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Environmental Movement in Dahanu: Competing Pulls

Environmental Movement in Dahanu: Competing Pulls

The environmental campaign in Dahanu near Mumbai against the capacity MW plant started in the 1980s and ultimately led to the setting up of the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority. Even as competing lobbies continue to push for the de-notification of its status as an ecologically fragile region and removal of the Dahanu Authority the environmentalists walk a tight rope attempting to protect the natural resource base of the region.

COMMENTARY

Environmental Movement in Dahanu: Competing Pulls

Michelle Chawla, Geetanjoy Sahu

has also seen the spread of non-party political formations like the Bhoomi Sena and the Kashtkari Sanghatana, who have spearheaded the campaign for the effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act. Simultaneously, over the last two and a half decades, Dahanu has seen a

The environmental campaign in Dahanu near Mumbai against the capacity MW plant started in the 1980s and ultimately led to the setting up of the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority. Even as competing lobbies continue to push for the de-notification of its status as an ecologically fragile region and removal of the Dahanu Authority the environmentalists walk a tight rope attempting to protect the natural resource base of the region.

Michelle Chawla (michelle@tamarindtree.org) is an independent researcher and founder of Tamarind Tree, Dahanu. Geetanjoy Sahu (geetanjoy@tiss.edu) is with the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

M
odernity’s perception of an “ecologically fragile” region quite often discounts the strain on the social fabric caused by the sustained notions of distributive justice. The language articulating the politics of conservation sometimes hides the ideas of social equality that it inadvertently compromises. These tendencies have thrown up seemingly complex contradictions, which are dominating the discourse over social ecology, development and ethnicity.

Dahanu, a western Indian town located on the margins of the neo-liberal economic tide, is a microcosm of this phenomenon. The town dreams of an explosion of the market economy and yet it is not willing to give up its tranquil lifestyle. It wants to embrace the consumerist world view but narrates stories of the ecological wisdom of the Warlis, a tribe that symbolises the cultural milieu of the region. Situated a mere 120 kms north of Mumbai, Dahanu is today at crossroads – ecologically, socially, culturally. Sandwiched between the chemical corridors of Vapi, Gujarat, to the north and the industrialised zones of Palghar-Boisar to the south, it 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 predominant 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.

Historically, Dahanu has witnessed tribal resistance movements for land and forest rights led by the left and is even now considered a bastion of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M). The region

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growing environmental consciousness visible through the enviro-legal campaign led by the richer farmers that has resulted in the notification of Dahanu as an ecologically fragile region in 1991. This notification has now put Dahanu on the national map with nine other regions. A strict legal regime then succeeded in derailing large-scale industrialisation and managed to retain the agricultural and horticultural land use of the region. However 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 answers, 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.

Moreover, the battle for the conservation of natural resources and livelihoods has been heavily polarised, with the tribal rights groups, primarily the CPi(M) demanding the de-notification of Dahanu’s ecofragile status, even as the environmental groups battle hard to prevent this. The antagonism to the environmental movement is not restricted to the tribal rights group but extends to disgruntled builders, commercial interests and politicians throwing up complex configurations in Dahanu society. In this article, we trace the development of the environmental campaign in Dahanu town which started against the thermal power plant in the 1980s and highlight the key factors that sustained the movement over the last two decades. We analyse the various competing demands and positions of the different social groups while also highlighting the contradictions in the environmental campaign.

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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 CPI mobilised the Warlis on the issue of land rights led by Godavari and Shyamlal 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 adivasi community. While many of these conflicts centred on 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 upon conservation and protection emerged in Dahanu. The environmental campaign started in 1989 with opposition to a proposal to set up a 500 megawatt (MW) coal fired power plant in Dahanu to power the growing megapolis of Mumbai, given its proximity 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.

While they lost the case against the power plant in the Mumbai High Court, in 1991, they continued to push for Dahanu’s protection. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) utilising a clause in the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 recognised the tribal culture, marine and horticultural wealth of the region and passed a landmark notification declaring Dahanu ecologically fragile in June 1991. 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.1

The notification specifically restricted the setting up of industries to a limit of

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500 acres. It classified industries into red, orange and green categories on ecological considerations, disallowing the red category. It 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. It is also important to mention here that Dahanu was classified as Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) I (i), under the Indian Coastal Regulation Zone by the MoEF way back in February 1991.2 The CRZ bans any new construction and development activities within 500 metres of the high tide line. This was a landmark achievement in the environmental campaign.

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 played a key role in blaming the notification and the environmental laws for Dahanu’s slow-paced development. The Dahanu Industries Association was one of the first to react negatively to the notification and petitioned the Mumbai High Court against it. They claimed that there was no public debate or engagement on the issue of development of Dahanu. Even though they lost the case in the court, the proponents of development feel cheated by the notification. 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 and local politicians did not have the liberty to sanction projects and proposals.

Meanwhile the town planning department kept drafting development plans for Dahanu which were illegal and in contravention of the Dahanu notification and CRZ. Ironically, Dahanu’s development plan intended for a 20-year period from 1996-2026 is yet to be sanctioned. In the interim 15 years, urban development continues in a haphazard and very often illegal manner. Along with disgruntled commercial interests, political parties like the CPI(M) actively demonstrated against the notification, claiming that the tribal community would suffer due to lack of employment opportunities. However, the

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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.

A form of environmentalism that was not led from the ground had its limitations. 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 felt assured that development of many sectors such as information technology, food processing, ecotourism were open.

