Dahanu—a designated ecologically fragile taluka in Maharashtra—is likely to lose its primary environmental protection authority, owing to a push for large-scale industrial projects. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF) wants to scrap the Supreme Court-ma ndated Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA), according to an application it has filed in the apex court, which will come up for hearing on September 19. The Taluka has a mass base of tribals and the fisher community who have been waging long struggles against the industrial activities in the region.
Image Courtesy: Phiroza Tafti
The MoEF has filed an application in the Supreme Court contending the need for the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA). The ministry has stated that DTEPA has become superfluous since there are other authorities that can oversee pollution control. The Ministry’s application stated: “Over the last two decades, a number of rules and regulations have been made by the Central Government and the State Government to safeguard and conserve the environment, including the coastal environment. In order to implement these rules, separate authorities — namely, State Coastal Zone Management Authority, Water Quality Assessment Authority, Aquaculture Authority and Central Ground Water Authority, etc. — were established. Moreover, the National Green Tribunal has been established to address grievances…regarding compliance of environmental and forest laws.”
Image Courtesy: Phiroza Tafti
While the DTEPA is to be headed by a retired justice of the high court, the MoEF said that various new rules and regulations have been instituted in subsequent years regarding environment protection, with authorities such as the State Coastal Zone Management Authority, Water Quality Assessment Authority, Aquaculture Authority and Central Ground Water Authority, etc. regulating these. Instead of the DTEPA, a ‘monitoring committee’ with a fixed tenure of three years was suggested.
Image Courtesy: Phiroza Tafti
Dahanu Taluka was notified as an ecologically fragile area through a notification in 1991, which imposed restrictions on industries under various categories. In 1994, environmentalist Bittu Sehgal filed a petition, following which the state government prepared a master plan for Dahanu in 1996. It was in reference to a National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) report on the management of ecologically fragile areas, which said that the DTEPA was constituted under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The DTEPA, which has been without a head since the demise of Justice C S Dharmadhikari in January, has, in the past, been lauded as a model of ecological governance as a court-appointed committee including expert members, giving hearings to all stakeholders in various matters, working independently, holding regular meetings, filing reports and even conducting afforestation effort. The activists on the ground are now fearing that if the authority is scrapped, it will pave the way for large industrial projects.
Speaking to NewsClick, Brian Lobo said, “The ministry wants to attack the notification; this is why the government wants to have another committee. This committee, of course, is going to be controlled by vested interests. There are the interests of the Adani thermal plant which is limited to 500 MW. If the authority is changed, then there may be an increase in the power of the plant. Construction of the Vadhawan port is also slated to be built in the Dahanu Taluka. These projects are going to adversely affect the tribal and the fishing community in the area.” He added, “The prime reason for the appeal of the ministry appears to be the interests of the two big projects.”
Activists have alleged the DTEPA is being targeted for its refusal to allow the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust to build an international port at Vadhavan, a fishing village in Dahanu region. “A similar effort was made a few years ago to dilute the authority, which was rejected by the SC,” said Debi Goenka from Conservation Action Trust. In 1998, the DTEPA had rejected the proposal to build the port and in 2017, it reiterated that the project cannot begin without the DTEPA’S permission.
Speaking to NewsClick, Phiroza Tafti of the Dahanu Taluka Environment Welfare Association said, “There was a monitoring committee prior to the authority. The need for the authority was felt because the committee could not effectively perform its functions. That is why this authority was put in place because this was non-corruptible. Now, the question is why the government wants to replace it with bureaucrats who do not have the necessary environmental understanding, leading to the changes in land use and of course the creation of the port, which will lead to colossal damage to people’s lands and their livelihoods.”
In 2002 as well, the MoEF had unsuccessfully moved an application in the Supreme Court, seeking to scrap the DTEPA. In 2004, the apex court ruled that the DTEPA should be allowed to function since there was no concrete alternative in place. The farmers and the fisherfolk in the region are now renewing their movement to stop the scrapping of the authority. Activists have issued a statement asserting that instead of appointing a new judge to head the DTEPA, the MOEF wants to shut it down. The statement added, “The Taluka a despite its protection is losing land to many projects like the freight corridor, the bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad and the proposed port at Vadhwan which will affect the livelihoods of fisherfolk, farmers and the Adivasis. Dahanu, which produces thousands of tonnes fruits, vegetables, fish and fodder to supply to cities around especially Mumbai, is affected by the fly ash pollution from the thermal power plant (recently acquired by Adani Electricity).”
Highlighting a lack of faith in various committees that the MOEF has listed, the activists are now demanding a new chairperson to head the DTPEA and extend all cooperation. They also criticised the ministry for making the funding of the authority an issue. The MOEF said that it is funding the DTEPA since inception, and the funds required are Rs 50 lakh per annum. The activists stated that money cannot be the constraint with the Centre, and it is worthwhile to protect such eco fragile areas as a ministry of environment should do, instead of contributing to its destruction.
Also Read: Is Maharashtra Govt a Silent Partner in Prime Land Grab by Corporates?