More Trouble for Lafarge

Lafarge’s plan to set up a Rs 900-crore cement plant in Himachal has run into environmental trouble with the National Environmental Appellate Authority quashing the clearance granted to the project by environment ministry in June 2009. More here. The curious thing is this. The NEAA order quashing the clearance said Lafarge erroneously represented the mining area as ‘uncultivable’. which is the same charge against the company’s limestone mining operations in meghalaya.


My first book review in Seminar!!!! Yay!!!!

the september issue of seminar (issue #613, titled ‘nature without borders’) has this book review by me.


INDIA’S NOTIFIED ECOLOGICALLY SENSITIVE AREAS (ESAs): The Story So Far by Meenakshi Kapoor, Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon. Kalpavriksh and WWF-India, Delhi, 2009.

THE draft National Environmental Tribunal Bill prepared in 2008 sought to dissolve all authorities set up under Section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, including all Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) authorities/committees, whose powers were sought to be transferred to the State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities – a suggestion that led the authors to study India’s experience with ESAs. How are they created? How are they different from India’s other legal provisions for wildlife conservation and habitat protection? What are the results like? The ESAs stand revealed as a concept with frightfully poor implementation till date, but with a lot of unrealized potential.

The ESAs can be traced back to Section 3(2)(v) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, which empowers the central government to take all measures it deems necessary to protect and improve the quality of the environment and prevent environmental pollution. It allows, the authors say, ‘for the restriction of areas in which certain developmental activities can be prohibited.’ Further, Section 5(1) of the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986, lists criteria like topographic and climatic features of an area, its biological diversity, environmentally compatible land use, extensive cultivation, proximity to protected areas, etc, which can be considered while prohibiting or restricting certain operations. In the process, the focus of an ESA has evolved to be one of restricting industrial and developmental processes which have negative impacts on the environment.

That is the background. So, how has the concept fared? Not too well. For one, 20 years after Murud-Janjira, a small coastal village in Maharashtra’s Raigad district became India’s first ESA, the country has just eight ESAs in all. Apart from Murud-Janjira, there is Doon Valley, Dahanu taluka, parts of the Aravallis range in Haryana and Rajasthan, Numaligarh in Assam, the Taj Trapezium, Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani, and Matheran. The applications of other areas like Mount Abu and Sultanpur are pending.

This is strange. Where are the Andamans, the Lakshadweeps, other swathes of the Western Ghats and the North East? The low number of ESAs is all the more surprising when one realizes that they can be created in myriad ways. In three ESAs, the notification was the result of local opposition to a specific development project. In the other five, developmental activities which had been going on for a long while had abruptly gathered pace and were seen as threatening the region in question. Further, while Mahabaleshwar, Matheran, Aravallis, Doon Valley, Mount Abu and the Taj Trapezium came about due to court orders, Murud-Janjira, Dahanu and Numaligarh came about due to engagement with politicians. This diversity in notification raises a question on why there are so few ESAs in this country.

Further, even the existing ones are not doing well. Take the Doon Valley. While quarrying, the reason why Doon was declared an ESA, has been stopped, implementation of the notification has taken a back seat once Dehradun became the capital of Uttarakhand. Illegal construction is rampant. In Dahanu, locals are upset about the lack of developmental activity. As the book says, ‘The local elected representatives and their supporters were of the opinion that because of the Dahanu ESA notification, the taluka was not able to develop. They wanted the notification to be withdrawn or reviewed to facilitate developmental activities.’ In Mahabaleshwar and Matheran, locals similarly oppose their hill stations’ ESA status. Then, illegal mining continues in the Aravallis. Industry continues to set up shop in Murud-Janjira. In Numaligarh, new applications for industrial work continue to come in.

For all that, the ESAs come across as a concept with unrealized potential. As the authors say, the current system of conservation is dominated by the Protected Area Network. Not only are they limited in size, these are also areas where all human activity is prohibited. ESAs, on the other hand, are relevant to larger landscapes that experience multiple uses by different users. As the authors point out, Section 3(3) of the EPA has been designed to restrict industrial activity for the conservation of any kind of ecosystem – be it coasts (Murud-Janjira, Dahanu), forests (Aravallis, Numaligarh), plains (Taj Trapezium), hill stations (Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani, Matheran, Mount Abu, Doon Valley) or islands. It can also be used to conserve agro-biodiversity landscapes or areas where wild and agro-biodiversity form a contiguous stretch.

