New Delhi: The Union government has approved the setting up of a controversial power generation project in the middle of a prime growing area for India’s world-famous alphonso mangoes, potentially putting not just a key export but also the livelihood of local farmers at risk.
The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has given the green signal to JSW Energy (Ratnagiri) Ltd, or JSWEL, a Jindal South West (JSW) group company, to commission a 1,200MW coal-based power plant at Jaigad in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district.
The clearance has come despite a court order asking the ministry to study the impact of the project in more detail.
Environmental activists said fly ash produced by the plant will affect agriculture, and a local farmers’ collective has vowed to appeal against the clearance.
While issuing the clearance, the ministry put a year-long moratorium on JSWEL’s proposal to add an additional 3,200MW capacity to the power-generation plant.
It has also imposed some conditions on the plant—such as taking adequate mitigation measures to desulphurize emissions, providing dense plantation as a buffer and 100% utilization of the fly ash it generates.
“Even if there are negative impacts, the impacts are restricted within (a) 5km radius of the project site which harbour poor quality orchards which are a few in number, suggesting that there will be no reduction in mango production,” the site report reviewed by Mint stated.
But Maitree Dasgupta, a campaigner on climate and energy with international activist group Greenpeace, doesn’t agree.
“Fly ash from power plants is known to affect agriculture. For instance, in Parli, Beed district, Maharashtra, we have seen that sugar cane production is getting affected. Power plants make ponds for fly ash outside, which can contaminate surrounding areas later,” Dasgupta said.
Questions emailed to a JSW group spokesperson on 8 February were not answered.
With an average annual shortage of 5,000MW, Maharashtra is India’s largest power-deficit state. The shortage is likely to grow, with demand projected to rise by 7-10% every year.
The JSWEL project first received environmental clearance in May 2007, which was upheld by the National Environment Appellate Authority a year later.
But the Delhi high court, acting on a petition filed by local farmers, stayed the commissioning of power generating units in September. It asked the ministry to study the effects of the power plant on cultivation and reassess its environmental clearance.
The ministry had sent a team to the site for a review. Its report, listed in the minutes of the meeting of an expert appraisal committee on thermal power projects, suggested that alphonso mangoes are more tolerant to high levels of sulphur dioxide than previously believed.
In July 2008, the ministry had also asked state-funded agricultural university Konkan Krishi Vidyapeeth, Dapoli (KKVD), to carry out a four-year impact study on alphonso mangoes. The project would be allowed to expand only after that, it said.
The university was asked to monitor ambient air quality, the marine and estuarine environment, plant health parameters and fisheries during the entire operative life of the plant, with periodic evaluation by an independent panel of experts nominated by the ministry.
“We will appeal against this clearance again,” said Vivek Bhide, a local mango farmer and president of the Ratnagiri Zilla Jagruk Manch, a farmers’ collective. “This (the clearance) doesn’t seem to follow the high court order, which said to carefully analyse all studies. But the KKVD study is yet to be completed,” he said.
This is not the first electricity generation project that has threatened alphonso farmers in Maharashtra. An ambitious power project at Girye had to be dropped due to protests by local mango growers.
India exports around 13,000 tonnes of alphonso mangoes every year. According to the Maharashtra State Agricultural Marketing Board, mango cultivation in Ratnagiri is across 62,836 ha that yield production of 115,939 tonnes yearly.