After rejecting a proposal last year, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests(MoEF) has recommended clearance of land for the controversial Kalu dam in Thane district, drawing sharp criticism from activists and tribals affected by the project. A letter on Thursday to Union Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, conveyed their “utter shock and dismay” at FAC’s decision earlier this month according a green signal to divert 999.328 hectares of forest land for Kalu Dam in Murbad taluka in the eco sensitive Western Ghats region.  

The FAC in its meeting on April 3 and 4, agreed to the justification by the Maharashtra government for the project but expressed concern over its “ ill-informed commitment”   earlier  that it will not take up other drinking water projects in the area when it was seeking forest clearance for another dam on Shai river nearby. The FAC noted that the chief minister had specifically requested for review of the earlier rejection.

Last April the FAC had rejected the clearance since construction had begun on non forest land without prior approval, it involved submergence of 18 villages and there were issues of connectivity, the dam was located within seven km of a protected area plus the fact that it is located in the eco sensitive zone of the Western Ghats. In addition, the project authorities had not provided resettlement plans, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), technical report on wildlife status,   or gram sabha resolutions on Forest rights Act(FRA) compliance, among other things. However, this time while recommending clearance, the FAC said of the 18 villages, only five were to be fully submerged, six partially and seven lose only land. Three bridges will be built to ensure connectivity and according to the minutes of the meeting, members said there was no need for an EIA since this was a drinking water supply project. In addition FAC accepted the state government’s  contention based on the Chitale committee’s report  that the Mumbai Metropolitan Region(MMR) would face a shortfall of 5985 million litres per day(MLD) by 2031 and Kalu dam was important since it would provide 1140 MLD.

The FAC said the recommendations of the High Level Working Group on the Western Ghats Panel Report  would be binding on the state government and the project authorities and all mitigation measures will have to be undertaken. Apart from penal compensatory afforestation, it also asked for a cumulative impact assessment of all drinking water projects in the region and flora and fauna studies area to be undertaken by the state government at the cost of the user agency and said that the mitigating measures would be binding.

The letter sent by Shramik Mukti Sanghatana, villagers of the affected dam from Murbad, South Asia Network on Dams Rivers and People points out that on April 4, 2013, the FAC went back on its decision and recommended forest clearance despite nothing changing on the ground and all of the objections based on which clearance was  rejected in the first place being valid.  The letter says the project proponent the Konkan Irrigation Development Corporation(KIDC) and the Maharashtra Water Resources Department  have not responded properly to any of the points raised earlier by the FAC, Chief Conservator of Forests (Central), State Forest Department, affected villagers or civil society organisations.

Condemning the forest clearance, the letter asks the minister not to give final approval  for the dam, ensure all the documents from the project proponent, including gram sabha resolutions for the project, must be on the FAC website at least ten days in advance as per Central Information Commission(CIC)’s orders and as also assured by the minister in public. The activists demanded action against those responsible for illegal construction of Kalu dam as noted by the FAC minutes last time.

None of the documents submitted by the project proponent were available in full with all the annexures on the MoEF website even a week before FAC meeting on April 3 and 4 and  FAC had ignored the letter sent in protest by various groups. The FAC seems to have relied on the project proponent’s claims and ignored the fact that construction on the dam had gone ahead without the forest clearance and other approvals, the activists contend.  

Now FAC observes that the dam site was 15 km away from the protected area and there was compliance on FRA from eight gram sabhas, which has been denied by local activists.  While KIDC claims it has gram sabha resolutions approving the dam from eight of the eleven villages that will be fully or partially submerged, Indavi Tulpule of Shramik Mukti Sanghatana that it is not true and all the villages have rejected the project and two deputy collectors were present in the gram sabhas when these resolutions were passed. A rehabilitation package of Rs 68.75 crore without any  specific plan was also rejected. Totally 18 villages with 18,000 people will be affected. There are pending individual and community claims over forest land so that forest land cannot be diverted, Ms Tulpule argued. “We have made so many representations to the central government, but nowhere have they considered what the people have said,” she ad