New Delhi: In what may set a precedent in wetland conservation, a controversial cement plant belonging to Nirma Ltd in Gujarat faces relocation after a Union government report said it was situated on a water body essential to the local populace and the area’s ecology.
The plant, worth an estimated Rs 600 crore, is located on 268 hectares (ha) in Saurashtra’s Bhavnagar district.
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A report by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) placed before the Supreme Court on Tuesday concluded that the land allotted to Nirma by the state government in 2008 was an environmentally sensitive wetland that supported the local people in their agriculture. The report classified the water body, known as the Samadhiala bhandara, as a common property resource.
Nirma is engaged in a public interest litigation with local farmers who moved the Gujarat high court and later the Supreme Court. The case is listed for final orders before a bench headed by Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia on Friday.
But with the ministry’s report squarely set against it, Nirma in all probability would be asked to shift its factory to another location. The report says Nirma’s earlier environmental clearance was “founded on undisclosed and incorrect postulates”.
Nirma’s project in Bhavnagar included a cement plant of 1.91 million tonnes per annum, a captive coal-based power plant of 50 megawatts and a coke oven plant of 150,000 tonnes per annum.
The report also weighs against the limestone mining that was to take place in the adjacent 3,460ha of land. It says the mining will affect agriculture, particularly onion production (Mahuva taluka alone accounts for 6% of India’s output).
Farmers leading the protest have said that they would next litigate against the limestone mining if the state government does not revoke the licences.
Kanubhai Kalsaria, 57, a retired surgeon and former Bharatiya Janata Party legislator who has since turned independent, led the agitation against the project. He said the struggle was hard for the farmers because they had to fight not just the company, but the state government too.
“We spoke to the company for eight months. They told us: ‘Nothing will happen to your lands and farmers. We are willing to pay you Rs 50 crore, Rs 100 crore, whatever it is’,” Kalsaria said after the hearing.
Coastal Saurashtra is an ecologically fragile area with little supply of fresh water. It also faces a constant threat of salination from sea water flowing inland. Farmers in the region revived their once-salinated lands by getting the state government to construct check dams and bunds, known locally as bhandaras.
Also in favour of agriculture is the presence of limestone in the earth, which retains the little precipitation the region receives.
This is what had attracted Nirma to the site—the ample supply of raw material and water from the coast. The company sought the land on the basis of the state government having classified it as a “wasteland’” several years ago. However, since the bhandaras were built, the land has become fertile for agriculture.
The state government had in December 2009 asked Nirma to surrender 54ha. Later, the Gujarat high court asked it to surrender an additional 46ha. Not satisfied with the relief, the farmers approached the Supreme Court to get the cement plant relocated.
In an attempt to ascertain a clear factual position on the issue, the apex court appointed a panel of seven scientists who visited the area and submitted their report on behalf of the MoEF.
A senior state government official refused to comment on the issue stating that he was yet to take a close look at the MoEF report. Phone calls and emails sent to Nirma remained unanswered.
The region is home to about 60 species of birds, two of which are endangered—the white-backed vulture and the long-billed vulture. A 2010 forest department census found four Asiatic lions in and around the water body. A reserve forest is within 10km of the project site.
Maulik Pathak and Soumitra Trivedi in Ahmedabad contributed to this story.