A stain that Nirma can’t wash away

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Brijesh Pandey tracks the state suppression of protest against a proposed cement plant in Gujarat.

Photographs by Vijay Pandey

Sanguine demand Villagers of Doliya in Mahuva district display their identity cards with their name and address on one side and thumb impression in blood on another: We’ll give up our blood, not water

NINETY-THREE YEARS after it was built, a group of Gandhian protesters gathered at the iconic Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. The date was February 25, 2010. In a development laden with irony, the police swooped down and whisked the protesters away in their vans. “Look at how the Gujarat government is treating us in the land of Mahatma Gandhi for non-violent and democratic protest,” lamented Chunnilal Vaidya, 92-year-old Gandhian. The rally, part of the Bandhara Bachao Samiti (Save Check-dams Movement), was called to protest the state government’s decision to hand over part of a water body to Nirma Industries to set up a cement plant.

But though replete with echoes of the Independence struggle, there is more to this issue than this specific catalyst for a people’s protest. After pulling out of Singur in West Bengal in the face of farmer protests, when Tata Motors chose to set up their Nano car factory in Sanand, Gujarat, the image of the state received a fillip as a favoured destination for industry. The whole process of acquiring land for factories, clearing the bottlenecks in a flash — no other state did what Gujarat claimed it could. Till the farmers of Mahuva, Bhavnagar district, erupted in anger. The story of procuring land for the cement plant, within the catchment area of a check-dam that had changed the whole agriculture scenario of the region, exposes another facet of this industrialisation — that of interests of farmers sacrificed at the altar of industry, and a blatant disregard for the ecology of the region.

Gujarat has a coastline of 1,600 km. Of this, Saurashtra alone has 765 km. Due to the use of river and ground water for irrigation, rising salinity is the biggest problem in the region, affecting potable water and agriculture. More than 10 lakh people in 534 villages were seriously affected by this problem. To tackle rising salinity, in 1980, the state government set up a dedicated unit called the Salinity Ingress Prevention Cell (SIPC) under the irrigation department, in collaboration with the World Bank and the Aga Khan Foundation.

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HOW THE PROTESTS TOOK SHAPE

1980
State forms advisory panel to check alarming increase in salinity from seawater flowing into coastal Saurashtra

2000
Samdhiyala check-dam is built. It turns out to be a success in controlling salinity, creating a reservoir of sweet water

2003
Nirma promises to build a cement plant in Bhavnagar district during the Vibrant Gujarat summit

2009
Four ministers close to Modi overrule a technical panel’s opinion to allow setting up of Nirma’s plant

2010
Police mercilessly attack a non-violent protest rally by villagers, badly wounding women and children

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As per the recommendations of two separate high-level committees, the Salinity Control Division, Bhavnagar, constructed check-dams which store sweet water at the mouths of rivers. They provide drinking water for livestock and water for irrigation and, most importantly, stop ground water from turning saline. Between 1998 and 2002, the government transferred land to the SIPC, which constructed three check-dams. Work on a fourth check-dam is to be completed this year. In a welcome tale of development-done- right, the check-dams led to a revival of agriculture in the region. Where once farmers could barely raise one crop a year, they can now raise three.

Gujarat is the landof  Gandhi, but the way farmers are treated here will put even a dictatorship to shame

During the government-sponsored Vibrant Gujarat industrial promotion summit in 2003, Nirma Industries proposed two projects in Bhavnagar district: a 250 MW power project, and a 1 million metric tonnes per annum cement project. Nirma wrote to the collector of Bhavnagar asking for 268 hectares of land for their cement plant in the Mahuva taluka (division) of Bhavnagar area. It was these 268 hectares which prompted the protest. Official documents accessed by TEHELKA reveal that despite knowing that almost 100 hectares of the land demanded by Nirma was part of the Samdhiyala checkdam, the government cleared the project. Ironically, out of 268 hectares of land that Nirma had requested, 222 had been transferred to the SIPC in the 1980s to build check-dams, which were bearing results.

When the salinity control division objected to the construction of the cement plant in the catchment area, saying that it would restrict the natural flow of rainwater to the check-dam, Nirma demurred. On April 22, 2004, the Vice President of Nirma, VN Desai, wrote to the Bhavnagar Salinity Control Division, saying that it had contracted “Ahmedabad-based consultants SMPS to offer [a] technical solution”. The SMPS’ technical report is startling, for it reveals how the consultants appointed by Nirma themselves believe the cement plant might affect the catchment area of the Samdhiyala check-dam.

Nirma Replies
‘We appreciate your enquiries to speak to The Management of Nirma on the new plant stir, but as the management has already presented their case to the court, they have nothing else to say. We will get back to you if there are any updates’

The report said: “Part of the land requested for the cement plant is overlapping with rainwater collection as a result of the Samadhiyala check-dam. If we get the land, we will deepen the existing sweet water reservoir for greater storage capacity…” Thus, the check-dam had achieved several benefits, including the control of salinity ingress, the harnessing and storage of rainwater — affording potable water to nearby villages and creating potential of irrigating a large area of land. To assess the possibility of re-acquisition of this land by the government so that it could be handed over to Nirma, the collector of Bhavanagar has asked the Executive Engineer (EE), Salinity Control Division, Bhavnagar to examine the possibility of the co-existence of the Nirma cement plant and the Samadhiyala checkdam without disturbing the benefits and storage capacity of the check-dam.

