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How Dahanu epitomises the environment vs development debate

By Michelle Chawla

A fierce environmental struggle won Dahanu the status of a protected, environmentally-sensitive region in 1991. But in one fell swoop it destroyed Dahanu’s dreams of rushing into the neoliberal economy. This is the first in a series of articles, researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2008, that looks at how the environmental restrictions have impacted farmers, fisherfolk, adivasis, traders and others in Dahanu

Read Part 2 of this series here
Read Part 3 of this series here

Read Part 4 of this series here
Read Part 5 of this series here

Dahanu's communities

Whether the battle for ecological equity inevitably compromises opportunities for economic development is a question the communities of Dahanu have grappled with for over a decade. While there may be no simple answer, Dahanu's communities live in a paradoxical reality. Even as the environmental movement has sheltered them from the hazards of unregulated industrialisation, it has been unable to provide an alternative viable reality, while restricting many of the benefits of the modern economy.

Situated in the picturesque Sahyadari mountain range in western Maharastra, merely 125 km north of Mumbai, is the serene and sleepy region of Dahanu. Sandwiched between the chemical corridor of Vapi, Gujarat, to the north and the industrialised zones of Palghar-Boisar to the south, Dahanu remains one of the last surviving green zones in this region.

One amongst 15 talukas of Thane district in the Konkan division of Maharashtra, Dahanu is known as the fruit and food bowl of the region.

Home to a predominantly large adivasi community of Warlis forming 64.84% of the total population of 3,31,829 lakh (Census 2001), Dahanu also has a large fishing and farming community. With a total of 174 villages and only one municipal area, the main source of livelihood is agriculture and its allied activities.

A notification declaring it a special ecologically fragile zone by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1991 put Dahanu on the national map with nine other regions. The Notification restricts industrial development and disallows a change in land use for environmentally sensitive areas.

The Supreme Court, in 1996 also appointed the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA) to ensure that the Notification is implemented and Dahanu remains a protected region.

This legal regime changed the options for Dahanu. Many of its dreams of rushing headlong into the neoliberal economy were thwarted, if not crushed.

There were conflicting responses from the communities of Dahanu ranging from hostility and anger to gratitude and acceptance. However, having closed many of the options for conventional development, the challenge before the environmental movement was to chart a sustainable path for growth.

History of conflict

Historically the struggle for minimum wages, land rights, and forest rights by the adivasis had dominated the discourse of the region. The period from 1945 to 1947 where the All India Kisan Sabha under the banner of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) mobilised the Warlis on the issue of land rights with the guidance of Comrades Godavari and Shyam Parulekar is well documented.

The region's struggle for control over natural resources also came to the fore with the rise of social movements such as the Bhoomi Sena and Kashtkari Sanghatana in the late-1970s that took up the battle on behalf of the adivasis.

While many of these conflicts were centred around access and rights over natural resources of land and forest, they were not necessarily articulated in the language of environmental discourse. It was only in the late-1980s, following opposition to the setting up of a thermal power plant, that an environmental campaign focused around conservation and protection emerged in Dahanu. It was led by the Dahanu Taluka Environment Welfare Association (DTEWA), with members consisting of a handful of local orchard owners who sought environmental protection of Dahanu via the courts. While they lost the struggle against the thermal power plant (a 500 MW plant was set up in 1996), they continued to work for the implementation of the Dahanu Notification.

“We believed that Dahanu's natural resources needed to be protected. We are today safe from threats like the SEZ because of the Dahanu Notification that has ensured that no dirty industry enters Dahanu,” states Kitayun Rustom, founder-member of the Dahanu Taluka Environment Welfare Association.

“In the beginning when we campaigned against a local power plant,” she continued, “we had the support of various institutions, traders, orchard owners, politicians and social movements like the Kashtkari Sanghatana. However, once the Notification was put in place and the matter went to the Supreme Court, several proposals and plans were stalled or frozen. For example, all stone quarries were shut down and no further quarrying has been permitted in Dahanu after 1991. These kinds of restrictions built up antagonism against us especially from the traders, commercial interests and political parties.”

