Thursday, March 17, 2011

Groundswell of protest

Farmers and fishermen in Gujarat are up in arms against six mega projects proposed to be set up along the 1600-km-long coast. The projects include a nuclear thermal plant, two thermal power stations, a cement plant, a coal jetty and a multi-product Special Economic Zone.
The protesting farmers tasted a victory of sorts when the union ministry of environment and forests ( MoEF) issued a show-cause notice to Nirma for permanent suspension of work and revocation of environment clearance for the company's upcoming cement plant near Mahuva in Bhavnagar district.
Union minister of state for environment and forest Jairam Ramesh, during a visit to Jamnagar earlier this month, had called upon the people to “build pressure from the ground” on the government to take necessary action for the protection of their environment.
While inaugurating the National Centre of Marine Bio-diversity at Jamnagar, the minister also expressed concern at the threat to the fragile ecology of coastal region of Gujarat and other wetland from large ports and cement plants.
The minister’s statement provided a boost to the ongoing protests by farmers of the coastal Bhavnagar district against the proposed cement plant of Nirma and by fishermen of Kutch against the country’s largest private port at Mundra operated by the Adani Group.
Over 5,000 farmers of Mahuva taluka of Bhavnagar, led by BJP MLA Kanubhai Kalsaria began a 350-kilometre protest march to Gandhinagar, the state capital, in support of their demand for the scrapping of the Nirma cement plant.
Reacting sharply to the MoEF’s notice, Nirma Limited spokesman V N Desai described it as “Illegal” which, he said, the company would challenge in the Supreme Court.
The MoEF, in its notice, has asked Nirma to stop work on the site permanently, alleging that the company had provided ‘half-truths’ in the environment impact assessment report it had submitted to obtain environment clearance.
Rubbishing this charge, Nirma said the MoEF itself had stated before both the Gujarat High Court and the Supreme Court that the environment clearance to the project was legal. The agitating farmers of Mahuva had alleged that the cement plant would adversely impact the artificial water body built by them in 2000 to check salinity ingress and irrigate their farm land.
The ministry has allowed a personal hearing for Nirma on March 16 or 17 before making the stoppage of work permanent.The cement plant is under construction at Samadhiyala Bandhara near Padhiyarka village in Mahuva Taluka of Bhavnagar.
Nirma was given environment clearance for the project in December 2008. Following this, farmers from the village, led by BJP MLA from Mahuva Dr Kanubhai Kalsariya, launched an agitation against the plant.
The protesting farmers said that the land, which was shown as 'wasteland' by Nirma and the state government to get environmental clearance, is actually a special freshwater body constructed to control salinity ingress from the sea.
This freshwater body supplies water to their farms for irrigation and their livelihood would be ruined if the plant and the subsequent mining in the area were allowed, the farmers claimed.
A report submitted last month after a detailed site visit by the expert committee constituted by the MoEF to look into the farmers' charges, has supported their argument. Based on this, MoEF has directed Nirma to “stop the implementation, including construction work, of the project with immediate effect” and, until further orders, to avoid any further damage to the wetland.
Former finance minister Sanat Mehta who has also lent his support to the cause says the work on the factory at Mahuva has stopped since the last four days.
Farmers are also opposing the Rs. 50,000 crore 6,000 MW nuclear power station at Mithi Virdi in Bhavnagar district. Villagers of Jasapara and about five nearby villages prevented surveyors to carry out survey of the land for proposed Mithi Virdi nuclear power project.
Jasapara’s lady Sarpanch said, “we would give our life, but not allow nuclear plant here.” About 30 odd villages have signed a petition and informed the authorities about their stand.
Anti-nuclear activists led by local Arun Dave, Damayantiben Modi of Lok Bharati Sanstha have formed a group called the Atomic Energy Study Group and have been distributing pamphlets and showing films about the accidents of nuclear plants in places like Chernobyl.
The MoEF has also issued a show cause notice to the Mundra Port SEZ of the Adani group for alleged violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 1991 following a decade long agitation by fishermen.
The proposed thermal power project of thye Shapporji Pallanji group at Kodinar and the Essar coal jetty near Salaya too have been facing protest from local farmers. The farmers have also filed a public interest litigation in the Gujarat High Court against these projects.

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