Dahanu, an ecologically fragile coastal area near Mumbai, under siege

The Union environment ministry has approached the apex court to replace Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority with a monitoring committee. Local people and environmentalists allege such a move would open the ecologically fragile Dahanu region to plunder

Nidhi JamwalNidhi Jamwal   17 Sep 2019 5:21 AM GMT

Dahanu, an ecologically fragile coastal area near Mumbai, under siege

The Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change has filed an application in the Supreme Court of India regarding the constitution and functioning of the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority, a unique body set up by the Centre in accordance with the October 31, 1996 order of the apex court.

In its prayer, the ministry has sought the court's permission to disband the authority and "constitute a Monitoring Committee having a fixed tenure of three years for the Dahanu Taluka ecologically fragile area". It has also asked for directions so that "the functions of the DTEPA [Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority] may be carried out by the statutory and/or regulatory authorities that have been established".

This recent move of the environment ministry has irked the environmentalists and local people, who are protesting against the proposed disbanding or dilution of powers of the Dahanu authority. At present, this authority, constituted under Section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, is conferred with "all the powers necessary to protect the ecologically fragile Dahanu Taluka and to control pollution in the said area."

Dahanu taluka in Palghar district was declared an eco-sensitive area in 1991. Pic: Phiroza TaftiDahanu taluka in Palghar district was declared an eco-sensitive area in 1991. Pic: Phiroza Tafti

"The Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority is a powerful body that has the same powers to prosecute and take action against environmental pollution as the Union environment ministry. The Monitoring Committee is just another government committee," Debi Goenka, executive trustee of Mumbai-based non-profit Conservation Action Trust told Gaon Connection.

"From time to time, the ministry has tried to sabotage the Dahanu authority by not releasing funds or not supporting authority's work. The recent application in the Supreme Court is a direct attack on the authority and the protection of ecological fragile Dahanu taluka," added Goenka.

Recently, on September 14, local people organised a protest in Dahanu against the ministry's application. "Rajendra Gavit, the Member of Parliament from Palghar [Dahanu taluka is part of Palghar], attended the public meeting and has supported us in opposing the environment ministry's recent move," said Aniket Patil of Vadhvan Bandar Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti, a local organisation working against the proposed Vadhvan port in Dahanu.

A section of local people in Dahanu strongly protesting against the environment ministry's move to disband DTEPA. Pic: Aniket PatilA section of local people in Dahanu strongly protesting against the environment ministry's move to disband DTEPA. Pic: Aniket Patil

Dahanu, an ecologically fragile area

Dahanu taluka, about 120 kms north of Mumbai, is located in Palghar district of Maharashtra. As per the Census 2011, 69.1 per cent of the taluka's population is schedule tribe. About 46 per cent area of the taluka is forest area.

Dahanu is known as the "fruit and food bowl of the region" and majority of the population practices farming or fishing. The Bombay duck is one of the major exports from Dahanu along with fish and lobster.

"Sandwiched between the chemical corridors of Vapi, Gujarat, to the north and the industrialised zones of Palghar-Boisar to the south, it [Dahanu] remains one of the last surviving green zones in this region," reads an article in December 2011 issue of the Economic & Political Weekly.

"Dahanu is full of mango and chikoo [sapota] orchards. We also supply dry grass [fodder] for cattle because of which people in Mumbai get to drink their daily milk. Dahanu is the last green patch in the region, which the environment ministry wants to destroy," said Phiroza Tafti of Dahanu Taluka Environment Welfare Association, a local non-profit working towards protection of the eco-fragile area.

Dahanu is known as 'fruit and food bowl' of the region. It also supplies dry grass for fodder. Pic: Phiroza TaftiDahanu is known as 'fruit and food bowl' of the region. It also supplies dry grass for fodder. Pic: Phiroza Tafti

Keeping in mind the ecologically rich base of Dahanu, way back in June 1991, the environment ministry notified Dahanu as an "ecologically fragile area". The 1991 Notification "imposed restrictions on setting up of industries which have a detrimental effect on the environment, and laid down guidelines for setting up of industries and industrial units in certain locations based on whether they were covered under the Green, Orange or Red Category".

In addition to this, the notification directed the state government to set up a monitoring committee to ensure compliance with the conditions mentioned in the 1991 notification. Former also had to prepare a master plan for the eco-fragile region based on the then land-use of the taluka within a year of the notification.

However, not much progress was made on this front.

Dahanu authority takes shape

In 1994, environmentalist Bittu Sehgal filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court in response to which the state government submitted a master plan for Dahanu taluka. This plan was approved by the environment ministry in 1996.

In October 1996, based on recommendations of Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, the apex court ordered setting up of the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The authority was headed by a retired high court judge, late Justice Chandrashekhar Shanker Dharmadhikari, and other experts from the field of hydrology, oceanography, terrestrial and aquatic ecology, environmental engineering, developmental and environmental planning and information technology, etc.

Thereafter, the matter was transferred to the High Court of Bombay for monitoring. In 2002, the High Court ruled that the Dahanu authority "shall continue to function till further orders of this court".

