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Protests in Gujarat against corporate projects that threaten people’s livelihoods and damage the environment  

Credit:  Lyla Bavadam | Fronline | Print edition : September 10, 2021 | frontline.thehindu.com ~~

Major public protests in Gujarat in July and August have highlighted people’s growing discontent over the State’s prioritisation of industry over their rights. Four industry giants are in the line of fire from local people’s groups for mining, wind farms and hazardous chemical pollution.

On July 5, there was a well-attended protest in south Gujarat’s tribal-dominated Tapi district against Hindustan Zinc’s proposed smelter plant. In accordance with the Centre’s environmental rules, the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) organised a public hearing for the project at Doswada village where tribal people were fearful that the plant posed a threat to their livelihood. They said that the zinc smelting plant would destroy the environment and thus endanger their livestock, which they depended on for their livelihood.

The protesters also said the public hearing was notified only 15 days before the scheduled date when it should have been a 30-day notice period. During the protest there was a scuffle between protesters and the police after some of them apparently threw stones and the police retaliated by firing 30 tear gas shells. The State government’s Industrial Extension Bureau then issued a statement that said: “It is unfortunate what happened today at Doswada in Tapi district. The need of the hour is to create jobs, bring employment and strengthen economic development in the State, especially in the post pandemic world…. We are committed to creating a conducive environment for industry to grow and will extend support to ensure ease of business. As a responsible government body, the welfare of our communities and focus on environment will always remain a top priority and we will ensure that best standards are followed.” Hindustan Zinc is an arm of the mining giant Vedanta Group. The proposed project at Doswada is for a smelter with a capacity of three lakh tonnes a year that is expected to be commissioned by 2022. The proposed investment is around Rs.10,000 crore. It is spread across 415 acres (one acre = 0.4 hectare) and promises jobs for about 5,000 people in the region.

On July 20, soon after the public hearing, Chhotubhai Vasava, Bharatiya Tribal Party leader and MLA from Jhagadia, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Gujarat High Court asking the court to ensure that the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, was followed. The law essentially ensures self-governance for tribal areas through gram sabhas. With about 84 per cent of the population tribal, Tapi district is categorised as a Schedule V area in the Constitution. The PIL also asks for fresh public hearings since the earlier ones were held under COVID restrictions and did not see full representation of the people.

There are environmental concerns, too. According to the website GreenSpec, which offers sustainable building resources and is independent of companies and trade bodies: “The production of zinc produces around 3 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of zinc…. Smelter slag and other residues of process also contain significant amounts of heavy metals. Water is polluted by these heavy metals. This results in some fish accumulating zinc in their bodies, when they live in zinc-contaminated waterways. When zinc enters the bodies of these fish, it biomagnifies up the food chain.” There is also concern that the nearby Ukai reservoir will be used for the plant, thus taking water away from agriculture.

Sangnara protest

Another protest in Gujarat is against the wind energy major Suzlon in the northern district of Kutch. With its vast open spaces, Kutch is seen as an ideal place for wind energy projects, but there is opposition to a project Suzlon is proposing in Sangnara village. On August 7, hundreds of people from Sangnara held a protest march against the wind energy project.

The Sangnara protest has been gathering steam for two years. Its main aim is to protect the Sangnara forest, which is sacred to five villages. This tropical thorn forest is spread over 500 sq. km and has been under the care of local villages for centuries. It is considered one of the finest of its kind and is home to a glorious desert biodiversity of chinkara, wolf, caracal, ratel (or honey badger), hyena, desert cat, Indian fox, spiny-tailed lizard, desert monitor, white-naped tit and vulture, among other species of animals, some of which are threatened.

In 2016, the first wind turbine was erected inside the forest. Hundreds of trees were cut and hills were flattened to accommodate the transmission cables, fans and other mechanical paraphernalia of a wind turbine. Wildlife fled from the area. Over a period of time, the State government approved 50 more windmills in the forest. A press note says: “The village panchayat approached the Collector informing her of the rich forest on this Revenue Land. The Revenue officer and the Forest Department investigated and provided reports and recommended against allowing windmills, corroborating with the panchayat that this is a rich forest. When the village did not get favourable responses from the local MLA, MP and administration, they approached the National Green Tribunal that accepted their case. The case is ongoing.

