A mandate to protect

Meena Menon | Updated on September 17, 2019

Dahanu taluk needs its eco-regulation authority

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is going through an identity crisis. Instead of protecting what is left of the environment, it is focussed on speeding up clearances by diluting regulation and dismantling existing protective measures. A case in point is the move to scrap the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA).

Ever since the Dahanu taluk (in Palghar district, Maharashtra) was notified as ‘ecologically fragile’ in June 1991, there has been clamour by a section saying it’s against development. Despite the notification, a 500 MW thermal power plant was commissioned here in 1995, ignoring protests from the local people. With little regulation, other projects were planned.

It took a public interest petition filed by environmentalist and editor of Sanctuary magazine, Bittu Sehgal, in the Supreme Court to set matters right. The Court directed the National Environmental and Engineering Institute (NEERI) to prepare a report on the issues raised in the petition. The NEERI report became the basis for the apex court upholding no change in land use, and it ordered the Ministry to constitute the DTEPA in 1996 and confer on it all the powers necessary to protect Dahanu taluk, which is rich in agriculture, fishing and horticulture.

The authority was to be headed by a retired high court judge with experts from the hydrology, oceanography, terrestrial and aquatic ecology, environmental engineering, developmental and environmental planning and information technology fields. Since its inception, Justice (Retired) Chandrasekhar Dharmadhikari headed the DTEPA in an impartial manner, often under intense pressure. After he passed away in January 2019, the Ministry of Environment did not appoint a successor; the reason why became clear when it filed an application in the Supreme Court to scrap the DTEPA.

The Ministry contends that the DTEPA was superfluous as, after 1996, there were several competent authorities, notably the National Green Tribunal, to handle the issues in Dahanu taluk. Instead, it proposed a monitoring committee headed by “a person with proven managerial or administrative expertise and understanding of local issues”. The other members would include a representative of the Ministry of Environment, and the usual list of government appointees from various departments, with the district collector as member secretary — a far cry from the experts the Supreme Court had recommended.

If the DTEPA had become superfluous with the existence of other authorities, how does a monitoring committee with a timespan of three years not equally redundant? Going by past experience, little can be expected by way of strict regulation or enforcement from these authorities, which is why the apex court had ordered the Ministry to set up the DTEPA. Other eco-sensitive zones in Maharashtra, like Matheran, Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani are suffering for want of proper regulation. Despite the eco-fragile tag, Dahanu taluk has a number of projects for which land is being acquired, like the bullet train and the freight corridor. The Vadhwan port project, which the DTEPA had ruled against in 1998, has been revived.

Farmers, fisherfolk and Warli adivasis, already incensed by the land acquisition, are planning a protest shortly to voice their opposition against the scrapping of the DTEPA. Environmentalists and fisherfolk will challenge the Ministry’s application in the Supreme court before it comes up for hearing on September 11 (The case has now been adjourned till November 27). Rather than appoint a worthy successor to the late Justice Dharmadhikari, the Ministry seeks to scrap his legacy of firm environmental regulation altogether.

The writer is an independent journalist

Published on September 13, 2019

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