Justice Dharmadhikari passed away earlier this year in January and since then the authority has no chairperson. "Rather than nominating a new chairperson, the environment ministry wants to do away with the authority itself… Of late, rather than protecting the environment, the ministry's focus is on speedy project clearances," complained Goenka.

As per the Census 2011, 69.1 per cent of the taluka's population is schedule tribe. Pic: Phiroza TaftiAs per the Census 2011, 69.1 per cent of the taluka's population is schedule tribe. Pic: Phiroza Tafti

Environment ministry's plea

In its recent application before the Supreme Court, the environment ministry has said that since the setting up of the Dahanu authority in 1996, several other statutes and subordinate legislating have come into being, such as the revised Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, 2011 and 2019; revised Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006, etc for conservation and safeguarding the environment including coastal environment.

This is not all. A number of authorities have also been set up to monitor and implement rules related to environmental protection. These include Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA), State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority, Maharashtra State Pollution Control Board, Water Quality Assessment Authority, etc.

The environment ministry notes: "… there are several legislations with rules laying down comprehensive procedures with multiple levels of scrutiny by various authorities for evaluation of projects from an environmental perspective. In these circumstances, having an additional authority such as the DTEPA to supervise and monitor as per the 1996 Notification may no longer be necessary."

The ministry claims it is spending Rs 50 lakh per year towards the functioning of the Dahanu authority.

In its application, the ministry goes on to suggest "the functions of DTEPA may be carried out by other statutory/regulatory authorities that have been since established, and the monitoring and supervision of developmental activities in the ecologically fragile area of Dahanu may be carried out by a Monitoring Committee…".

This year's Ganesh Mahotsav, local people in Dahanu created awareness about the importance of DTEPA. Pic: Aniket PatilThis year's Ganesh Mahotsav, local people in Dahanu created awareness about the importance of DTEPA. Pic: Aniket Patil

This move of the ministry has been opposed by various groups working in Dahanu. In a press statement, these organisations representing farmers, fisherfolk and tribals of Dahanu, have said: "We have no faith in these various committees … especially the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) or the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) or the State Level Impact Assessment Authority, and we demand that the DTEPA which had the reputation of being a non-corrupt and fair body be continued… the Centre should appoint a new chairperson to head it and extend all cooperation."

According to Goenka, who has signed the press statement and has attended several meetings of the Dahanu authority, some eco-sensitive zones in Maharashtra — Matheran, Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani — have their own monitoring committees headed by retired bureaucrats. "But, these committees have no powers and environmental violations are aplenty. For the protection of Dahanu, the authority should continue," he said.

Back door entries

Environmentalists allege that in the past several efforts have been made to push polluting projects in Dahanu. It was in 1989 that an environmental campaign was started in Dahanu to oppose setting up of a 500 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant in the taluka, but meant to supply electricity to Mumbai. Whereas the people could not stop the proposed power project, the seed of the environmental protection movement was already sown. This later lead to the setting up of the Dahanu authority in 1996.

This 500 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant in Dahanu lead to an environmental movement in the eco-fragile area. Pic: Nidhi JamwalThis 500 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant in Dahanu lead to an environmental movement in the eco-fragile area. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

During his tenure as the authority's chairperson, late Justice Dharmadhikari, rejected several polluting projects proposed in Dahanu.

The December 2011 article in Economic & Political Weekly reads: "… through a series of hearings, it [Dahanu authority] rejected the siting of a multi-berth industrial port proposed by global giant P&O at Vadhavan village in Dahanu in 1998. Additionally, the thermal power plant (owned by Reliance Energy) was forced to install a Flue Gas Desulphurisation (FGD) Plant, a pollution control device to reduce sulfur emissions, after the Dahanu Authority demanded a bank guarantee of Rs 300 crore from the company."

In 2017, the authority reiterated that the Vadhavan port cannot begin without its permission.

Predictably, several efforts were made to wind up the Dahanu authority. For instance, in January 2002, none other than the environment ministry filed an application in the Supreme Court demanding an end to the authority on the grounds that it had already completed its work. The ministry claimed it needed a single authority to monitor all eco-fragile areas. But, the environmentalists fought that application of the ministry, and in January 2004, the application was dismissed.

Meanwhile, in 2003, a special committee was constituted to ascertain if Dahanu could be considered eco-fragile. This committee held a large public hearing in Dahanu to determine the views of the people. It is alleged that a narrative was built around how the Dahanu notification "was a major stumbling block to development in the region, and that it should be withdrawn".

However, the Dahanu authority stood its ground.

According to Patil, it is the builder lobby and local municipal officials who want Dahanu's protected status to be withdrawn so that they can make moolah in the name of 'development'.

In their recent press statement, groups working in Dahanu have said "if the DTEPA is scrapped, there will be no statutory body to supervise sustainable development in Dahanu taluka where only a few landowners with business interests want the Authority to be scrapped."

Dahanu, an ecologically fragile area, is once again at the crossroads.

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