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People vs environmentalists

By Michelle Chawla

There is no doubt that there is a sharp polarisation between Dahanu’s environmental lobby, which pushed through the region’s ecologically fragile status, and local communities, including industrialists, farmers and adivasis. Is this the result of an environmental movement that failed to ensure community debate and engagement?

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Dhakti Dahanu, The Fishing Village

August 22, 2003 will remain etched in the history of Dahanu taluka, a small region in northwest Maharashtra, as a day when the polarisation between the environmentalists and the people was exposed in a most dramatic manner.   

In a public hearing organised by the ministry of environment and forests to review the environmental status of Dahanu as an ecologically fragile zone, representatives of adivasis, fisherfolk, urban middle class, farmers and political parties vociferously claimed that environmental protection had wrecked their lives by closing all options for development.  

Preventing the environmentalists and their supporters from making their case, the representatives implored the expert committee to immediately remove the Dahanu Notification of 1991 that classified it as an eco-fragile zone in order that jobs and livelihoods could be created. They also pleaded for the relaxation of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notifications that do not permit any development along Dahanu's seacoast 500 metres from the high tide line.  

While the environmentalists claimed that the entire show had been staged by vested interests, the public hearing nevertheless starkly revealed the contradictions and dilemmas of an environmental narrative, spanning over two decades, where ecological protection had been brought to a region via the legal institutions.  


The environmental campaign started in 1989 with opposition to a proposal to set up a 500 MW coal-fired power plant in Dahanu to power the growing megapolis of Mumbai, given its proximity (120 km) to the city.  Predominantly a tribal and agricultural belt, a few orchard owners were alarmed by the possible adverse effects on the region and began campaigning against the thermal power plant under the Dahanu Taluka Environment Welfare Association (DTEWA).  

While they lost the case against the thermal power plant in the Mumbai High Court in 1991, they continued to push for Dahanu's protection. The ministry of environment and forests, utilising a clause in the Environment Protection Act, recognised the tribal culture, marine and horticultural wealth of the region and passed a landmark notification declaring Dahanu ecologically fragile.  

It said, “the Central Government, in consultation with the Government of Maharashtra, after considering the need for protecting the ecologically sensitive Dahanu Taluka, and to ensure that the development activities are consistent with principles of environmental protection and conservation, hereby declare Dahanu Taluka, District Thane (Maharashtra) as an ecologically fragile area and to impose restrictions on the setting up of industries which have a detrimental effect on the environment.” 

Dahanu was only one among three areas in the country declared ecologically fragile at that time, the other two being Dehradun and Murud Janjira. Currently there are ten such designated zones.  

The Notification specifically restricted the setting up of industries to a limit of 500 acres. It classified industries into Red, Orange and Green categories on ecological considerations, disallowing the Red category. The Notification also significantly stipulated "no change in land use" while directing the state government to prepare a Regional Plan demarcating all green areas, orchards, tribal areas and other environmentally  sensitive ones. 

Land use clause in the Dahanu Notification, 1991 

“The Government of Maharashtra will prepare a Master Plan or Regional Plan for the taluka based on the existing land use clearly demarcate all the existing green areas, orchards, tribal areas and other environmentally sensitive areas. No change of existing land use will be permitted for such areas...”

The Dahanu Industries Association was one of the first to react negatively to the Notification and petitioned the Mumbai High Court against it. “There was no public debate or engagement on the issue of development of Dahanu. We were unexpectedly declared a special eco-sensitive zone with a prohibition on industries, leading to frustration amongst the business community,” states Amar Dhanukar,  treasurer of the Dahanu Industries Association, which lost the case against the Notification.

For the business and commercial community in Dahanu along with representatives of some political parties, the Notification became an obstacle to accessing the booming modern economy. Over the last decade, they have played a key role in accusing the Notification and environmental laws for Dahanu's slow-paced development.

“The frustrations of the local business and political interests also came from the fact that environmental norms could no longer be bypassed. Permissions and procedures for Dahanu became legal and lengthy. Local politicians did not have the liberty to sanction projects and proposals,” states Kerban Anklesaria, lawyer associated with the environmental movement.

Along with disgruntled commercial interests, political parties like the Communist Party of India (Marxist) actively demonstrated against the Notification, claiming that the tribal community would suffer due to lack of employment opportunities.

However, the reality is that there is no blanket ban on industries. The Notification provides guidelines for the setting up of industries stating that “only those industries that are non-obnoxious, non-hazardous and do not discharge industrial effluents of a polluting nature will be permitted”.

Moreover, the indicative list of Red category industries includes refineries, cement plants, petrochemical industries, sugar mills etc, reflecting that the Notification protects the area from industrial pollution and does not restrict development.  

Given that the environmental campaign was led by a handful of orchard owners, especially at the initial stages, it was critical to get wider support from the community. Moreover, had an atmosphere of public debate been created to dispel the incorrect interpretations of the Notification, the community may have been reassured that development of many sectors such as information technology, food processing, and eco-tourism were open.

Setting up of the Dahanu Authority

While the Notification was based on the philosophy of appropriate utilisation of natural resources, conservation and planned development, the interpretation of development was very different for the  bureaucracy and institutions that were implementing it.

Unable to see any value in such a Notification, given that rapid economic growth and industrialisation were the mantras, development continued in violation of the Notification in the period from 1991 to 1994. 

