If the Adani group is allowed to continue its development projects in Kutch simply by ‘compensating’ for their ecological damage, the Centre will set a dangerous precedent that lets money power trump environmental regulations

The Adani Group may be fined Rs.200 crore for a series of environmental violations committed by their waterfront development, port and power plant projects in the Mundra taluka of Kutch district. The waterfront development project, which was the last to be granted environment clearance in 2009, is legally bound to satisfy 17 specific and 15 general conditions. In September 2012, just prior to the Gujarat State elections, the Central government set up a four member committee, headed by Sunita Narain, to look into the company’s violations. The committee assessed the extent of violations and their impacts. It also made several recommendations among which the penalty of Rs.200 crore stands out.

Committee findings

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) was well aware of the violations much before it decided to set up the committee; indeed it had even served the company a show-cause notice in December 2010 in response to complaints by local organisations. But the matter rested there. After being formed, the committee could not undertake field investigations till four months later. On October 23, 2012, the Government of Gujarat wrote to the MoEF that State functionaries expected to assist them were busy with State elections. Eventually, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came back to power and the committee was able to conduct field visits in January 2013 and draft its report, which was submitted to the MoEF in April 2013.

The committee concluded that there has been widespread destruction of creeks and mangroves. This is unsurprising considering that the company had been allowed to continue violations due to delayed action by the Ministry. The final observation of the committee was that there is “inconvertible evidence” related to non-compliance by the company. However, it opined that cancelling the clearance, as mandated by law, would benefit neither the environment nor the people. It therefore felt that it would not be “prudent” to halt or cease the operations of the company.

The committee’s wisdom notwithstanding, its plea for prudence negates an important clause found in almost all project clearance letters and are present in the Adani clearances too. This clause clearly states that violators’ clearances will be cancelled. If the committee’s view is upheld by the Ministry, this method of dealing with compulsive violations sets a dangerous precedent for regulation. It institutionalises fait accompli for all projects that violate environment clearance norms and thereby makes the existing clause in all clearance letters redundant.

One per cent of cost

The Narain committee recommends the setting up of an “Environment Restoration Fund,” where an amount of Rs.200 crore or one per cent of project cost is to be coughed up by the said violator. Whether this is just reparation for all the past violations and whether it would act as a deterrent for future violations by this or any other company is a moot question. But, just as importantly, we must wonder what this implies for the very idea of regulation.

The fine or the “restoration fund,” implying that it is a conservation benefit now, does not do justice to a host of other violations. For instance, while the fine will be used to underwrite conservation efforts by government agencies, there is nothing for fishing communities that have lost their livelihoods in the wake of the Adanis having captured their traditional coastal turf. This was conveyed to the government during the public hearing of the project in 2008. Coastal horticulturists and pastoral communities too have had to face severe hardships due to landscape level changes. A ground report of the violations authored by the Mundra Hitrakshak Manch and submitted to the committee in 2013 emphasises that impact is far beyond ecological destruction. Land productivity and fish catch has gone down significantly. Even if the fine slapped on the Adanis is paid to the State or Central government, where is the justice for the community’s suffering? Does not the government owe them anything.

While the committee was welcomed by most people, including many environment groups and those affected by Adani’s activities in Kutch, the government’s exercise does little by way of a regulatory response to routine environmental non-compliance, ecological damage and social impacts. It is not my brief here to speculate on why the committee was asked to investigate the actions of a particular company’s operations in Kutch.

Environmentally sensitive

While the Adanis were indeed the first to set up base in Mundra, there are at least two other large companies that have invested in reclaiming and redrawing the Mundra coastline, most of which is illegal, and is common knowledge both within the Ministry in Delhi as well as in Gujarat. Cases have been filed by locals, litigation is ongoing and numerous petitions and letters have been sent to regulatory agencies, the companies and their funders. A comprehensive terms of reference for this committee would have ensured that systemic problems of industrialising this coast were examined. It would have helped to show that Gujarat’s aggressive coastal development policy following the Bhuj earthquake on 2001, which is incidentally when Mr. Modi became the charioteer of the BJP in Gujarat, is costing the coastal dwellers very dearly. It would have also shown how delayed response from the regulatory system has made the Gujarat coast a lawless playground for several corporates. The Gujarat State level committees set up under the Central environmental laws such as the Coastal Zone Management Authority have suggested time and again that this area needs comprehensive protection. Various options have been discussed but there has been little coordinated follow-up and outcome-based effort between State and Central agencies to plan, protect and regulate sensitive ecosystems such as the Kutch coast. The coasts of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are not very different in this respect and are awaiting the Ministry’s action against non-compliance.

The MoEF is no doubt part of a political system and will be implicated in these Centre-State power tussles over environmental issues. But the Ministry should have focused on good regulatory practice to take action against non-compliance as per law. By choosing its targets, it invites the charge of being a mere instrument to be used whenever politically expedient. Environmental regulation has been whipped up by every party as the cause of economic slowdown, but we hardly have a regulatory process as the government does not store and analyse data on non-compliance, has no clear directions on how tackle it and no political will to penalise violators under existing laws.

(Manju Menon is the programme director of the Namati-CPR Environmental Justice Program.)

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