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Mamata Banerjee’s Govt not Identifying Owner of Illegal Resort in Sunderbans

Funds from the centrally-sponsored MGNREGA scheme were allegedly used in the construction of an illegal ‘eco-tourism’ resort in the ecologically fragile Sunderbans

New Delhi: Nearly two months after National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered coercive action against an illegal resort in the ecologically fragile Sunderbans area, the Mamata Banerjee-led West Bengal government is yet to identify its owner. The district administration of South 24 Parganas claimed the resort project has been undertaken entirely out of central government funds, while the local police said an investigation was underway to identify its owner.

Naturally, the question arises whether the state government is protecting an entity in this case.

Rules regulating infrastructure activities along India’s coastline, which have been put in place to protect the country’s rich marine biodiversity and livelihood of local communities dependent on these resources, were brazenly flouted in the construction of the project. The project, Amlamethi Hill Resort, in Gosaba Block of South 24 Parganas district was constructed after clearing large swathes of mangroves that act as natural barriers against seawater ingression and tropical cyclones.

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Activists and local political leaders alleged that the local administration has been trying to protect the illegal resort’s owner because, apart from having strong business links, he is a strongman of West Bengal’s ruling political party the Trinamool Congress.

We apprised the district administration on several occasions that the project is illegal and will result in a catastrophe for local communities. Coastal villages are at the risk of seawater floods now. There have been instances where tigers have strayed into coastal hamlets after mangroves, the natural habitat of the predators, were cleared in large swathes. The administration not only kept silent but was complicit in the construction of this project because it belonged to a Trinamool Congress functionary,” local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Palash Rana told the Newsclick.

A field inspection conducted by government authorities upon the directions of the green tribunal revealed the lavish and opulent nature of the resort: artificial water bodies, furnished wooden cottages, man-made islands, and watchtowers. The inspection revealed 56 wooden bridges too that had been constructed for tourists to move from one cottage to another. As many as 19 wooden cottages were in various stages of construction upon dome-shaped highlands surrounded by water on all sides. The islands were equipped with watchtowers, supported with iron pillars on concrete basements, for tourists to enjoy the magnificent view of the River Bidya. The river flows barely 30 feet away from the resort and the mangroves of Sunderbans located at a distance of around 1,200 feet. The inspection team also found an active saw mill in the resort that was being used for chopping and shaping logs of wood. All these constructions were entirely illegal.

The West Bengal Coastal Zone Management Authority, a state-level apex body entrusted with the task of protecting coastal areas, told the green tribunal that the resort fell within the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ-IA) comprising mangroves and mangrove buffers and the inter-tidal zone (CRZ-IB). The area is located on the waterside of Hazard Line within the Critically Vulnerable Coastal Area and was hence illegal, it further added. The tribunal’s Eastern Zone Bench directed for immediate halt to all undergoing construction work in the resort in an order issued on December 23, 2021.

First, a large swathe of mangroves was cleared. Then, the mudflats were elevated using government funds. Construction activity for the privately-owned resort was thereafter undertaken on the elevated mudflats,” said Pradeep Chatterjee, President of Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, a trade union of fish-workers, which had filed the petition in the green tribunal.

It was alleged that illegal construction in the Sunderbans wetland area led to depletion of fish population, thereby adversely impacting livelihood of local fish-worker communities.

Mangroves are considered as the nursery of marine life because they not only provide abundant food (in the form of planktons) for juvenile fish but also provide the latter with shelter from large predator fish species. The Sunderbans is a Ramsar site under the internationally acclaimed Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, of which India is a signatory. However, the project proponent was engaged in chopping mangroves, extraction of soil, usage of heavy machinery and construction of infrastructure in this very area without permission from competent authorities.

