Nirma loses wetland

Environment ministry revokes clearance to its cement plant

By Sugandh Juneja
Published: Sunday 15 January 2012

THE union environment ministry has revoked the clearance it had granted to the detergent giant Nirma to construct a cement plant in Gujarat. image The 1.91-million-tonnes-per-annum plant is under construction in Mahuva block of Bhavnagar district.

The ministry’s expert appraisal committee had recommended the revocation, saying the clearance was granted based on undisclosed and incorrect information. The plant is located on a wetland, and not wasteland as claimed by the Gujarat government as well as Nirma in its environmental impact assessment report submitted to the ministry.

Detergent Co’s infatuation with wetland
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

In its order dated December 1, the ministry has also asked Nirma to maintain status quo at the project site. Construction work has been halted since March 2011, when the ministry issued a stop-work order after its expert committee chaired by C K Varshney found that the project is on a wetland.

In May, another expert committee of the ministry, headed by C R Babu, former pro-vice-chancellor of Delhi University, had submitted a report. It recommended relocating the plant outside the wetland and its catchment area. Based on the report, the ministry issued a notice, asking Nirma to explain within two weeks why the clearance granted to its plant should not be revoked.

In September, the apex court gave Nirma three months time to respond to the show-cause notice of the ministry. It has been hearing the case since May 2010 when Mahuva residents brought the matter to the court’s notice (see ‘Detergent co’s infatuation with wetland’). The ministry states that even though Nirma was given time to file its response to the show-cause notice, the company failed to do so. In a letter dated November 23, Nirma requested another 10 weeks time to file its reply to the show cause, which the ministry considered “unjustified” and a “breach of the order of the Supreme Court”.

The ministry then revoked the environmental clearance of the plant based on the reports of the expert committees and the public hearings given to the company. The Supreme Court has upheld the ministry’s decision. However, it disposed of the petition on December 9 after Dushyant Dave, counsel for Nirma, sought to challenge the revocation order at the National Green Tribunal. NGT was established in 2010 for expeditious disposal of environment-related cases. According to Shilpa Chohan, a Supreme Court lawyer, cases under Section 5 of the Environmental Protection Act, which regulates closure, prohibition or regulation of any industry, operation or process, can appeal to NGT even while the case is sub-judice.

The ministry’s order has failed to pacify Mahuva residents. “The order is essentially incomplete and the question of status quo does not arise,” says Harish Salve, counsel for petitioner Khimjibhai Lakhabai Baraiya, a Mahuva resident. “The ministry cancelled the clearance but did not give directions on what should happen to the built-up structure at the site,” he adds.

Salve has appealed that the ministry should ask Nirma to remove the structure and return the land to the state. Kanubhai Kalasaria, the BJP MLA who led the protest against the plant, is disappointed with the case now moving to NGT. “We had thought the Supreme Court is the apex body of law”. He hopes that given the kind of in-depth analysis done on the matter under the court, NGT will have little option but to comply with the ministry’s decision.

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