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Making environmental mandates meaningful

The quasi-judicial Dahanu Authority has become a model for environmental governance, taking on giant corporations and standing for social and ecological justice. But until its mandate is endorsed by the citizens and elected representatives of Dahanu, meaningful development cannot take place, says Michelle Chawla

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While India has a series of constitutional provisions and stringent environmental laws and policies to ensure that its forests, water and land are protected, there is a high level of non-compliance with most environmental laws. Interestingly, from time to time the Supreme Court of India, in response to public interest litigations and sometimes acting on its own has compelled bureaucrats to enforce environmental laws and rules that the government is unable to implement.

This has led to complex configurations in society, given the contradiction in the values espoused by the Supreme Court on the one hand and those of business and political interests on the other.

Dahanu, located on the west coast of Maharashtra, is a microcosm of this contradiction, wherein the intervention of the Supreme Court and the enactment of notifications and authorities to protect the environment has led to a creative new space for debate and action on conservation.

However, the question that remains is whether these approaches are replicable in a milieu where competing lobbies continue to battle over the appropriation of natural resources. 

Efficacy of Dahanu Authority 

Tukaram Machi, a fisherman from Pale village in Dahanu, complained that “the water released from the power plant is so hot that the marine life is being affected and we are finding it difficult to lay our nets” in a presentation to the expert members of the Dahanu Authority.  The technical representative of the power plant and the officer of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) present at the meeting, fumbled to respond to this allegation, stating that all pollution control measures were in place.

Dissatisfied with this response, the expert members ordered a site inspection and testing of the outlet of water at the plant site in the presence of community and civil society representatives. A date was fixed and MPCB was told to conduct the sampling.

While it is rare to see tables turn so quickly on corporations and government institutions known for their lackadaisical approach on issues of environmental pollution, this scenario has been repeated frequently in the last decade at the meetings of the quasi-judicial Authority set up to protect Dahanu taluka.  

Set up on the directive of a Supreme Court order in 1996, the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA) was the culmination of an environmental campaign that had extensively relied on the courts to protect Dahanu.  

The Notification setting up the Authority directed it “to protect the ecologically fragile area of Dahanu taluka and to control pollution in the area, to consider and implement the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle, to implement the Dahanu Notification and the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification”. Significantly, it also permitted the Authority to exercise powers under Section 5 of the Environment Protection Act for issuing directions.  

“For the activists, the Dahanu Authority opened up a new space for engagement and dialogue with the authorities and corporations. Functioning like a people's court, the Dahanu Authority invites to its meetings members of concerned government departments, elected representatives, community and civil society groups, corporations and agencies interested in undertaking work or projects in Dahanu.  Any person or community aggrieved by an environmental violation can send a petition to the Authority. All concerned  are invited to the hearings,” states Maya Mahajan, former activist with the Dahanu Taluka Environment Welfare Association (DTEWA), the environmental organisation that spearheaded the movement.  

The hearings are held every four to six months in the Maharashtra State Secretariat building and decisions are taken after a thorough investigation and examination of issues to ascertain whether these proposals are permitted within the notified Dahanu taluka (Dahanu, in north western Maharashtra, was notified as a ecologically fragile zone by the ministry of environment and forests in 1991, putting restrictions on industrial development and land use).  

Headed by retired judge of the Mumbai High Court, Justice Dharmadhikari, and supported by a team of experts from fields as diverse as urban planning, terrestrial ecology, oceanography, environmental engineering  as as well as government and non-governmental representatives (see list of members in Box), the Dahanu Authority held its first meeting on May 6, 1997 and has since taken up critical  issues that have steered the path of development for the region.  

Till date, the Authority has held 38 meetings over a span of 12 years, addressing diverse environmental and developmental issues such as the construction of a mega port, pollution control of a thermal power plant, sea water ingress on coastal communities, building of national highways, laying of high-transmission towers, and preparation of a Regional and Development Plan for the taluka.  

“As members of the Authority, with the responsibility of protecting Dahanu,” states V W Deshpande, former member secretary and now member of the Dahanu Authority, we have functioned independently, providing inputs and opinions objectively and in keeping with our legal mandate. While there have been many challenges, our aim has been to ensure planned and sustainable development of the fragile zone.”  

Issues and contradictions 

One of the issues taken up by the Authority that merits attention is the setting up of a multi-berth industrial port in Vadhavan village in Dahanu in 1997, the first year of functioning of the Authority. A series of hearings were held, where people’s organisations, environmental groups and representatives of the international shipping giant Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) Company presented their case to the Authority. Scientific, economic and sociological studies were presented by both sides.  