A form of environmentalism that was not led from the ground had its limitations. Over the years, the environmental campaign divided Dahanu, with the disgruntled traders, commercial interests and politicians making every attempt to undo the laws that had caused them very clear losses.

However, the impact of environmental restrictions on the resource-dependent communities that form a majority of Dahanu are not so clearly apparent to all, and it will be interesting to study those.

Dahanu's communities

Topographically, Dahanu taluka can be divided into a 10-12 km-wide bandarpatti, the coastal belt of lowlands and flats extending from the seacoast to the railway line situated at the foot of the Sahyadri range. The junglepatti (forest belt) which is to the east of the railway line is a belt of approximately 20-25 km that runs parallel to the coast at a distance of 15 km from the shore.

The entire coastal belt with its rich natural resources, wetlands, mangroves and river deltas, forms a lucrative fishing area. With a coastline of 35 km, fishing is an important economic activity of the region. The Thane District Gazetteer (1982), puts Dahanu as one of the five most important fishing centres along the coast of Maharashtra with 21 fishing hamlets and seven fish landing centres.

Along with the Notification, Dahanu's coasts were classified under the most stringent clause of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification [CRZ I (i)], 1991 that did not permit any development 500 metres from the high tide line.

This led to a protective cover being cast on Dahanu’s coast, shielding it from the acquisitive reaches of commercial tourism and landgrabbers. Other than the thermal plant situated in the creek, there is no other major development activity on the coast that could directly affect fishing.

Over the last decade, construction of new projects that violate both the Notification and the CRZ have been brought before the Dahanu Authority and resolved.

One of the most significant cases was the setting up of a multi-berth industrial port by global giant Peninsular & Oriental (P&O) in the coastal village of Vadhavan in 1997. The entire coastline of Dahanu with its fishing communities was threatened by this proposal which involved the acquisition of large tracts of land.

For the first time, the environmental campaign became broadbased, with fisherfolk, local farmers, NGOs like the DTEWA, as well as the Kashtkari Sanghatana joining in the campaign against the port.

The Dahanu Authority held a series of hearings with activists, communities and the company and passed a landmark order in 1998, that the port could not be permitted in ecologically fragile Dahanu.

The environmental regime, along with civil society action, was able to prevent the setting up of a large industry that would have destroyed the coast and its communities.

However, a decade later, the residents of many fishing villages are struggling to live off the natural resources.

Ganesh Tandel, fisherman and resident of Dhakti Dahanu, a fishing village near Vadhavan states, “We were definitely relieved when the port was canceled, since we would have lost our livelihoods and been displaced. However, if you look at our community today, it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to sustain ourselves and most of the younger generation is opting for jobs outside Dahanu.”

Statistics reveal that while the fish catch was 11,503 tonnes in 1996-97, it has now increased to 19,816 tonnes (District Socio-economic survey, 2006-07, Thane), indicating that the real problem may be the changing aspirations of the youth who do not think that their traditional occupation will give them access to the consumerist economy.

The fishing community continues to benefit from the restrictions of the Notification. However, the bigger challenge is to create sustainable and economically viable alternatives in a rapidly changing economy and a constantly evolving community.


Dahanu has the third highest area (47,606 ha) under forests amongst the 15 talukas of Thane district (Regional Plan 1996-2015). The proportion of forest area to total geographical area is 45.91%, making it the predominant land use of the region (estimates provided by Deputy Conservator of Forests, Dahanu division).

A large part of the adivasi community resides in this zone, in remote, almost inaccessible, villages. In spite of a rich history of resistance, the adivasis are today either marginal farmers or work as daily wage labourers in orchards, brick kilns, or on boats earning a wage of Rs 50-80 a day, struggling to live off their slowly eroding forests. Many migrate for several months of the year to nearby places for work.

