers to defend, what it adds up to is an unfriendly environment for these investors to do business in. The best solution therefore would be to have a tribunal of sorts where civil society could go and present their case and developers and investors could be brought to answer questions and find solutions, before getting into a situation street protest scenario.

In the case of a massive road development project, which was reported in the newspapers recently, it was stated that there were 92 conditions attached to the licence. While this looks quite humongous and prohibitive, what the reader and the general populace would most likely not know is that these conditions are part of licences after the evaluation of an EIA. The Port City had 72 conditions and at a recent meeting the government authority handling the project declared that over 80 percent of the conditions had been met. Even the conditions that were pending could not be marked as undone, as they were social engagement programmes, which were currently ongoing.

In public-private partnerships, the onus is not only on the private sector partner to see that everything runs smoothly. The government and its agencies too need to be active and it would be in the interests of all stakeholders that if and when conditions are met the government through the media keep the public informed. As much as it is necessary to inform the public about the fulfilment of obligations, it is also important to report instances where it is not done within the stipulated time frame - this is what is called transparency.

On December 5 last year, an English daily newspaper reported that Reverend Father Iddamalgoda, who has been a strong vocal opponent of the Port City project and said to be representing the island’s disheartened and helpless fishing community, had said that “scientific evidence is not always accurate; people’s traditional knowledge that has been gathered over the years has to be taken into account.” While this kind of statement can strike a human chord and result in an emotional response from marginalized communities, one could say that it is almost impossible to live only by native cunning (knowledge). If one takes the dredger movements for the Port City project, it could be tracked via GPS and the special app can be downloaded on to anyone’s phone to observe its movements. This becomes particularly important as there are conditions that do not allow sand dredging in the sea four kilometres away from the shore.

The NGOs, which had been closely monitoring the dredger movements over several weeks, suddenly found that the dredger was closer to the shore than what was allowed and had complained to the authorities. To make a long story short, the project company, the harbour master and other allied agencies were called upon for an explanation. The explanation itself was quite simple as there was some misunderstanding between nautical miles and kilometres and more importantly, the dredger, which was closer to the coast, was not dredging at the time but leaving to the dredging site from the Port of Colombo after undergoing some repairs. These NGOs must be commended for their vigilance, as well as the project company for diligently following the conditions.

The allied government agencies too have done a good job in seeing that the regulations are followed. But at the bottom of it all there is one important element in seeing that everything is on an even keel - and that is science. From monitoring dredger operations through a global tracking system to the monitoring process right down to it being trackable on a mobile device, it has all to do with good engineering and not just dependence on native knowledge.

However, one cannot blame the local NGOs for what they lack in scientific knowledge and sound thinking as most of them are founded on an agenda and thrive on emotions and passion. Be that as it may, it has to be understood that emotions and passions alone cannot bring prosperity and development. So there is need for a practical, realist, responsible and mature way to attracting foreign direct investment and that is not by eliminating civil society or the media and it is not also by leaving the investor hanging on a wire.

So, if we are looking for a solution, for starters we need to educate the public/civil society with the right information, for that we need the media to be objective in their approach towards reporting, i.e. get all the facts before taking a judgement call. We need the system to be transparent, even if it’s not; thankfully the RTI can help a lot in that direction. We need civil society to replace emotion with sense and last but not least, we need project companies to respond to correction.

The way to find this win-win situation will be difficult but it must be found if we are looking for the prosperity we badly need!

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