In reply, the EE wrote back that about 100 hectares of land that overlapped with that of the check-dam gets filled to the highest water level during monsoons, when the whole area is submerged under water. Despite this finding, in meetings with the collector on March 23, 2004, with the resident commissioner on April 13 and, further, on April 15 in the presence of Nirma officials, the government expressed their determination to find a technical way so that both the cement plant and the check-dam could coexist.

But it was not just water levels in the monsoon that the government attempted to leapfrog. In 2002, the High Court, in Sailesh Shah vs State of Gujarat, ordered the government to “protect, maintain and preserve all the waterbodies in the state” and stated that they would not be “alienated or transferred or put to any use other than as waterbodies.” In a brazen display of legal blindness, Advocate General Kamal Trivedi stated in 2007: “The revenue records of Pandhiyarka, Dodia and Vagar do not show any check-dam; the land is shown as pasture or government land. … [Thus} there can be no objection for its transfer to Nirma”.

When I took part in an anti-Nirma rally, I was beaten up mercilessly by the police. I fainted on the spot. I was lucky to survive
Rani Ben, Doliya village

On the basis of this blithe evasion, the land transfer was expedited. But this infuriated civil society. Gandhian and foun der of Gujarat Lok Samiti, Chunnilal Vaidya states, “The conduct of the Attorney General is immoral and unethical.” In a letter to the Governor and the Chief Justice of Gujarat High Court, Vaidya points out the anomaly of the Advocate General Trivedi appearing for the Government of Gujarat, while Trivedi & Gupta — a firm started by Trivedi, in which his wife is a partner — appears for Nirma. Despite being ordered by the High Court in 2002 to notify all water bodies in the state within three months, they did nothing for eight years. And now, on the basis of the old revenue records, Trivedi is giving the advice that since no notification has taken place, it can’t be called a water body and, irrespective of the actual presence of water, would continue to be [termed] a wasteland. Despite repeated attempts, the Advocate General could not be reached for comment. Nirma, too, refused to comment.

IN 2008, the government instituted a“jan sunvai” (public consultation) on the project. “Even I, the MLA of the area was not called to put forward the people’s views,” says Mahuva MLA Kanubhai Kalsaria of the BJP. “The meeting was not publicised and the few villagers who came to know about it were threatened with dire consequences if they spoke up there,” adds Kalsaria. Little surprise then, that the residents of 15 villages of Mahuva taluka took to the streets in protest. They formedMahuva Bandhara Khetivadi Pariyavaran Bachav Samiti (Mahuva Check-dam, Agriculture and Environment Protection Committee) and filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court.

In the face of these protests, Nirma offered to give back 54 hectares of the check-dam. Meanwhile, the government formed the Shelat Committee to assess the situation. Headed by the Advisor to the CM, the committee stated on August 20, 2009 that, “farmers will not have any benefit… because it is bounded on three sides by the plant and the mining lease area of Nirma. This area will be useful only to Nirma and nobody else”. The Shelat Committee also recommended that Nirma follow alternatives such as those suggested by the National Council for Cement and Building Materials (NCCBM) — that Nirma give up 100 hectares covered by the check-dam and build its cement plant on the remaining 168 hectares. Nirma rejected this advice.

 

During a protest rally, the police beat me so brutally that I was not able to walk for four days. Even now it is difficult for me to walk
Sothi Ben, Padiyarka village

Only briefly, fazed by the hurdle thrown up by the Shelat Committee, the Gujarat Government appointed a subcommittee of four ministers, which promptly bypassed the earlier report and accepted Nirma’s offer of giving back 54 hectares of to the check-dam. When TEHELKA spoke to Nitinbhai Patel, Water Resource Minister and a member of the sub-committee, he refused to comment, saying the matter was sub-judice.

But important though it is, there is even more to this story than one checkdam. As Saurashtra’s coast is rich in limestone — the entire area lies on limestone bedrock — it is little coincidence that the Nirma plant is the first of six mega cement factories planned in the area. The reason? Top quality limestone is one of the prime ingredients of cement. For tens of millennia, the limestone bedrock of Saurashtra has acted as a natural barrier against encroaching sea water. The Gujarat government recently petitioned the Ministry of Environment and Forests to lift the prohibition on mining within the sacrosanct Coastal Regulatory Zone for “special cases” — linguistic acrobatics for the greater good of vested interests.

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‘Industrialists Have More Influence Over Modi Regime’

BJP MLA Kanubhai Kalsaria speaks to TEHELKA on why he has taken on his own party

You are a third-time BJP MLA from Mahuva and yet you have chosen to take on your own party against Nirma. Why?
The policy of the party is pro-industrialisation. I am not against it. If industry is set up on genuine wasteland then it’s fine. But here it is just the opposite. Initially I thought that I would be able to convince them — but I was wrong.

Unidentified people attacked you. Your party is neither listening to you nor allowing you to speak in the state Assembly. Why?
I don’t know how the Gujarat government is able to inflict such injustice on its farmers. I told Chief Minister Narendra Modi that I am ready to quit, but Nirma has to go. He just kept quiet.

Do you think industrial houses have a big influence over the Modi government?
Of course, they have a lot of say in the government. This project will make five people crorepatis but will decimate 5,000 families of farmers. Are we ready for this kind of development?

Why is the Modi government so ruthless when it comes to dealing with protests?
I am not able to understand why Modi has such a strict attitude. If what we are saying is true, then why is it not being accepted?

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