High Court issues notice to SAIL joint venture questioning environmental clearances for Bhilai plant

A silhouette of upright silos and inclined conveyor belts has arisen amongst the tall chimneys that dot the skyline of this industrial township built around the Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) in Chhattisgarh. The new structure is a cement grinding unit, and the subject of vociferous protests from a section of Bhilai residents and public representatives.

On Friday, the Chhattisgarh High Court at Bilaspur heard a public interest litigation (PIL) alleging that the cement plant was built on land set aside for a ‘greenbelt’, or tree plantation, and that the State government fraudulently regularised an illegal structure. The court has issued notices to the State secretary of housing and environment, the central Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) amongst others.

Since it was set up in 1959 the BSP is one of SAIL’s most profitable plants, producing less than a quarter of SAIL’s annual steel output, yet generating nearly 40% of SAIL’s total revenue and about 50% of pretax profits. BSP owns 22,000 acres of freehold land in and around Bhilai, and runs its own township complete with hospitals, dispensaries, schools, shops and sanitation services.

However, district residents and officials claim that the plant often operates in an unaccountable vacuum and that this new cement unit is symptomatic of BSP’s disregard for those living outside its planned township. BSP officials said they strive to strike a balance between the needs of residents and the company’s operations.

In 2007, SAIL and the Jaypee group set up Bhilai Jaypee Cement Ltd (BJCL) to recycle the industrial slag, produced by BSP, into cement. Slag is a toxic byproduct of the iron-ore smelting process and is used to make cement because of its high silicon content. The new cement plant, of which SAIL would own 26%, was sited on BSP land and would manufacture 2.2 million tonnes of cement every year.

But the land set aside the project was intended for a greenbelt. In May 2010, the Municipal Commissioner of Bhilai sent a notice to BJCL, noting that the company was “very well aware that the …land are ear-marked for plantation in a master plan of Bhilai [1991] and you have no rights to construct any building.[sic].” The letter, accessed by The Hindu, referred to a prior letter, written by the Joint Director Town and Country Planning in November 2009, in which the company was instructed to remove all buildings and restore the land to its original condition. In September 2009 the municipal corporation had informed BJCL that the company hadn’t actually applied for permission to construct a high-rise structure.

In January 2010, a High Rise Committee, constituted to grant permissions to tall structures, refused to consider BJCL’s application as long as the land occupied by the cement plant continued to be classified as a green belt. Government departments and residents also objected to the installation of high-tension electricity cables over residential areas, the digging of ditches to prop up electricity pylons, and to the fact that cables passed over a school building in one instance and a petrol pump in another.

The PIL in the High Court also accuses the company of taking unfair advantage of a provision in the 2006 Environmental Impact Assessment Notification to apply for B2 clearance for the project, which means that the company neither held a public hearing to discuss the project, nor submitted an environmental management plan to mitigate the impact of the cement plant on its surroundings.

The 2006 rules differentiate between cement manufacturing units, which make an intermediate called clinker, and cement grinding units, where clinker, slag and gypsum are ground to make cement. Manufacturing units producing more than 1 million tonnes of cement per year must obtain ‘A’ clearances, conduct public hearings, and provide environmental assessments and mitigation plans; cement grinding units are seen as expansions to existing projects and can apply for ‘B’ clearances.

The BJCL plant manufactures 2.2 million tonnes of cement per year, but company officials insist that the plant is a stand alone grinding unit that sources its clinker from elsewhere. The petition in court argues that the plant should be considered a separate manufacturing unit as it is neither part of an existing project nor of the modernization or expansion of BSP.

BSP officials maintained that the land was never part of the greenbelt and was meant for industrial purposes. “The land lies within the boundary of our plant, was always industrial land and was used to dump slag,” said Pankaj Gautam, Chief Executive Officer of the Bhilai Steel Plant. On the matter of pending clearances, Mr. Gautam said the company initially did not seek permits from the municipal corporation as the project was built on industrial land within the plant’s boundary walls, but applied for permission on receiving notices.

“Earlier, the municipal corporation approached BSP to allow us to use the same plot to dump waste, but BSP refused, saying the land was a greenbelt,” said Riti Deshlehra, former municipal councilor of Risali, a ward abutting the BSP plant. Ms. Deshlehra said that BSP itself had approached the Town and Country Planning Department to modify another ‘greenbelt’ in 2008, but the application was rejected. “Then they went ahead and made a cement plant on a greenbelt,” Ms. Deshlehra said, adding that she anticipated that dust from the plant would pose a health hazard for residents.

In February 2011, the Chhattisgarh Department of Housing and Environment decreed that green belt occupied by BJCL’s cement plant would henceforth be considered industrial land, thereby regularizing BJCL’s alleged violations.

In a note sheet, in Hindi, the change in land-use was justified on the grounds that the establishment of a cement plant was “an urgent public purpose” as the plant would assist the “meaningful disposal of slag”, the grinding unit would provide employment and the cement thus produced would be used for public works across the country. While it proved hard to identify the public works built by BJCL’s cement, the company website states that the plant shall provide 191 jobs.

In a memo, reference no: F 7-24/2010/32, Principal Secretary for Housing and Environment, N. Baijendra Kumar dismissed a majority of objections to the change in land-use as the objections were on environmental grounds, and the cement plant already had environmental clearance. Objections to the unauthorized construction of the plant were dismissed as that they lay outside the purview of the notification under consideration.

BSP officials told this correspondent that the plant had now obtained all necessary clearances and was currently operational.