“It was ironical that the state government and institutions like the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board that had the responsibility of protecting Dahanu were acting in contravention of the Dahanu and CRZ Notifications. They granted permission to prohibited industries and to buildings along the seacoast. Additionally, they drafted a Regional Plan for Dahanu that promoted urbanisation and industrialisation, against the spirit of the Notification,” states Noshir Irani, local orchard owner and former secretary of the DTEWA. 

The environmentalists were unhappy with these violations and contested them in a writ petition in the Supreme Court in 1994. The case ended in 1996, with a landmark order that resulted in the setting up of a quasi-judicial authority, the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA) headed by retired Chief Justice of Mumbai High Court, Justice Dharmadhikari, with a team of experts from diverse fields such as urban planning, terrestrial ecology, oceanography and environmental engineering.

The Dahanu Authority's role was to ensure that the development of the ecologically fragile region was in consonance with the Dahanu Notification and other relevant legislations.

Since its inception in 1996, the Authority has played a significant role in steering the development of Dahanu by scrutinising and deciding on large projects, developing innovative schemes for afforestation, ensuring that the thermal power plant controls its emissions and taking to task unplanned and illegal development.

“This was practically the only green zone left on the west coast when the Authority was formed. We felt that it should be conserved, else the future generations would suffer,” states Justice Dharmadhikari, Chairman of the Dahanu Authority, which has set precedents for environmental governance in the last decade. “There were many challenges before the Authority and credit must go to the expert members who provided their independent views so that we could consider the pros and cons of many controversial matters,” he continued.

Notably, the Dahanu Authority through a series of hearings rejected the siting of a multi-berth industrial port proposed by global giant P&O Ltd at Vadhavan village in Dahanu in 1998.

Additionally, the thermal power plant (owned by Reliance Energy) was forced to install a Flue Gas Desulphurisation Plant (FGD), a pollution control device to reduce sulphur emissions, after the Dahanu Authority demanded a Bank Guarantee of Rs 300 crore from the company. The unit was finally commissioned in October 2007, the culmination of a decade-long campaign, and the expert members of the Authority recently visited the plant for an inspection. 

“For us orchard owners whose crop is at risk from the pollution of the thermal power plant, the Authority, being an independent organisation devoid of any political compulsions, has been able to operate autonomously, and played a critical role in holding companies like Reliance accountable,” states Vijay Mhatre, President of the Dahanu Parisar Bachao Samiti, a loose federation of orchard owners that emerged more recently, in 2004, when they began facing a decline in production of chikoo.

Along with the environmental group, they played a key role in petitioning the Dahanu Authority for the installation of the FGD that reduces the sulphur emissions from the plant.

The setting up of the Authority consolidated the environmental movement, but further polarised Dahanu society. While it may have been easy to bypass the Notification, the Authority stood its ground. Government officials were apprehended at meetings of the Dahanu Authority. Elected representatives had no choice but to acknowledge the institution. 

Consequently, concerted efforts were made to disband the Dahanu Authority. The public hearing of August 2003 was a result of efforts by politicians and business interests which led a delegation to the ministry of environment and forests stating that Dahanu should be de-notified and the Authority  disbanded since the local representatives were capable of charting the development of their own region.

Additionally, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court by the Ministry of Environment and Forests asking for the dissolution of the Dahanu Authority in 2002.  The DTEWA however, fought hard and won the case, further strengthening the work of the Authority.

Regardless, the polarisation continues.

Besides frustration over the absence of large industries (Reliance Energy's thermal power plant and the Associated Capsules Company are the only two big industries in Dahanu), business and political interests feel stifled due to lack of developmental activity.

“Regular development has been thwarted and there are simply not enough jobs because of the Notification,” states Manisha Chaudhury, member of the Bharatiya Janata Party which is actively opposing the Notification.  Adds Amar Dhanukar of the Industries Association, “Industries do bring jobs and there is no doubt that all those employed in the handful of small industries existing in Dahanu earn more than the agricultural labour on farms and definitely have a better standard of living.”

Dismissing the pro-development voices, Justice Dharmadhikari states, “The cry for employment is not from the unemployed but from industrialists who have a self-interest and who thought that Dahanu would become a suburb of Mumbai, good for resorts and chemical industries. We have no problem with industrialisation that is environment-friendly, with agriculture-based industries, with information technology-based units and all other non-polluting processes.”

However, the Dahanu Authority, functioning out of Mumbai, has been unable to fully integrate into mainstream Dahanu society. A local presence in Dahanu where people were able to engage on issues, could have avoided much of the face-off that exists even today. It would have created the space for participation and engagement on the contentious environment versus development debate.  

At a meeting held in January 2009 to discuss the future of declared ecologically fragile areas, the ex-director of the ministry of environment and forests, Lakshmi Raghupathy rightly suggested that any new proposals should come from the state or even the taluka, with local people’s support as effective implementation can be ensured only with support at state and local levels.


There are many in Dahanu who believe that the Notification and the Dahanu Authority have played an important role in ensuring that the region does not become like the neighhbouring Vapi, a toxic hotspot, or Boisar.

Unfortunately, they have been unable to form a critical mass or a formidable force against the conventional commercial interests. Networks like the Dahanu Parisar Bachao Samiti, representing a large number of farmers, can push an alternative paradigm of development and support the work of the Dahanu Authority.

However, the framework for the protection of Dahanu's natural resources remains largely confined to the realm of law, dependent on the commitment and conviction of environmental activists and members of the Dahanu Authority.  Even as competing lobbies continue to push for the removal of the Dahanu Authority and de-notification, the environmentalists walk a tightrope attempting to protect the natural resource base of the region. 

(This is the second 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