MoEF expert panel recommends moratorium on mining, power projects in Konkan

Report kept in wraps calls attention to adverse environmental and social impacts of ongoing industrial activities

 
By Ashwin Aghor
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015 | 02:50:09 AM

Power and mining projects planned in the Konkan region of Maharashtra may hit a road block if the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) decides to heed the report of an expert panel it appointed. The panel has recommended an indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in ecologically sensitive zones (ESZ I & II) of the region.

The Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel (WGEEP) was appointed by the ministry to suggest appropriate course for further development of mining, power production and polluting units. It has instead recommended phasing out of mining from ESZ I by 2016 and strict regulations for continuation of present mining activities in ESZ II. It has said no new red and orange category industries, which includes coal-based power plants, should be permitted in ESZ I and II and that the existing ones should be asked to ensure zero pollution by 2016, and operated only under an effective system of social audits.

Panel's findings
 
 
  • Environmental Impact Assessment reports of projects are particularly weak in the sections on biodiversity and socio-economic issues. For instance, they commonly dismiss the windswept laterite plateaus of the Western Ghats with stunted tree growth as barren land
  • Transmission lines emanating from power projects have significant impacts on mango and cashew orchards, as well as forests of Western Ghats
  • Transport of ore by trucks, barges and ships have significant environmental and social impacts that have never been considered
  • Significant decline in fish landings from Dabhol creek due to chemical pollution from Lote industrial estate
  • Depletion and pollution of ground water, siltation of water bodies, increased frequency of floods, loss of fertile agricultural land and deforestation are some of the impacts of existing industries
  • Regional Plan for Ratnagiri and Sindhudrg districts emphase the natural endowments and strengths of these districts, and prescribe land use priorities. However, these prescriptions are being comprehensively violated in practice
  • Inputs made available during public hearings are often simply ignored, leading to high levels of social frustration and discord
 
Its recommendations
 
  • Undertake cumulative impact studies of various industrial, mining, power generation and other activities in Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts, ideally in conjunction with Raigad district of Maharashtra and the state of Goa. Preferably, the National Institute of Oceanography at Goa should head the study
  • The moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining, and red and orange category polluting industries and power plants in the plains and coastal tracts of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts should be extended till satisfactory completion of such an analysis of the carrying capacity of these districts is done. The moratorium may then be reviewed in light of the findings of the study
  • Evolve systems of meaningful participation by people in deciding on the course of future economic development to ensure that development genuinely benefits society at large, and is not hijacked to serve particular vested interests
  • MoEF should ask the state forest departments to proactively assist the tribal welfare departments in implementation of the Fprest Rights Act in the region
  • Biological diversity management committees must be immediately activated at all levels, before taking any further decisions
 
 
 
The experts panel, chaired by Madhav Gadgil, submitted its report to MoEF over six months ago. The government kept mum about it in spite of several applications filed under the Right to Information Act. Mumbai-based non-profit Vanashakti, however, managed to obtain the report, which has made serious observations about the state of the Western Ghats.

'Administration protecting illegal activities'

The report says this entire region has been seriously impacted, both environmentally and socially, by a number of mining and power projects and polluting industries. The impacts are manifold: depletion and pollution of ground water, siltation of water bodies, increased frequency of floods, loss of fertile agricultural land and deforestation, to name a few. The situation, the report states, clearly warrants a careful assessment and mid-course correction.

According to the report, the problem is compounded by substantial level of illegal activities. For instance, many farmers complain of mine owners muscling their way into private land and digging pits. “Pollution from many industries is also well above legally permissible limits. Consequently, there is much social discord, especially because people firmly believe that the law and order machinery is being misused to protect illegal activities,” the panel notes.

WGEEP was assisted by a group of scientists and activists associated with the Development Research, Awareness and Action Institute in Kolhapur.  This group has culled out data from a number of research projects and student dissertations undertaken at Shivaji University. Using this material, as well as fresh field work, this group has assigned ESZ1, ESZ II and ESZ III classification for some areas falling in Satara, Sangli, Kolhpur, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts. WGEEP decided to accept their area classifications for ecological sensitivity.

The panel, which carried out extensive field visits and consulted officials, industry representatives and citizens groups, points out deficiencies in environmental governance. The report refers to MoEF  sponsoring the preparation of zoning atlases for siting of industries (ZASI) by Central and state pollution control boards with substantial financial and technical help from German donors. The exercise has generated a spatial database for all the districts of the country, mapping existing pollution levels and environmentally and socially sensitive areas, delineating zones where it would be undesirable to add further pollution load, and suggesting locations where industries with different levels of potential air and water pollution impacts may be set up.

“Apparently under unfair pressure, MoEF has not published the exercise. As a result, the Ratnagiri ZASI has not been released at all, and a copy was obtained by WGEEP only after much effort,” the report mentions. Despite repeated requests, ZASI reports for other Western Ghats districts have not been made available to WGEEP. “A perusal of the Ratnagiri ZASI reveals that today industries are being located without due regard to clear cut prescriptions of ZASI,” the report points out.

