Wasteland or wetland?

Three panels’ reports later, green tribunal wants re-evaluation of Nirma project site

By Srestha Banerjee
Published: Friday 15 March 2013

Sugandh Juneja

AFTER a year-long lull, the Nirma case is back in the news. Despite two committee reports stating that the land on which the detergent company wants to set up a cement plant is a wetland, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has ordered a site visit by its expert committee. On February 19, the Bench of NGT chaired by Justice Swatanter Kumar ordered re-evaluation of the project site by its members D K Agarwal, G K Pandey and A R Yousuf.

In 2008, the Gujarat government had allotted 268 hectares (ha) to Nirma Limited to set up the cement plant at Mahuva block in Saurashtra’s Bhavnagar district. The land includes a part of reservoir called Samadhiyala Bandhara and its catchment. Samadhiyala Bandhara along with three other reservoirs, Kalsar, Nikol and Malan, is the lifeline of the farmers of the region, helping irrigate over 8,500 ha of agricultural land. Nirma Limited wants to set up a cement plant of 1.91 million tonnes per annum capacity, a 50 megawatt captive power plant and a coke oven plant on the water body, raising concerns about the effects it will have on the land’s productivity and people’s livelihood.

JUSTICE SWATANTER KUMAR, CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL GREEN TRIBUNAL It is undeniable that when the plant comes up the environment will be compromised. What needs to be resolved is whether the site is a water body, and whether the water body is a wetland

According to Justice Kumar, the case “needs to be reassessed in view of the reports produced by the earlier expert committees”. The new inspection will “enable the tribunal to resolve the status of the water body, a part of the project site, and decide on the real issues under controversy,” he says. Kumar has also served the Supreme Court Bench for eight months in the same case. A committee set up on order of the apex court had stated on March 18, 2011 that the project site was a wetland.

On December 11, 2008, the environment ministry had given clearance to the project after a rapid enviromental impact assessment declared that the project site was a wasteland. The state government also gave it an in-principle approval to mine limestone from 3,460 ha in Padhiarka village to feed the cement plant.

Unhappy residents formed Mahuva Bandhara Khetiwadi Paryavaran Bachav Samiti in 2009 and appealed before the Gujarat High Court. On order of the high court, an expert committee chaired by S K Shelat, former chief secretary, Gujarat government, was appointed. The committee stated that the project site was a water body, but suggested development in a part of the land.

The Samiti then moved Supreme Court, which asked the ministry if it was environmenally safe to construct a cement plant on a water body. In January 2011, an expert committee of the environment ministry, chaired by C K Varshney, former faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University, reported that Samadhiyala Bandhara possesses all characteristic features of a wetland ecosystem, has a rich biodiversity, and supports people’s livelihood through agriculture.

On its part, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), which gives environment clearances, said the land was classified as “wasteland” in the Gujarat government’s records. But the records are outdated and need revision, EAC said. On March 11, 2011, the environment ministry issued a notice to Nirma stating that the project will cause grave damage to the environment. A week later, the Supreme Court ordered another inspection of the site by an expert committee under the chairmanship of C R Babu, former professor, University of Delhi, to give a final opinion. This committee confirmed that the site lies within the water spread and catchment of Samadhiyala Bandhara, a freshwater reservoir. According to the committee, the site should be relocated because it can be “classified only as a wetland” and fits within the Ramsar definition of wetlands.

Based on this report, on December 1, 2011, the ministry revoked the environment clearance it had granted to the plant. On December 9, the apex court allowed Nirma Limited to file an appeal before NGT.

Nomenclature takes centre stage

A year after the case was listed in NGT on February 7, 2012, a meeting of the tribunal was held in which the judge pressed on clarification of the status of the water body, and the damage the project can cause to it. “It is undeniable that when industries come up, environment will be compromised,” he said. But the court needs to resolve the issue whether the site is a water body, and if the water body is a wetland. It is also necessary to understand to what extent the project can affect it, he said. The new committee will also find out the status of landfilling, topography of the catchment area, the level of dependence of people on the reservoirs and inter-connectivity of the four reservoirs, he said.

According to Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising, who appeared for the environment ministry in the NGT, “All the committee reports have already recognised that the site is indeed a water body and a wetland.” She pointed out that all the information that NGT seeks is available with the environment ministry and the Gujarat government. “A site visit at this point is not necessary at all. If NGT reviews the documents, it may actually obviate the necessity of an inspection,” she says.

INDIRA JAISING, ADDITIONAL SOLICITOR GENERAL All committee reports have already recognised that the Nirma project site is on a water body, and the water body is a wetland. Inspection of the site at this point is not necessary at all

Raj Panjwani, the lawyer appearing for Mahuva Bandhara Khetiwadi Paryavaran Bachav Samiti, says the fact that the project site is on a water body needs no argument. “The environment ministry had revoked the environment clearance which was granted because facts had been misrepresented. The Supreme Court order had clearly stated that the environment clearance should be revoked if the site was established as a wetland,” he says.

Abhimanyu Shrestha, arguing the case for the Samiti, says the focus of the debate should be whether such a significant water body can be compromised for industrial development.

Dushyant Dave, lawyer for Nirma Limited, is happy that NGT wants another inspection. “The company has already invested a considerable amount of money in the project. It cannot be called off without verification of facts,” he argues. However, if the environment ministry gives Nirma Limited Rs 100 crore, the company will take the project somewhere else, he says. “The project is a problem for the environment ministry, not the people of Mahuva. Local panchayats and people support the project,” he claims. This, however, contradicts NGT’s May 1, 2012, observation. “Several representations were filed by persons aggrieved, as well as residents of villages situated in the vicinity objecting grant of environment clearance,” it states.

The turn of events has clearly frustrated people. Kanubhai Kalsariya, BJP MLA who is spearheading people’s opposition to the project, says,“We feel betrayed by the tribunal for ordering reinvestigation of the site. We do not know where we will go if NGT gives a decision in Nirma’s favour. We went to the Supreme Court thinking it is the supreme judicial body, but we are left in the lurch.”

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