DIVERSE groups of local residents and environmentalists are set to oppose the Union government’s application in the Supreme Court that has sought to dissolve the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority established in 1996 under the orders of the court to protect the ecologically fragile region.
Last month, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change told the court that while the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority was established in 1996, its functions could now be carried out by various other statutory authorities established since. While the DTEPA is headed by a retired justice of the high court, the MoEF said various new rules and regulations have been instituted in subsequent years regarding environment protection, with authorities such as the State Coastal Zone Management Authority, Water Quality Assessment Authority, Aquaculture Authority and Central Ground Water Authority etc regulating these. Instead of the DTEPA, a ‘monitoring committee’ with a fixed tenure of three years was suggested.
The Conservation Action Trust, led by environmental activist Debi Goenka will file an affidavit opposing the move in coming days. The Union government has repeatedly found the DTEPA to be inconvenient and not pliable, Goenka told The Indian Express, adding that the government had similarly sought to do away with the DTEPA in 2001-02, with the court directing in September 2002 that the authority should continue to function until further court orders. The DTEPA, which rejected the Rs 10,000-crore Vadhavan port proposal more than two decades ago in 1998, also recently opposed a move to exclude the proposed port area from the eco-sensitive zone.
Also set to file an affidavit demanding the continuance of the DTEPA is the Vadhavan Bunder Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti in Dahanu. “Tweaking laws in order to facilitate a project is not correct,” said the Sangharsh Samiti’s joint secretary Vaibhav Vaze, contending that the Union government’s move is in order to facilitate the expansion of the Dahanu thermal power plant and the proposed Vadhavan port, which will be a major port with the largest stake held by the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust.
Dahanu Taluka was notified as an ecologically fragile area through a notification in 1991, which imposed restrictions on industries under various categories. In 1994, environmentalist Bittu Sehgal filed a petition, following which the state government prepared a master plan for Dahanu in 1996. It was in reference to a National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) report on the management of ecologically fragile areas that the DTEPA was constituted under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
The DTEPA, which has been without a head since the demise of Justice C S Dharmadhikari in January, has in the past been lauded as a model of ecological governance as a court-appointed committee including expert members, giving hearings to all stakeholders in various matters, working independently, holding regular meetings, filing reports and even conducting afforestation efforts.
While one of the MoEF’s contentions is that the monitoring of all eco-sensitive zones should be uniform, Goenka says the functioning of the MoEF-appointed monitoring committees for Matheran and Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani, also eco-sensitive zones, leaves much to be desired. “These are headed by a retired bureaucrat and the district collector is member-secretary. The eco-sensitive zone notification is not being implemented there at all,” Goenka said.
The MoEF application says the Centre funds the DTEPA to the tune of Rs 50 lakh a year. Goenka said the MoEF has in fact repeatedly tried to sabotage the functioning of the DTEPA by not releasing funds in a timely way, and that the late Justice Dharmadhikari had to once dip into his savings to pay staff salaries. “The Conservation Action Trust has been pursuing the matter including that of funds and salaries for the DTEPA staff for several years in the Bombay High Court,” he said.
Vaze said fisherfolk and agriculturists in Dahanu have been opposing the possible expansion of the Dahanu Thermal Plant and the Vadhavan Port on account of the fly-ash from the plant and expected loss of livelihood. “We will file our affidavits in opposition to the move within the coming week,” he said.