Residents of a clutch of villages in Dahanu taluka, where the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) is seeking to build a water purification plant on a patch of forest land, on Monday petitioned the Palghar collector opposing the agency’s attempt to begin cutting trees on the land without the mandatory permission of the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA).
The DTEPA was constituted in 1996 under the Environment (Protection) Act, five years after the region was notified as an ecologically fragile zone. While the court-appointed DTEPA, headed by a retired high court judge, has established itself as a model for independent ecological governance through stakeholder dialogue, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change told the Supreme Court in September 2019 that its functions could now be carried out by various other statutory authorities established since. The apex court has not ordered the dissolution of the DTEPA as sought by the MoEFF & CC. The DTEPA continues to function, although it has been without a head since the demise of Justice C S Dharmadhikari in January 2019.
When protests against the MMRDA’s project began a couple of years ago, the agency did not have MoEF permission, which was granted in September 2019. Sources said the MMRDA submitted its project to the DTEPA in 2018 for assessment, but no permission was granted. Meanwhile, a resident villagers’ group called the Surya Pani Bachao Sangharsh Samiti submitted to the DTEPA its opposition to the project, which is also pending.
On Monday, their letter to the collector said the MMRDA is attempting to begin work on constructing the water purification plant without the permission of the DTEPA, and also without the permission from the Veti Gram Sabha, required as the plot of land falls within land granted to the Veti village as Community Forest Rights. The Veti-Varoti group gram panchayat has also not given permissions.
Prakash Hadal, chairperson of Veti village’s Forest Rights Committee, said residents gathered on Friday to stall the MMRDA team that wanted to start tree-cutting and demolition of structures built to house dam site staff. “We will not allow this illegal cutting of trees. We’re already being harassed by the Forest department when we sow our paddy crop on land granted to us under the Forest Rights Act, now they’re also taking away our Community Forest Rights land,” said Hadal. “We will be left with nothing.”
Palghar District Collector Kailash Shinde said he received the villagers’ letter and will seek a report from the MMRDA. “Permission to cut the trees is given by the Forest department, any police protection the MMRDA needs is directly sought from the Superintendent of Police. The district administration’s role here is to see if there is a law and order problem, and since the villagers are saying they have some concerns, I will call for the details from the MMRDA,” he told The Indian Express.
The Veti-Varoti gram panchayat is one of at least 50 villages in the Palghar and Dahanu talukas of Palghar district that have opposed the MMRDA’s project. The purification plant is for the MMRDA’s Surya Regional Water Supply Scheme which seeks to draw water from the Dhamni dam and the Kawdas pick-up weir across the Surya river. The project will supply 403 MLD (million litres a day) of water to the rapidly growing Vasai-Virar and Mira-Bhayander townships, located about 80 km from Kawdas, while the predominantly tribal local residents say the dam, built originally for tribal farmland with funds from the Tribal Sub-Plan, has failed to meet its original objective of irrigating 14,696 hectares of their farms.
Activist Brian Lobo of the Kashtakari Sanghatana said villagers are apprehensive that though the MMRDA team left on Friday following the villagers’ peaceful protest, they may return soon. “In early November 2019, the MMRDA tried to start cutting the trees on the 16-hectare plot for the water purification plant. Later, the Kashtakari Sanghatana organised a morcha to Kasa police station in December 2019. We have submitted letters explaining why the DTEPA’s permission is mandatory even though the MMRDA claims it is not,” he said.
The Veti-Varoti group gram panchayat comprises 12 hamlets, with a 95 per cent tribal population. With the Dhamni dam’s canals and other user-end infrastructure incomplete, the villagers here are unable to cultivate a second or third crop in the year, many of them migrating to Mumbai and its satellite towns for work in the non-farm season. While its irrigation promise was never met, the dam’s waters have been diverted for non-agriculture purposes in the past decade, though villagers have said this “surplus water” is an artificial concept created on account of their inability to use the water for irrigation owing to incomplete canal work and other issues.
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