Alphonso mango does not require any elaborate introduction. Considered to be India’s prize cultivation, it has found its place on the world’s food plates for decades. One has grown up listening to stories around the Hapoos, as Alphonso is popularly referred to in India. Conversations over Alfonso refer to its unaffordability for common people, the massive export revenue it brings and around many other interesting facets.
Alphonso and one of its critical habitats have made news for slightly different reasons. It all began when M/s JSW Energy (Ratnagiri) Ltd. (JSWREL) proposed to set up a 1200 MW thermal power plant at Jaigad in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. The local farmers, scientists and their supporters were livid. Here is where begins a story of a legal and ideological fight which has bemused, amused and shocked the environmental arena.
A project like JSWERL’s thermal power project requires environmental clearance under a central law called Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006. It is only after a full EIA is done and a public hearing, where impacts of the project are discussed with locally affected people, is completed that the project can be granted clearance. When this Jaigad based project was granted approval in May 2007, one farmer from Ganapatipule, with the help of lawyers in Delhi and activist scientists in Maharashtra, challenged it. There were several grounds which Balachandra Bhikaji Nalwade brought on board with his supporters. This included the issue that the setting up of a thermal power project will severely impact Alphonso cultivation and that the project authorities had not carried out proper assessment regarding this.The mango farmer had approached the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) based in New Delhi, where any aggrieved person can challenge an environmental clearance granted to any industrial or infrastructure project. Amongst other things, his appeal highlighted that the impact assessment had failed to address the fact that Jaigad Creek is within a 10 kmradius of the project and there are also some mangroves within 4.5 km from project site. The NEAA did not uphold the appeal and in September 2008 cleared the Rs.4500 crores project. The single member NEAA overstepped its legal and environmental brief. When it dismissed Nalwade’s appeal, one of the reasons cited was the need to plug the gap between the energy demand and supply in Maharashtra. Therefore, the construction of the plant was deemed necessary.
But Delhi High Court thought otherwise. M/s JSWREL received a rude shock in September 2009, when a three judge bench of the Court overruled the decision of the NEAA and sent the project marching back to the Expert Appraisal Committee that had cleared it in the first place. Why did the Delhi High Court get involved? Simply, the petitioners were unsatisfied with the NEAA’s decisions, and took the next step in their fight.This did prove worthwhile. The Delhi High Court quashed the NEAA order on very strong legal and judicial grounds. It asked Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) at the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to take afresh look at the environmental clearance. A critical lacuna in the decision making process became the basis for the High Court order. It observed that the EAC on Thermal Power Projects disregarded its own regulations while granting final clearance to JSWERL. In January 2007, the EAC in its meeting had decided that it will wait for a study being conducted by the Konkan Krishi Vidyapeeth (Agricultural University), Dapoli on the impact of the Thermal Power Plant on Alphonso mangoes. This study was to take alteast 6 months. They also sought a 16-point response from the project authorities.
However, disregarding their own decision in March 2007, EAC recommended the project for clearance and laid a condition that while the project can be granted clearance, the study recommended by KKVD to assess the impacts on alphonso mangoes can be carried out as the project is under construction. A mere mockery of what actually the environment impact assessments are meant to be. What if a genuine study after 2 years would reveal irreparable damage to the mangoes? Would M/s JSWERL give up construction or operation? Moreover, should this not been part of the EIA in the first place?
Interestingly, the High Court while taking a view on this issue says, ‘Natural resources like air, water, forest, vegetation etc., are of great importance to the people as a whole and should not be subjected to private ownership or commercialisation, when public interest suffers a greater damage due to over exploitation of the nature. Lastly, laws of nature have to respected and for the benefit of people and human race require observation and compliance.’ With this understanding of nature as a basis, the decision was on the right track.Unfortunately, what the High Court bench did not do is to ask for the entire EIA to be redone. That’s what the farmers from Jaigad had actually wanted. So now the project is back into the scientific expert domain. And here’s an update on whats happening there.
The minutes of the December 2009 meeting record the comments of committee’s Vice-Chairman, C.R.Babu, which says that the emissions from the thermal power plant ‘can be drawn more or less parallel with vehicular emissions.’ Hence in the absence of existing operating TPPs in Ratnagiri, he observed that Mango plantations in the vicinity of major roads where heavy vehicular traffic are present seem very healthier than those further away from town. He felt that this is because of the conversion of the harmful emissions into those which might be good for the mangoes or other vegetation. Of course, the caveat was that the KKVD is still to complete its study.
For now the Jaigad plant is strangled in legal binds, but the commmittee members also feel that the representations from
the NGOs and farmers are biased and motivated.