WGEEP calls for cumulative impact analysis of various development activities there

The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) has called for a “careful cumulative impact analysis of various development activities” in the plains and coastal regions of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra. It has observed that the “entire region has been seriously impacted, both environmentally and socially, by a number of mining, power projects, and polluting industries.”

The Madhav Gadgil-led panel has accused the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) of “suppressing” the Zoning Atlases for Siting of Industries (ZASI), “apparently under unfair pressure.”

Incidentally, the Ministry had asked the panel to suggest an appropriate course of further development of mining, power production and polluting industries in the two districts.

For the Western Ghats regions of the districts, the panel prescribed “an indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zones 1 and 2 and phasing out of mining from ESZ 1 by 2016.”

It recommended the “continuation of existing mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 2 under strict regulation with an effective system of social audit” and said no “new red and orange category industries, including coal based power plants, should be permitted to be established in the two ESZs.”

The “current moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining, red and orange category polluting industries and power plants in the plains and coastal tracts of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts should be extended till satisfactory completion of such an analysis of the carrying capacity of these districts. The moratorium may then be reviewed in light of the findings of the study.”

The environmental degradation in the region had led to the “depletion and pollution of groundwater, siltation of water bodies, increased flood frequencies and loss of fertile agricultural land.” It has also resulted in the “depletion of fisheries, deforestation, loss of unique biodiversity elements, such as herbaceous plants of lateritic plateaus, air pollution, noise pollution, traffic congestion and accidents and increase in respiratory ailments,” says the report.

It termed the problems faced by the region as “not just legal, but substantial levels of illegal activities,”

The panel said, “pollution from many industries is also well above the legally permissible limits. Consequently, there is much social discord, especially because people firmly believe that the law and order machinery is being misused to protect illegal activities.”

The panel directed the MoEF to “ask the State Forest Departments to proactively assist the Tribal Welfare Departments in implementing the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act. The implementation of the Community Forest Resources provisions of this Act will greatly help create broad-based stakes for people in safeguarding the environment of the region.”

Release zoning report

The ZASI had “generated a spatial database for all the districts of the country, mapping the existing pollution levels and environmentally and socially sensitive areas, delineating zones where it would be undesirable to add further pollution loads, and suggesting locations where industries with different levels of potential air and water pollution impacts may be set up without undue environmental risks.”

However, the database “has not been released at all, and a copy was obtained by the WGEEP only after much effort. The MoEF must obviously expeditiously put all these documents in the public domain,” the panel said.

It observed that the Environment Impact Assessments conducted in the region “were particularly weak in the sections on biodiversity and socio-economic issues.”

The “process leaves out of consideration many pertinent issues. The inputs made available during the public hearings are often simply ignored, leading to high levels of social frustration and discord. In the absence of any transparent, participatory monitoring process, the conditions imposed while according environmental clearance are routinely violated.” It said, “No step has been taken to implement the Biological Diversity Act in Maharashtra, and the implementation has been unsatisfactory and restricted to the State level committee in Goa. The Biodiversity Management Committes must be immediately activated at all levels, before taking any further decisions.”