Activists oppose diversion of forest land citing continuing non-compliance of several requisites

The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is reconsidering its clearance for the controversial Kalu Dam in Thane district. About 999.328 hectares of forest land in the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats region is up for diversion for the drinking water project for Mumbai and Thane. Work on the project had been begun before all legal requirements were in place.

NGO Shramik Mukti Sanghatana, which filed a case in 2011 against Kalu Dam to be built in Kudshet village, Murbad taluka, had obtained a stay on the work. Eight villages will be fully submerged and ten partially, affecting a population of over 18,000. In the last hearing, SMS’ Indavi Tulpule said the MoEF told the Bombay High Court that the FAC would reconsider the proposal for diverting the forest land in its meeting on April 3 and 4.

However, Gayatri Singh, the NGO’s lawyer, told The Hindu on Saturday that the FAC could not reconsider a proposal it had earlier rejected, especially since no new facts had been brought to light. If the project proponents or the State government had additional facts they could go in for a review, but that was not the case here, she explained.

Ms. Singh said the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and other studies had not yet been done for the project. Expressing their outrage over the reconsideration of a file that was closed on April 2, 2012, activists wrote to FAC last week.

The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP), and Pune-based environmental NGO Kalpavriksh have objected to the FAC reconsidering a proposal that was rejected on the basis of a site inspection report by senior forest officials. The letter said forest clearance was rejected after several submissions and resolutions from project-affected groups, gram sabhas and civil society organisations, and a site inspection report of Central Zone Chief Conservator of Forests J.K. Tewari. In addition, the Maharashtra Forest Department said the project would need an EIA and had to be considered within the framework of the Western Ghat Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) report as the region falls in the Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ) 1 category.

The project documents are not on the website though the site inspection report by Mr. Tewari is online. The activists’ letter said that if the FAC had received any additional documents from the project proponent, they should have been uploaded on the FAC website at least ten days before the upcoming FAC meeting, in accordance with Central Information Commission orders and as promised by the Union Environment Minister. As on March 25, 2013 (the date of the letter), no documents are available on the FAC website.

In the forest land that is stands to be submerged by the project, individual and community rights have not been settled as per the Forest Rights Act (2006). Reconsidering the project in the absence of FRA compliance was illegal, the activists said.

The site inspection report had, last year, concluded that the project had “no respect for the laws of the land”. The inspection report said the Konkan Irrigation Development Corporation (KIDC) gave the work order to a contractor in May 2010, but the State government submitted the proposal to the MoEF only in August 2011. The FAC had said “it has taken note of the complaints received regarding this dam, and also that the State government hasn’t submitted any of the reports requested by the MoEF”.

In his recommendations at the time, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Maharashtra, had said that on scrutiny of the proposal, the extent of the forest area was quite large and the number of trees involved were as many as 148,229.

The PCCF had not recommended the project for approval and if at all it was decided to approve the project, then several conditions would have to be imposed on it — including submission of an EIA as the project area fell within the ecologically sensitive zone of the Western Ghats, and securing WGEEP approval.