La farce

Published: Sunday 15 November 2009

La farce

People in Shakrori (above) and Jankhooni discuss how to save their forests (top) from mining (Credit: NIDHI AGARWAL)Manshi Asher and Nidhi Agarwal hear villagers expose Lafarges doublespeak about its Himachal cement plant

In village Talhain in the grassy slopes of the Sutlej valley, red blooms of wild pomegranate dot peripheries of agricultural fields and forest patches in the warm month of May. It is hard to imagine a conveyor belt carrying clinker overhead.

The proponents

But from the ridge of Talhains south-facing slope, where cement giant Lafarge has proposed a mining site, the conveyor will run for 6km to transport limestone to its cement plant in Ghanger, a few metres from the Sutlej. Sixty families stand to lose all their farm lands in Talhain alone. Others fear losing grasslands and water sources as slopes above them are mined for limestone.

The Rs 900-crore project, approved in 2006 by the Himachal Pradesh government, will be spread over 910 hectares in Mandi district.Of this 800 ha, mostly protected and reserved forest, will be for the mines. Sixteen villages will lose part of their agricultural land and most forests to the mines.

The vegetable emporium

Vegetables from these villages are sent to markets in Delhi and Mumbai. Pollution and erosion from mining are bound to harm agriculture. One hundred hectares of Ghanger, where the plant is proposed, is demarcated protected forest and is used for grazing animals. Seeds of wild pomegranate sell at a whopping Rs 350 a kg.

Pratap Singh of Shaungi village is most concernedmining will begin right next to his house. Dust and blasting will make our lives hell. Since they are not acquiring my land they do not consider people like me affected, he said.

Barely half a kilometre across the river is panchayat Shakrori in Sunni tehsil of Shimla. Its former pradhan Thakur Singh recalled putting their concerns across to Lafarge. T hey said their state-of-the-art technology would cause minimal pollution, he said. When the farmers asked for an assurance of compensation in case of pollution, Lafarge refused. We have no choice but to resist the plant, Singh told us. Shakrori was the first village to protest the cement plant of three million tonnes per annum capacity.

Divine intervention

The turning point came last year at the Dev Sansad (parliament of gods). Peoples deity Deo Badeyogi announced his decision through the oracle the plant should not be allowed. Soon a joint action committee, with representatives of panchayats and community groups, was formed.

A public hearing for environment clearance was organized in December 2008. The joint action committee complained that the state pollution control board downplayed the opposition to the project in its report sent to the environment ministry. The committee then sent objections to the expert advisory committee (eac) of the ministry. eac decided to visit the site, but did not interact with the people likely to be affected. The visit was restricted to easily accessible Sunni town and areas adjoining the cement plant, not the mining site.

Small wonder the ministry cleared the project on June 8 this year. Pratap Singh has challenged the clearance before the National Environment Appellate Authority. One of the grounds is the projects environment impact assessment report underplays peoples dependence on the forests and agriculture by showing 49 per cent people in the area as jobless. It overlooks impacts of effluents and extraction of over 2.2 million litres of water from the Sutlej every day. The process of acquiring land began in June. On July 13, the day objections were to be filed under the Land Acquisition Act, 500 people trooped to the Karsog tehsil headquarters and filed mass objections.

Cant say no

In July the environment ministry issued an advisory that forest clearance proposals have to ensure compliance to the forest rights act of 2006. We are not aware of the circular. Nevertheless we have recommended the company compensate the (forest land) right holders, said B D Suyal, conservator of forests in Mandi. Alas, no space in the government psyche for recognizing the right of forest dwellers to say no. Its time we questioned the governments unleashing environmentally devastating projects in Himalaya, while doling free cfl bulbs to deal with climate change.

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