As Indian government’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has appealed to the Supreme Court to dissolve the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority stating that their work “is no longer necessary”, the ecologically sensitive Dahanu region faces an uncertain future full of developmental projects such as highways, freight corridors and even a seaport.

If the environment ministry’s plea is accepted then Dahanu in northwestern Maharashtra, which is about 140 kilometres away from Mumbai, stands to lose its over two-decade-old environment authority which, according to environmentalists, influenced and pushed for a sustainable path of development in the region.

Dahanu, a tribal taluka, became a part of the emerging environmentalism discourse in 1991, when it was declared an ecologically fragile region. The 1991 notification restricted the kinds of industries permitted and put a freeze to any change in land use. It also directed the Maharashtra government to prepare a master plan for the region keeping in mind the environmental concerns.

Dahanu is roughly 140 kilometres away from Mumbai.

Predominantly a rural region and known for its forest cover and scattered tribal communities, Dahanu’s landscape includes a pristine coastline, meandering estuaries and large areas under agriculture and horticulture. Famous for its chiku fruit, Dahanu’s horticultural economy also includes coconuts and mangoes to the surrounding areas. Besides the forest-dependent tribals, it is also home to a large fishing community living along its 35-kilometre long coastline.

In 1991, Dahanu was one among only three regions in India to be declared ecologically fragile. Nonetheless, not much attention was paid to the stringent requirements of the Notification and development continued unchecked. But the environmentalists took the battle to Supreme Court and subsequently Dahanu was granted a special authority – the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority, or DTEPA, in 1996 by a landmark order.

Turning point

Unlike many other authorities, the DTEPA headed by an indomitable Gandhian and Justice CS Dharmadhikari was no paper tiger. The authority not only opened up a new space for engagement and dialogue on environment and development but passed many landmark orders bringing corporates violating rules to book and even rejecting the construction of a large mega port.

Since its first meeting on May 6, 1997, the authority has held over 45 meetings over a span of 23 years, addressing diverse environmental and developmental issues such as the construction of a mega port, pollution control of a thermal power plant, seawater ingress on coastal communities, building of national highways, laying of high-transmission towers and gas pipelines, and preparation of a Regional and Development Plan for the Taluka.

“The Authority helped in pushing the callous local authorities to become accountable. We had space where complaints about issues from solid waste management to industrial pollution were heard and action was taken,” said Noshir Irani, a resident horticulturist.

However, in January 2019, Justice Dharmadhikari passed away, leaving the authority headless. Subsequently, the environment ministry has now made a case that the DTEPA is no longer needed to protect the eco-fragile zone.

Justice CS Dharmadhikari (right) who headed the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority at one of the authority’s meetings with Madhav Gadgil (left). Photo from DTEPA.

In its application, the environment ministry has claimed that post-1996 there have been revisions to several rules and regulations governing the environment and many statutory authorities set up to ensure that these are followed.

Providing a list of the revised legislations like the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2011 and 2019, revised Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006, the ministry listed out several statutory bodies responsible for the implementation of these rules.

Citing the State Coastal Zone Management Authority, Water Quality Assessment Authority, Aquaculture Authority, Central Ground Water Authority and the National Green Tribunal, the environment ministry contended that along with these statutory bodies they will establish a monitoring committee which will be able to do the job of the authority effectively. The ministry’s plea also emphasised that with the establishment of the NGT, the DTEPA has become “superfluous”.

Given that it is mandatory for all eco-sensitive areas to have a monitoring committee, the ministry stated this move will also create uniformity in the declared green zones of the country.

However, “the uniformity will come at a cost,” claimed Debi Goenka, an environmental activist and trustee of the Conservation Action Trust, who is also filing an affidavit in response to the MoEFCC’s application.

“In declared eco-sensitive zones like Matheran and Mahableshwar-Panchgani, the monitoring committees are feeble ineffective bodies unable to implement the notification. The truth is that the Dahanu authority is seen as a spoke in the wheel of industrialisation,” said Goenka.

During its meetings, the Dahanu authority supported by 11 expert members regularly invited members of concerned government departments, elected representatives, community and civil society groups, corporations and agencies interested in undertaking work or projects in Dahanu.

In 1998, the authority ruled against the setting up of a large mega port in the coastal town of Vadhavan stating that it was not part of the regional plan of Dahanu. Reliance Energy was made to shell out Rs 3 billion (Rs 300 crore) bank guarantee and install a flue gas de-sulphurisation plant in 2002 to reduce sulphur emissions from its coal-fired thermal power station in Dahanu on the orders of the authority.

