Green tribunal decides to evaluate Nirma cement plant site afresh

Says project needs to be reassessed in view of conflicting reports of experts

After a lull for nearly a year, Nirma's cement plant in Gujarat's Bhavnagar district, is back in the spotlight. The National Green Tribunal has decided to re-evaluate the project by sending expert members for site inspection.

On February 8, the tribunal bench headed by Justice Swatanter Kumar, observed there is little doubt that the project will adversely affect the environment. But he said there is a need to take a fresh view in light of “conflicting” reports. The order says: “without any prejudice to the rights of the parties, the project needs to be reassessed in view of the four reports produced by expert committees earlier, which the Tribunal finds to be conflicting. Availing the expertise and knowledge of the expert members of the Tribunal, a site inspection will be conducted by them, which will enable the tribunal to decide on the real issues under controversy in the present Appeal.” The expert members of the tribunal are D K Agrawal, G K Pandey and A R Yousuf.

The order was given on an appeal by Nirma against the order of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), revoking the environmental clearance given to the cement plant. The project has been in the eye of a storm since 2008 when the Gujarat government allotted 268 ha to the detergent company in Bhavnagar district's Mahuva tehsil to set up a cement plant and mine limestone. Part of the project site is a reservoir, Samadhiyala Bandhara, and its catchment, spread over 100 ha. Farmers use the reservoir water to irrigate their fields; the allotment triggered widespread protests.

The proposed cement plant of 1.91 million tonnes per annum capacity, with its 50 MW captive power plant and a coke oven plant, will put the both farm productivity of the area and livelihood of people at stake, the farmers said.
MoEF  granted Environmental Clearance to Nirma on December 11, 2008 on the basis of rapid environmental impact assessment (EIA), that describes the project site as wasteland. Nirma also obtained in-principle approval from the state to mine limestone from 3,460 ha in Mahuva’s Padhiarka village to feed the cement plant.

Should wetland go to industry?

But the agitation over the project continued. The case was taken to Gujarat High Court, where it was reviewed by an expert committee, the Shelat Committee, which decided that the proposed project area was indeed a water body and suggested development be allowed with some conditional clauses. A sub-committee of ministers of Gujarat reviewed the matter, and gave the go ahead to the project with some conditions attached.

The protesters appealed to the Supreme Court. The apex court asked MoEF for its opinion on constructing the plant in a water body and the impact it will have on the reservoir. On January 2011, an expert committee, chaired by C K Varshney, reported that the area under consideration, Samadhiyala Bandhara, possesses all characteristic features of wetland ecosystem with rich biodiversity and also supports the livelihood of the local population. Based on the findings of the committee, the ministry's Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) concluded that the 268 ha allotted to the Nirma Ltd in 2008, was chosen from a tract that was classified as “wasteland” in land records that according to the EAC was “obsolete”. The site was in fact a wetland and the outdated revenue records need revision, otherwise “every wetland will be lost in the name of wasteland,” the committee said.

On March 11, 2011, MoEF issued a show cause notice to Nirma, stating that continuation of the work will result in grave damage to the environment. On March 18, 2011 an expert committee was constituted under C R Babu (former professor in Delhi University), following the order of the Supreme Court to inspect and give final opinion about the controversial project site. The committee concluded that the site allotted to Nirma for the cement plant lies within the water spread and catchment of the Samadhiyala Bandhara, which is a fresh water reservoir. It further emphasised that the site can be “classified only as wetland” and fits within the framework of the Ramsar definition of wetlands.

Based on reports produced by various expert committees, MoEF  revoked the EC granted to the plant in 2008. On December 9, 2011, the Supreme Court allowed Nirma's plea that it be allowed to file an appeal before the green tribunal; the case was, accordingly, placed before the tribunal for further decision.

The status of the reservoir has been central to the debate of Nirma. Not only does it not follow in the category of “notified wetlands” in the state, given the loose land use classification, the Samadhiyala Bandhara being a wetland has also remained a matter of contention. Abhimanyu Shrestha, advocate appearing on behalf of the farmers' body, Shree Mahuva Bandhara Khetiwadi Samiti,  “whether the water body can be categorised as a wetland site, and irrespective of it being a notified or non-notified wetland, the issue that should be central is can such significant water body from both social and ecological perspective, be compromised for industrial development”.

Additional solicitor general Indira Jaising, who appeared for MoEF, argued that the reports are not really conflicting. Following the proposal of the tribunal about site inspection, Jaising requested for time to take instructions on the issue. The court said that they are open about receiving suggestions on what needs to be inspected during the site visit in addition to those identified by expert members.
The next hearing has been scheduled for February 19.

The case so far
Mahuva residents oppose cement plant on their waterbody at a public hearing

Environment ministry grants clearance on basis of rapid environmental impact assessment report, which describes the project site as wasteland

MARCH 2009
People’s front moves Gujarat High Court

Based on a high powered committee report, a ministerial subcommittee recommends allowing the project, directs Nirma to return 54 ha of acquired land, increase reservoir’s capacity to offset water loss. High court accepts decision

MARCH 2010
High court stays construction after petitioners submit satellite images of wetland. But allows it within a month, asking Nirma to surrender additional 46 ha

MAY 2010
Petitioners move Supreme Court

SC asks ministry to respond. It seeks time and sets up an expert committee under C K Varshney to inspect the site

MARCH 2011
Based on Varshney report, ministry issues stop work order. Nima moves the high court, which turns down its appeal against ministry’s order. Following SC’s order, ministry forms another expert committee under C R Babu

MAY 2011
C R Babu committee report submits its report recommending relocation of the plant as it is on wetland. Ministry issues show-cause notice to Nirma

SC asks Nirma to prove that the project site is a wasteland; gives 3 months to respond to ministry’s show-cause notice

Ministry scraps environmental clearance granted to the cement plant. SC dismisses the petition after Nirma submits that it will appeal against ministry’s order in the National Green Tribunal

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