“Post COVID, the past month has seen a renewed attempt by Suzlon to put up two more windmills. The village, including women and youth, have been regularly stopping the company vehicles from entering the forest, which in turn have resorted to heavy police protection to deforest and continue their operations. The village has galvanised support from many social forums and panchayats who are angry with the rampant destruction of the Kutch landscape by these companies.”

Hazardous chemicals

Yet another example of anger against big corporations is in Bharuch district. In July, farmers in the district suffered huge crop losses. They pointed the finger at the many hazardous chemical companies that are in the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation’s Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemicals Investment Region in Dahej and Vilayat towns of Bharuch district. The industries mainly make pesticides, petrochemicals, pharmaceutical products, dyes, and so on.

Anand Yagnik, an advocate and a human rights and environmental activist, said in a statement: “Due to non-compliance of various environmental safeguards, violation of Air Act and non-measurement of the toxic chemicals present in the air which is otherwise banned and prohibited for production everywhere, has caused immense damage to the local environment. The cumulative impact and effect of these industries, its chemicals release and or release of some chemical Phenoxy compounds has caused loss of agricultural crops in entire Bharuch Region.” He said that it was mainly the cotton and pigeon pea crops that had been affected in “70,000 hectares, forcing farmers to destroy their deformed crops”.

Yagnik added that 50,000 farmers had lost almost all their crops in Bharuch and Vadodara regions. The statement went on to say: “The report of District Agricultural Officer with diagnosis team of Agricultural Universities establishes the same. The report clearly says the release of Phenoxy compounds like [the herbicides] 2, 4-D and 2, 4 D-B present in air are responsible for the present problem. There is no mechanism available with the GPCB to measure such chemicals and pollutants in air so the diagnosis team member of GPCB has refused to sign the report. This issue is thus unattended by GPCB even though it has been reported time to time by Agricultural scientists and officers. Thus, the environmental violations are going on unabated despite …the state authorities being fully acquainted with it, in complete violation of the fundamental rights of the farmers and residents of the region and in abject violation of the concerned environmental laws.”

Jayesh Patel, president of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj, a strong organisation of farmers, agreed that air pollution was damaging plants. “In villages as far away as 40 km from industrial units, the leaves of crops are withering away. Even a big neem tree in Sarbhan village has got burnt leaves,” he said.

Limestone mining in south Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district has disrupted the lives of residents in Mahuva and Taluja talukas. Residents have accused UltraTech Cement of the Aditya Birla Group of companies of trying to take over their agricultural lands. They said that the government was supporting the corporation and gave the example of stoppage of work on a check dam that was meant for farmers.

The company now has rights to about 3,460 ha of land; it was granted a small parcel of land in 1999 and has added to it over the years. Residents have been opposed to the project right from the start but only came together in the early 2000s to assert their rights. Between 1999 and the present, there have been numerous amendments to mining rules, which residents believe the company has benefited from.

One of these amendments, which should have benefited local people, was the requirement for public hearings prior to major projects being granted permission. Unfortunately, the requisite public hearings relating to the company’s limestone mining were hurried along and completed in two days and the clearances granted. Public voices were raised against the rushed hearings and the fact that the mines were being allowed on fertile agricultural lands. Although the mining rights were granted, the people are still protesting and so the company is being cautious and is extracting limestone only on a small parcel of land.

Gujarat has a poor history of environmental governance. It has always prioritised industry above all else. With the might of the administration backing big corporations, the public has always been hesitant to protest. All the above cases, which are at various stages of the legal process, are examples of people who have been pushed to the wall and who are now making their voices heard and using legal means to assert their rights.

Source:  Lyla Bavadam | Fronline | Print edition : September 10, 2021 | frontline.thehindu.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

The copyright of this article resides with the author or publisher indicated. As part of its noncommercial effort to present the environmental, social, scientific, and economic issues of large-scale wind power development to a global audience seeking such information, National Wind Watch endeavors to observe “fair use” as provided for in section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law and similar “fair dealing” provisions of the copyright laws of other nations. Send requests to excerpt, general inquiries, and comments via e-mail.

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