Supreme Court-Appointed 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. 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 notification. They granted permission to prohibited industries and to buildings along the sea coast. Additionally, they drafted a regional plan for Dahanu that promoted urbanisation and industrialisation against the spirit of the notification.

The environmentalists were unhappy with these violations and contested them in the form of a writ petition in the Supreme Court in 1994.3 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 (hereafter the Authority)

COMMENTARY

headed by retired chief justice of Mumbai High Court, justice C S Dharmadhikari with a team of experts from diverse fields such as urban planning, terrestrial ecology, oceanography and environmental engineering.4 The Dahanu Authority’s role was to oversee that the development of the ecologically fragile region was in consonance with the Dahanu notification and other relevant legislations. Since its inception in 1996, it 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.

With a mandate to protect the ecology, natural resources and livelihoods of a region, the Authority has for a period of 10 years been more than just a watchdog institution. Recognising the ecological politics of control over natural resources, the Authority has unwaveringly stood by the principles of social justice and equitable rights for local communities. With its landmark orders, it has contributed to the environmental discourse in India. Considered a quasi judicial body, it has functioned like a peoples’ court, responding to local environmental complaints and problems. Through a process of hearings, it has been able to discuss and debate issues in a democratic manner, holding both public and private institutions accountable.

Notably, through a series of hearings it 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 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. Expert members of the Autho rity visit the plant regularly for inspection.

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 grilled at the meetings and elected representatives had no choice but to acknowledge the institution. However the Authority, functioning out of Mumbai, has been unable to fully integrate into mainstream Dahanu society. A local presence in Dahanu where people are 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.

Consequently, concerted efforts were made to disband the Dahanu Authority. 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 with the aim of determining the views of the people. However, the meeting was conducted by local commercial interests and politicians, who asserted that the Dahanu notification was a major stumbling block to development in the region, and that it should be withdrawn. Misrepresenting the notification to claim that even a flour mill was not permitted in the area, the committee created an atmosphere that projected a collective opposition to the notification and the functioning of the Authority. Since its very inception, the Maharashtra government has also been hostile to the notification.5 The state government seems insincere about implementing the ecofragile notification. Surprisingly, in January 2002, the MoEF which should be protecting Dahanu and other eco-fragile areas, 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 that it needs a single authority to monitor all eco-fragile areas. The environmentalists fought this application at the Supreme Court and in January 2004, the application was dismissed.

Emerging Trends and Concerns

The impact of environmental restrictions on the resource-dependent communities that form the majority in Dahanu is not so clearly apparent to all, and it will be interesting to study those. Topographically, Dahanu taluka can be divided into a 10-12 kmwide bandarpatti (the coastal belt) of lowlands and flats extending from the sea coast 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) describes 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 CRZ [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 around Dahanu’s coast, shielding it from the acquisitive reaches of commercial tourism and land-grabbers. 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 authority and resolved. One of the most

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significant cases was the setting up of a multi-berth industrial port by global giant 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 broad-based, with fisherfolk, local farmers, and non-governmental organisations like the Dahanu Taluka Environment Welfare Association (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. Changing aspirations and a consumerist economy have made the traditional occupation a last resort for the younger generations. 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.

It is also important to point out that Dahanu has the third largest area (47,606 ha) under forest 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 as high as 69% which is approximately the population figure of the region.

Members of the Kashtkari Sanghatana, a social movement working with the adivasis of Dahanu for the last two decades, state 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 and also support the eco-sensitive notification for Dahanu. How ever, it is interesting to note that in the last decade there has been no mobilisation or inclusion of the adivasi communities in the environmental campaign in any significant form. On the contrary, the CPI(M), which disagrees with the environmentalists, has held rallies and demonstrations of adivasi communities demanding the removal of the special environmental status granted to Dahanu. The party’s official stand at the time of the notification and for years later was that 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 is equally critical. The adivasi community has remained largely unaffected by the environmental campaign. The campaign’s members admit that it was impossible for them to create a consciousness amongst the adivasi regarding the notification, given that most of their time went in opposing violations either before the 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.6 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 10 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 wreck on their crops, most orchard owners have supported the environmental movement and the resulting restrictions on development. For many of the 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 was able to operate autonomously, and played a critical role in holding companies like Reliance accountable. 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. Many of the orchard owners feel that 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, because of the constantly changing economy, there is a responsibility to innovate and ensure that horticulture and associated activities can bring about increased incomes while still protecting the environment.

Conclusion

Dahanu may have been saved from becoming a toxic hotspot like its neighbour Vapi. However, the framework for the protection of its natural resources remains largely confined to the realm of law,

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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 on a tight rope attempting to protect the natural resource base of the region. Efforts to create a parallel economy based on rural tourism are options that need to be

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urgently explored. The need of the hour is to demonstrate alternative and sustainable forms of development that are economically and ecologically viable.

Notes

1 See Government of India, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Notification dated 20 June 1991, New Delhi. Dahanu was only one among three areas in the country declared ecologically fragile at that time, the other two being Dehradun

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and Murud Janjira. Currently there are 10 such designated zones.

2 For more details, see Government of India, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Notification dated 19 February 1991.

3 See Bittu Sehgal vs Union of India, W P (Civil) No 231 of 1994.

4 For more details, see Government of India, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Notification dated 19 December 1996, New Delhi.

5 Interview with Debi Goenka (Environmental Activist, Mumbai), by Geetanjoy Sahu.

6 Interview with adivasi community of Sogve, Raytali and Jamshet villages, by Michelle Chawla.

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