This creates intriguing possibilities. Not only can ESAs be used as an extra layer of protection around the protected areas, they can, as in the case of Numaligarh and Dahanu, help a region offset the environmental impacts of large projects coming up nearby. They can also help plan land use in most of the country, and help ensure large parts of India stay relatively environmentally intact.

For that to happen, of course, the MoEF will have to play a more proactive role – so far it has been little more than a respondent to requests from conservation groups, say the authors. They also suggest the criteria for declaring ESAs, currently based only on ecological sensitivity, be expanded to include what they call environment sensitivity. ‘Many of the areas that need protection from further environmental damage have no explicit environmental value like the presence of near-threatened or endemic species. Environmental sensitivity is a much broader term and encompasses more factors based on anthropogenic activities as compared to ecological sensitivity.’

The biggest quandary, however, seems to be around local support. As pointed out earlier, the ESAs enjoy little local support. By their very nature, ESAs will affect local livelihoods unless alternative (and more sustainable) avenues of development are delivered. Fix that, and a more benign model of development might yet fall into place.

A thought exercise on what near universal food security has meant for Chhattisgarh…

The proposed National Food Security Bill could change rural India even more profoundly than the National Rural Employment Guarentee Act has.

The Bill is expected to push India’s grain procurement up from the current 45 million tons to 80 million tons. It will also, depending on the approach the National Advisory Council recommends, provide 35 kg of grain at Rs 3 per kg to 14.4 crore households or 17.7 crore households. The remaining households will get 25 kg of grain at a price between Rs 5 to Rs 7.50 per kg.

These are large interventions. And so, how will they affect rural India? The greater emphasis on paddy procurement might make it a more attractive crop for farmers. Or, figuring they can always get their quota of grain for household consumption from the PDS, farmers might switch to other crops. Then, the promise of food security should diminish the fear of hunger that sits at the heart of the poor’s livelihood strategies.

In the second half of August, ET carried out a little thought exercise. Chhattisgarh has been running a near-universal food security programme for four years now. It buys almost all the paddy its farmers sell, and uses that to provide 35 kilos of grain (Rs 1 for Antyodaya families, Rs 2 for BPL families) to 36 lakh of its total 44 lakh households. And the village-level fallouts of this scheme, called the Mukhya Mantri Khadya Suraksha Yojana, have been intriguing.

The scheme, ET found during a field trip, has accelerated several ongoing trends — a move amongst farmers towards commercial farming of paddy, a change in relations between farmers and labourers in favour of the latter, a reduction in starvation deaths. On a larger scale, the government’s procurement drive has marginalised mandis. Then, the scheme is a glutton, consuming most of the government’s time and welfare budgets.

Read the complete story here.

The big question is whether similar changes could play out across the country once the Food Security BIll becomes legal reality. NAC member NC Saxena says, “A huge state subsidy keeps the Chhattisgarh programme running. It is not clear if states like UP and Bihar can afford it.” He also questions whether other states can use, as Chhattisgarh has, panchayats to run PDS stores, or if they have the political and administrative will.

Apart from that, one reason why Chhattisgarh is seeing these changes because it touches its villages through both paddy procurement and the subsidised rice scheme. It’s not clear whether the Food Security Bill will result in India broadening the number of states where from she procures her paddy and wheat. Today, just five states (Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh) together account for 80% of the total procurement. And there are many states, including big states like Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra, where procurement operations are nearly zero.

And yet, I wonder if these changes will indeed play out, albeit to varying degrees, across the country. One set of changes where we get PDS plus procurement. Another set of changes where only PDS component of the programme is implemented.

Either way, so far, much of the debate about the Food Security Bill has centred around the quantum of grains to be provided. And on whether the programme should be targeted or universal. These other issues, of village-level impact, etc, also need to be considered.