The district administration has maintained that the project is not a tourism resort but a project related to ‘eco-tourism’. Administration officials stressed upon the social welfare aspect of the project, which apparently has the sanction of Bali-I Gram Panchayat of Gosaba Block. It had been ensured that the resort remained protected from the threat of river floods by strengthening its embankment. For this purpose, funds were made available through a ‘River Embankment Protection’ scheme under the centrally-sponsored Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) Act, 2005 – a legislation that had been enacted by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to ensure livelihood security in rural areas. It was alleged by fish-workers’ trade unions that funds meant to generate livelihood for the poorest of the poor were wrongfully diverted to construct a luxurious resort for the financially well-off people.

But the administration claimed that the project had not only generated 1.26 lakh man-days under the MGNREGA by employing local rural people but also had the potential to create further livelihood generation. Clearly, this line of argument failed to impress the judges on the bench of the tribunal.

It is surprising how so much of construction and degradation of coastal mangrove environment was allowed to go on right under his nose [the District Magistrate of South 24 Parganas] except if with his connivance and collusion with the violators of law. Even in fourteen days [in between the date of site inspection and the date on which the report was submitted to the tribunal] the District Magistrate has not stated what action has been taken by him against the violators of CRZ Regulations. This shows lack of promptitude and incompetence in dealing with the situation,” stated the tribunal bench, comprising judicial member Justice B Amit Sthalekar and expert member Saibal Dasgupta in its order dated December 23, 2021.

The bench further added, “We also direct that the observations made against Mr P Ulaganathan, District Magistrate, South 24 Parganas be entered in his service record.”

When the case was taken up for hearing on January 6, 2022, the district administration listed out a number of corrective measures including restoration of the project site to its original form by demolishing all constructions besides a massive mangrove plantation drive in the area. It was also assured that a penalty, as decided by the tribunal, will be extracted from Bali-I Gram Panchayat for violating environmental norms. It was further submitted that Rs 17.33 lakh had been sanctioned to undertake a plantation drive in the area.

Surprisingly, the administration made no mention of legal action against the resort’s owner even though it furnished the copy of a letter marked to the Superintendent of Police of Baruipur (one of the three police districts under South 24 Parganas) directing that for halting all construction activities at the site with immediate effect.

The tribunal on January 6 said, “However, we find that this letter does not contain any direction to the Superintendent of Police, Baruipur Police Station, to lodge FIR against the Project Proponent who, as per the own report of the District Magistrate, South 24 Parganas, was in violation of environmental laws when the Amlamethi Hill Resort was being constructed.”

In order to drive home the point that the District Administration could not possibly absolve itself from its responsibilities, the bench, in its 6 January order, further invoked provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002, as per which any person indirectly or knowingly aiding or assisting an act of environmental pollution will also be liable for causing illegal financial gain to the violator. A three-member expert panel has been formed by the tribunal to assess environmental damage in the area and determine the compensation amount to be paid by the violator.

But the violator is yet to be pin-pointed more than one month after the last hearing of the case.

Following the directions of the green tribunal, around 90% of construction at the project site has been demolished. It is not a hill resort, as is being mentioned in common parlance, but an eco-tourism project. Works permissible under MGNREGA were undertaken with the concurrence of Bali-I Gram Panchayat. A sum of around Rs 30 crore has been spent on it. Multiple agencies were selected through a tender process to undertake various construction works for the project,” the Block Development Officer (BDO) of Gosaba, Biswanath Chaudhary, told the Newsclick.

When contacted, Nikhil Dey, an expert on MGNREGA laws, pointed out that a hotel or resort project is not amongst the 265 permissible activities listed under the Act.

At best, it is possible that a project like this can be undertaken through convergence of funds from different government schemes like the MGNREGA. But the detailed project report needs to be perused in order to make any comment,” Dey said.

Despite repeated calls and text messages, the District Magistrate of South 24 Parganas, P Ulaganathan, and the Superintendent of Police, Vaibhav Tiwari, were not available for comments.

An FIR has been registered against the Project Proponent of the resort. An investigation is underway to identify its owner,” said SHO of Gosaba Police Station Somen Biswas.

The writer is an independent journalist.

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