Visakhapatnam: The Human Right Forum (HRF) strongly objected to holding environmental public hearings across Andhra Pradesh during a time of partial lockdowns and curfew on the account of COVID-19 and demanded that the process is immediately stopped.

The forum said that the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB) has been organising public hearings 'as if it is blissfully unaware of the raging COVID-19 pandemic and the thousands of people succumbing to it across the state'.

Even during the partial curfew, the APPCB had conducted a public hearing on 12 May at Lingalavalasa village under Tekkali mandal of Srikakulam district. On 20 May, two public hearings, one at 11 am and one more at 2 pm, were held at Ballikurava village and mandal headquarters in Prakasam district. The PCB is slated to organise six more public hearings in Prakasam and Nellore districts up to 26 June.

State general secretary of HRF, K. Sudha and HRF state president U.G. Srinivasulu said that the holding of these public hearings is in violation of norms that are to be adhered during the partial curfew underway till 31 May, as imposed by the state government. When PCB officials were asked why these hearings were being held, they contended that they were going by a memo issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change (MOEF&CC) on 14 September, 2020 that allowed public hearings with not more than 100 persons.

The forum rejected the argument on the basis that the memo was issued at a time when the first wave of COVID-19 was petering out. To invoke it now, during a deadly second wave when the virus is clearly more virulent and positive cases and fatalities are high, is irresponsible and totally unacceptable. A public hearing is no wedding event where one can cap the number of people allowed to attend and participate, it said.

"It is an important democratic exercise wherein people, confronted with potentially destructive developmental projects, get an opportunity to participate and raise objections, seek clarifications and proffer suggestions. It is highly objectionable to hold these hearings in this manner during a pandemic. It benefits project proponents and the government but does not in any way uphold principles of transparency and democratic procedures," they said.

To conduct public hearings like this mitigates against not just environmental norms and the law, it is also violative of people's right to life. It puts people who might participate at great risk. The PCB has no right to play with the lives of people in this manner, they said.

"It is clear that the ongoing pandemic is being used to ram through these public hearings in a highly undemocratic and unlawful manner. These are not genuine public hearings but amount to a farce. They must be immediately stopped," they added.

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