Interestingly, this is the second attempt by the environment ministry to disband the Dahanu Authority. In 2002, the ministry had lost a case in Supreme Court when the latter passed an order directing for the continuation of the DTEPA.

The latest move by the environment ministry is interesting since it comes just ahead of the Maharashtra legislative assembly elections on October 21.

Dahanu’s landscape includes a 35-kilometre long coastline, meandering estuaries and large areas under agriculture and horticulture. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Waiting for go-ahead

In spirit, the 1991 Dahanu notification had a radically different vision for development. It laid out a framework for the protection and development of an eco-fragile area. It suggested a planned development, clearly stating the kind of industries (a long list of non-polluting green industries) that could be allowed. The notification also restricted a change in land use keeping in mind the dependence of the communities on the natural resource base for their livelihoods.

The Dahanu authority understood this.

Now, to protest against the environment ministry’s move, community-based organisations representing farmers, fisherfolk and tribal people have come forward protesting the move of the environment ministry to scrap the Dahanu authority.

President of the Vadhavan Bunder Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti Narayan Patil explained that “the scrapping of the Dahanu authority is a beginning of a process to remove many of the restrictions already in place”.

“We fear that the thermal power plant will expand and the Vadhavan port will be sanctioned, threatening land and livelihood of thousands of fisherfolk and farmers here,” said Patil.

A press statement, signed by eight environmental and grassroots organisations, expressed its fear of what the absence of authority might bring.

A fish market in Dahanu. Community-based organisations representing farmers, fisherfolk and tribal people fear that their livelihood will be threatened if the Dahanu authority is scrapped. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

“Already, the taluka despite its protection is losing land to many projects like the freight corridor, the bullet train between Mumbai, and Ahmedabad and the proposed port at Vadhwan which will affect the livelihoods of fisherfolk, farmers and the adivasis. Dahanu, which produces thousands of tonnes of fruits, vegetables, fish and fodder to supply to cities such as Mumbai, is affected by the fly ash pollution from the thermal power plant (recently acquired by Adani Electricity)… We have no faith in these various committees that the MOEF [environment ministry] has listed out especially the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority or the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board or the State Level Impact Assessment Authority, and we demand that the DTEPA which had the reputation of being a non-corrupt and fair body be continued. Instead, the Centre should appoint a new chairperson to head it and extend all cooperation,” said the statement.

Environmentalists stressed that bureaucracy over the last two decades has tried to dismantle it as they neither had the insight nor the capacity to implement the Dahanu notification in spirit.

“There has been a deliberate attempt to tarnish the Dahanu notification and the authority,” said Prabhakar Save, a horticulturist running Save Farm, an agro-tourism venture.

“This was done by the agencies at the ground, where permission for a simple flour mill, for example, was denied, leading to hostility amongst people against the very idea of environmental protection,” he said.

They point out that the government agencies conveniently denied permission for expansion of an individual’s house, setting up of engineering sheds or even green industries making the Dahanu notification an unfair tool to derail the fundamental right of people to carry out economic activity aimed at basic livelihood.

Industries, large and small, feel the end of the DTEPA would ease regulations for their businesses. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Industry is happy

Most of these issues did not reach the Dahanu authority given that they were individual in nature. However, the outcome of that has been a loss of faith amongst many in the very idea of an eco-fragile zone.

Satish Parekh, who is President of the Dahanu Industries Association with 52 members said that “most of the industries in Dahanu are small, with a capital of only Rs 1 or 2 million – such as the balloon factories, stainless steel cutlery, engineering workshops and synthetic resin units.”

“These could have pushed the economy sufficiently if given a chance. Instead, due to the Dahanu notification and the authority, we have suffered and areas like Boisar and Umbergaon have developed faster. It’s not only the small industrialists, ask any grain merchant, jeweller, cloth trader, ironsmith and even chiku farmer, they will also agree that the Dahanu authority needs to go,” said Parekh.

If 1996 was considered as the turning point in Dahanu’s environment history, 2019 is pivotal in determining the future of the region. It began in January with the loss of its Chairman Justice Dharadhikari and continues with a threat to the existence of the Dahanu authority. The case in the Supreme Court is scheduled to come up for hearing on November 27, 2019.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.