People from 70 villages staging a protest against Shai river project; work is yet to start

A quiet but firm agitation is under way for a month in a mango orchard at Belavli Sakharpada in Shahpur taluka, where people from the 70 villages affected by the Shai river project take turns to protest every day.

After an in-principle approval by the Centre, work on the dam, meant to supply drinking water to Thane and other areas, is yet to start. The authorities have enforced Section 144 of the Cr.PC and machinery lies idle, with a large posse of policemen on guard. With most of Mumbai's water supply coming from projects in Shahpur and nearby areas, there is already deep resentment.

“We don't want this dam,” said Venubai from Temburli Pashte village, who walked 9 km to join the protest. Prashant Sarkhot from Kambegaon village points out that 494.14 hectares of forest land will be submerged. “The forest clearance was obtained on fraudulent basis and no one knew anything about the project till construction was about to begin,” he says.

The dam falls in the scheduled area of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled areas) Act 1996, and requires a no objection certificate from gram sabhas for such projects. Seven resolutions have been passed in Shahpur and Murbad talukas of Thane district against this project. On July 18, 2011, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), which is funding the Shai and the Kalu projects, in a letter to the Konkan Irrigation Development Corporation (KIDC), the executing agency, said it was rethinking on the Shai dam since water from Kalu would be adequate till 2023 and also noted that in the case of Kalu necessary clearances had not been obtained. It said any increased costs could not be borne by the authority. The Kalu project's cost was initially estimated at Rs. 380 crore, which was later hiked to Rs. 421 crore.

The Chief Secretary, in an order of October 24, 2011, said work on these two dams should not proceed without proper land acquisition and forest permissions. In April the Forest Appraisal Committee (FAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests rejected clearance for the Kalu dam and earlier in March the Bombay High Court stayed work on the dam due to many violations.

In the remote tribal regions around Mumbai, dams are being built without proper environmental impact assessment (EIA), social impact assessments or forest clearances. Indavi Tulpule of the Shramik Mukti Sanghatana says that there is no clarity on the Shai dam and who is funding it and what exact purpose it will serve. In a site inspection report, J. K. Tewari, chief conservator of forests (Central), said the forest diversion in Kalu dam area was in the highly sensitive Western Ghats region and though so many dams were proposed in the region, no EIA or Environment Management Plan (EMP) was done. He said it was essential for a regional EIA for cumulative impact of all existing resources for any new project.

Ms. Tulpule says half the water from the Kalu dam in Murbad is meant for industrial use. In Vakalwadi village, three farmers have land next to a deeply dredged field, mud from which was used to build the Kalu dam, which is about 30 per cent complete. They will be unable to plant crops this monsoon, says Budaji Songad.

The work on the Kondhane dam in Karjat, Raigad district, was stopped after the Bombay High Court, on a public interest litigation petition, observed that if any of the legal permissions were not taken, the consequences would follow.

A senior KIDC official said that in the Kondhane dam on the Ulhas river, the cost had gone up because the water storage was supposed to be 20 million cubic metres (mcm). However, after pressure from local MLAs who wanted water for industries and the upcoming airport at Navi Mumbai, a decision was taken to increase the scope of the dam five times and raise it to 105 mcm. The two villages which will be displaced are clueless about the project. Around the large 20-foot high mountain of mud is a trail of devastation. Fields in villages have been dredged so deep that there are small pools, and only lanky trees and lamp-posts survive on precarious mounds. Uprooted trees lie on one side of the under- construction dam and the hills nearby have been excavated for mud.

Near the dam site at Kondhane, is the Archaeological Survey of India-protected Kondana caves and despite a stop work notice from the ASI and the Railways since the Pune-Mumbai railway line is near by, work continued on the dam, says Mihir Desai, advocate for the petitioners. Chandrakant Borde from Kondhane village says: “They didn't ask the farmers for permission to dredge soil and they said we would compensate later.”

In Dahanu taluka, also in Thane district, people are closing ranks on the Susari project, meant to supply drinking water for the Vasai Virar sub region. In Ranshet village, the contractor for the Susari dam is building his site office on land which was converted to non-agricultural (NA) use for a farm house. The government has permitted a 250 sq. metre farmhouse but what looks like a site camp is coming up under police protection.

People are demanding a water audit of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) to investigate if all these dams are needed to meet drinking water requirements of cities. Clearly, this uneven policy to supply water to cities and towns at a social cost needs to be revisited.