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Greed over green?

An expert panel on the Western Ghats constituted by the Central Ministry of Environment and Forests has slammed the state government for clamping down on civil liberties and failing to enforce environment laws, including pollution control, in the Konkan.

mumbai Updated: Dec 11, 2010 01:59 IST

An expert panel on the Western Ghats constituted by the Central Ministry of Environment and Forests has slammed the state government for clamping down on civil liberties and failing to enforce environment laws, including pollution control, in the Konkan.

The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, led by ecologist Madhav Gadgil, was asked to identify eco-sensitive areas in the ghats and areas where development should be regulated to protect the environment.

Gadgil toured two of Maharashtra’s 11 districts, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg, that are part of the ghats — considered a global biodiversity hot spot — from October 4 to 11. He said the environment was not being protected, the development carried out was not sustainable and locals’ civil rights were being trampled upon.

“Not only are people not active partners in development, their civil rights are being systematically suppressed,” said the report.

Gadgil said he was denied the opportunity to talk to people freely on one of the days as a district collector issued a notice prohibiting a public gathering of more than five people. Between 2007 and 2009, collectors have issued such notices on 191 days in a bid to stop protests against major projects, such as the one by Jindal in Jaigad, chemical industries at Lote in Chiplun and a nuclear power plant at Jaitapur.

“We have never ignored people’s opinions. The locals are keen on employment as agriculture no longer provides security,” said Industries Minister Narayan Rane, who is also Sindhudurg’s guardian minister.

The report is damning for the state government, which has been accused of turning a blind eye to protests by locals against various projects. The coastal districts of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg, declared as tourism and horticulture zones, are increasingly being promoted as Maharashtra’s power and mining hubs.

Pointing out that dissent is quashed, Gadgil said the sentiments expressed against projects — such as the one at Jaitapur — in public hearings are ignored.

The report also highlighted cases where people were kept in the dark about projects. For instance, the report said land was acquired in Ratnagiri for a coal-based power plant but locals were told it was for an eco tourism resort. Finolex changed the product it was to produce in its Ratnagiri plant from PVC pipes to resin, and then finally turned the project into a coal-based thermal power plant.

Last week, Jaitapur’s villagers courted arrest while opposing the nuclear power plant. A few days earlier, their leaders went into hiding, emerging only on the day of the protest since they feared arrest.

“The government doesn’t want people to exercise their rights. All constitutional rights of the villagers are being violated,” said BG Kolse-Patil, a retired judge of the Bombay High Court who spent four days in jail after the protest.

Kolse-Patil was served orders restraining him from entering Ratnagiri, and was also charged with damaging public property and rioting. “These charges are false. I will fight them in court,” he said.

In Sindhudurg, 25 villages have passed a resolution requesting that the area be declared ecologically sensitive so that development is eco-friendly and people-oriented, said Gadgil’s report. This rules out mega power and industrial projects, but allows food processing, enterprises based on local produce and biogas plants.