Eventually, in spite of pressures from vested interests, the Dahanu Authority rejected the siting of the port in Dahanu, stating that it could be considered an industry not permitted as per the notifications.  The chairman, Justice Dharmadhikari, a Gandhian by conviction, states that  “pressures have not worked for him and his Authority”.  

Due to the presence of a strong leadership and a team of experts from diverse fields, the Authority has engaged in a variety of development discourses, becoming a model for environmental governance. Aware of the politics of control over natural resources, the Dahanu Authority has stood unwaveringly by the principles of social and ecological justice.  

However, there has been considerable resistance to the orders and directions passed by the Authority, both by officials and companies.   

In the case of the port at Vadhavan village, the order was upheld. “In many cases, however,” states Kerban Anklesaria, advocate on behalf of the environmental group that has been appearing for most of the Authority hearings, “while the Dahanu Authority has powers under Section 5 of the Environment Protection Act to issue directions, it has no powers to ensure that these directions are implemented.”  

This contradiction became visible in the setting up of a pollution control device, a Flue Gas De-sulphurisation Unit (FGD), to reduce sulphur emissions from the thermal power plant owned by Reliance Energy. While the ministry of environment and forests gave clearance to the company on the condition that it would set up the FGD, the company went ahead and set up the thermal power plant in 1994 oblivious to this clause.   

The Dahanu Auuthority on being petitioned by local environmental groups, passed an order in May 1999 that the FGD Plant had to be set up within six months. In 2003, the company had still not complied and another order was passed by the Authority.  

Finally in March 2005, after a prolonged series of hearings and scientific reports being presented to the Dahanu Authority, the company was directed to pay a Bank Guarantee of Rs 300 crore to display its commitment to installing this plant.  

Still unyielding about setting up the FGD, the company appealed against the Authority's order in the Mumbai High Court. However they lost the case and had to provide a Bank Guarantee of Rs 100 crore and set up the plant by October 2007.   

“Bringing to task a corporation like Reliance has been a landmark victory. However, it was an extremely difficult campaign for the people of Dahanu. Without the support of the expert members of the Authority who were able to decipher the scientific data and piles of information submitted by Reliance, the case would have been lost,” continues Anklesaria.  

In spite of being a declared protected zone with a Supreme Court-appointed Authority, the struggle against environmental pollution that was directly impacting people’s livelihoods in the predominantly agrarian region took a decade to come to a conclusion.  

In several other cases, while the Dahanu Authority passed significant orders, getting the local authorities to implement them has been an uphill task. A lack of environmental consciousness coupled with challenging ground realities has more often than not led to non-compliance.  

A classic example of this is the issue of solid waste management of Dahanu town. The Dahanu Municipal Council (DMC) has been unable to resolve the issue of a dumping ground for the last decade. Unable to find a permanent location to treat and dispose of the solid waste of Dahanu town, the sanitation officer inevitably promises better segregation and finalisation of a site at every meeting of the Dahanu Authority.  

At the last meeting of the Authority held on February 27, 2009, Dr Asolekar, expert member, reprimanded the DMC for not abiding by the laws applicable for treatment of solid waste, specifically in an ecologically fragile zone. He said that Dahanu should be a zero-waste zone with exemplary segregation and disposal facilities. Justice Dharmadhikari even threatened prosecution of the Chief Executive Officer of the DMC, given the number of years this issue was being discussed.

In a business as usual manner, the sanitation officer with the Dahanu Municipal Council present at the meeting responded that attempts at segregation were ongoing and a few other sites had been shortlisted as permanent locations for management of solid waste. However, there was resistance from local communities for dumping waste there and he was unsure if they would be able to finalise a space.  

The apathy and lack of commitment on the part of the officials is obvious from the fact that the total waste generated in the DMC is a meagre 11 tonnes of which seven is bio-degradable waste, making it imminently possible for a small urban region like Dahanu to successfully treat this waste.  

Thus, even as the Dahanu Authority holds hearings and decides on various environmental issues, local institutions and elected representatives resent the loss of control over decision-making of their region as well as being accountable to the Authority.  

Priyanka Kesarkar, Chief Executive Officer of the DMC, states that she is unable to sanction many projects in the town since she is waiting for the Dahanu Authority to clear the much-awaited Development Plan of the municipal area. 

The Plan has been under preparation by the town planning department under the supervision of the Authority for several years since it has often failed to comply with all the environmental restrictions.  

Conclusion 

The leadership and vision of the Dahanu Authority has been key to ensuring the ecological protection of Dahanu. However, until the mandate is endorsed fully by the people, both who live in the protected zone as well as the elected representatives and officials, meaningful development that is socially and ecologically just cannot take place.

(This is the third 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, May 2009