The panel has pointed out various irregularities regarding environmental impact assessment reports (EIAs) submitted for a number of projects in Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts. The report says that the EIAs are particularly weak in the sections on biodiversity and socio-economic issues. For instance, they commonly dismiss as barren land, the sadas or the windswept laterite plateaus of the Western Ghats with stunted tree growth.  But these plateaus are very rich in biodiversity. A former director, Botanical Survey of India has been quoted saying these plateaus are the country’s richest repository of endemic plant species.

Public not heard

The inputs made available during public hearings are often simply ignored, leading to high levels of social frustration and discord, the report says. For instance, in Kalane village in Sindhudurg, the first public hearing relating to mining was held on September 20, 2008. The Marathi version of the EIA report was not available and, therefore, the hearing was postponed. The public hearing was once again held on October 11, 2008, after the document was made available in Marathi. During this hearing, the unanimous resolution of the gram panchayat dated August 6, 2008, opposing mining was submitted and several objections were raised such as pollution of the Kalane river and adverse impact on water supply scheme on this river at Chandel in Goa and adverse impact on horticulture. “Despite the unanimous rejection of the mining proposal, the government of Maharashtra has gone ahead and accorded environmental clearance to the mine on March 17, 2009,” the report says. The conditions imposed while according environmental clearance are routinely violated, the report adds.

In Ratnagiri district, a coal-based power plant is planned on land people sold on the understanding that an eco-tourism resort would be set up. Finolex is forcibly closing fishermen’s traditional access to fishing areas. “Residents of Tamboli village in Sindhudurg district narrate that they suddenly discovered in 2006 that mining had been entered as “other rights” on their land records without informing them, although this can only be done with their full concurrence,” the report says. They had to resort to prolonged agitation, including fast-unto-death, in 2007 to have these illegal entries removed. “We must clearly evolve systems of meaningful participation by people in deciding on the course of future economic development,” the panel recommends.

Social discontent is also fuelled by failure to enforce laws such as pollution control. The common effluent treatment plant at the chemical industry estate at Lote in Ratnagiri district cannot handle the quantity of effluent it is receiving, and its functioning is highly defective. During a visit in October 2010, WGEEP saw large overflows of untreated effluent from the plant going into streams serving Kotavale village. “Since the situation is not being brought under control, the Sarpanch of Kotavale attempted to commit suicide by drinking the polluted stream water. He was rushed to Mumbai and saved, but there has been no abatement of pollution affecting Kotavale,” the report observes.

The report cites more such instances. In 2000, around 30 school children near Lote became unconscious due to poisonous gas leak. The company involved took no notice, and did not come forward to take children to the hospital. People also reported that solid toxic sludge from industries was mixed with soil and dumped in the bathing ghat. Very recently, some party has dumped toxic in the Boraj Dam which is the source of water supply to Khed town. The town water supply had to be stopped for several weeks, but nobody has been brought to book, the report notes.

Protests suppressed

“With all these problems persisting, all that the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board has done is to transfer the Lote office to far off Chiplun. While promises to stop pollution go unfulfilled, protests and demonstrations are routinely suppressed by prohibiting gatherings of people, the report says. Between 2008 and 2009, such orders were promulgated in Ratnagiri district for over191 days. “With all these persistent and unrectified problems, we were informed by an industrial development corporation (MIDC) officer that they are planning to set up a new petro-chemical complex near the existing MIDC complex in an area of 550ha,” the report says.

Several gram panchayats and panchayat samitis, including the Ratnagiri taluka panchayat samiti, have specifically passed resolutions relating to environmental concerns that are being completely ignored by the state government. An important Act empowering people in hilly, forested tracts like Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg is the Forest Rights Act of 2006. “Regrettably, the current state of implementation of FRA everywhere, including in Maharashtra, is characterised by a series of serious problems, as set out in great detail in the just completed report of the Saxena Committee set up jointly by MoEF and Ministry of Tribal Affairs,” says the report.

Cumulative impact study recommended

The panel observed that all the exercises of EIA undertaken so far have the serious limitation that they look at various interventions one at a time, ignoring the cumulative impacts. The limited investigations of the panel in these plains and coastal tracts suggest that these are under severe environmental and social stress, and it is essential that a careful cumulative impact analysis of various development activities, ideally in conjunction with Raigad district of Maharashtra and the state of Goa, must be immediately undertaken, preferably under the leadership of the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) at Goa, the report says.

The study should not be techno-centric, but should ensure that people’s  locality-specific knowledge of environmental issues and their development aspirations are taken on board. To this end, the MoEF should ask the state forest departments to assist the tribal welfare departments in implementation of the Forest Rights Act.

According to the panel, a strong scientific institution needs to take overall responsibility of such an exercise and ensure sound scientific and technical inputs. Therefore, WGEEP recommends that NIO, Goa, be asked to play such a role. The panel has recommended that the current moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining, and red and orange category polluting industries and power plants in the plains and coastal tracts of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts should be extended till satisfactory completion of such an analysis of the carrying capacity of these districts. The moratorium may then be reviewed in light of the findings of the study, the panel report says.
 

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