It can be safely assumed that the entire tribal population is Below the Poverty Line (BPL) in Dahanu given that the figure of BPL families is a high 69% which is approximately the population figure of the region.

Shiraz Balsara of the Kashtkari Sanghatana, a social movement working with the adivasis of Dahanu for the last two decades, discusses their role in the environmental campaign. She states that the Sanghatana is opposed to an elitist kind of environmentalism that is not pro-people, but that they have in fact supported the environmental campaign from its initial stages.

However, it is interesting to note that in the last decade there has been no mobilisation or inclusion of the adivasis in the environmental campaign in any significant form.

On the contrary, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which disagrees with the environmentalists, has held rallies and demonstrations of adivasis demanding the removal of the special environmental status granted to Dahanu.

“A blanket ban on a number of industries is not a balanced view of development, and while concerns about the environment are important, the creation of jobs and livelihoods for a marginalised community are equally critical,” states Mariam Dhawale, member of the Maharashtra state secretariat of the CPI(M) and of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, an organisation of the CPI(M) active in the region.

The adivasi community has remained largely unaffected by the environmental campaign. Kitayun Rustom admits that it was impossible for them to create a consciousness amongst the adivasis regarding the Notification, given that most of their time went in opposing violations either before the Dahanu Authority or at various courts.

Discussions with the adivasi community in various villages (Sogve, Raytali and Jamshet), reveal that while some of them acknowledge that pollution from the thermal power plant is an issue, very few are even aware that Dahanu is a notified zone.

The forest department is unable to provide a systematic assessment of the potential benefits of the Dahanu notification on the forests and consequently on tribals. Anecdotal accounts indicate that there has been considerable degradation in the last ten years, suggesting that the Notification has not led to any meaningful ecological improvement of Dahanu.


Between the sandy soils of Dahanu's coast and the coarser earth of the hills, the plains with their black cotton soil have created a lucrative horticultural economy with chickoo as the primary commercial crop (6% of land in Dahanu is under horticulture) and subsidiary plantations of coconut and mango.

Aware of the havoc pollution can wreak on their crops, most orchard owners have supported the environmental movement and the resulting restrictions on development.

The campaign to ensure that the local thermal power plant does not pollute has been primarily supported by the orchard owners, organised under the banners of the DTEWA and more recently, the Dahanu Parisar Bachao Samiti, concerned about the impact of emissions on their crops.

However, the farming and orchard-owning community in Dahanu also grapples with its own realities. With declining yields since the late-1990s post the attack of a seed borer and reduced viability of the orchard economy, the challenge facing farmers is to be able to retain their tranquil way of life while still redefining their sources of livelihood.

Prabhakar Save, a progressive orchard owner running Tarpa, a rural tourism centre on his farm at Gholvad, states, “The constant monitoring and vigilance of the environmental campaign has played a critical role in ensuring that the region is largely protected from the impact of industrialisation and pollution. However, as farmers in a constantly changing economy, it is our responsibility to innovate and ensure that horticulture and associated activities can bring about increased incomes while still protecting the environment.”


Dahanu may have been saved from becoming a toxic hotspot like its neighbour Vapi. Additionally, the legal restrictions on industrialisation may have played some role in protecting the cultural identity and livelihoods of the diverse communities of Dahanu.

However, for environmental justice and equitable growth to happen in tandem, much more would need to be done. Efforts to create a parallel economy based on rural tourism are options that need to be urgently explored. The need of the hour is to demonstrate alternative and sustainable forms of development that are economically and ecologically viable.

(This is the first in a series of articles by Michelle Chawla, researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2008. Michelle has a Master’s degree in social work and is founder and trustee of the Tamarind Tree Trust, which is located on a chickoo farm in Dahanu, Maharashtra, and works on developmental and environmental issues in Dahanu. Her series for Infochange documents the conflict between environment-protection, development and livelihoods, by looking at Dahanu as a microcosm in which these conflicts have been playing out since 1991.)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009