UltraTech cement company proposed a new Limestone Mining project in Bhavnagar, Gujarat. This project threatens the livelihood of farmers and undermines the ecology of the 13 villages belonging to the subdistricts - Talaja and Mahuva
In March, 2021 the farmers of Mahuva and Talaja talukas of Bhavnagar defeated BJP’s candidates in Zilla Panchayat and Taluka Panchayat polls. This electoral win was achieved against all odds as the farmers continued to fight the legal battle to save their land that is leased out to Ultra Tech Cement Limited for mining. When asked about their big win, Bharat Bhil, a farmer who had contested the elections said, “It was important for us because the government had failed us and therefore, we decided that as farmers we need to be in a position where we can take decisions and this is a significant beginning.”
This new project proposed by the Ultra Tech Company called as the 'Limestone Mine' in Bhavnagar which covers 13 villages of the subdistricts of Talaja and Mahuva not only threatens the livelihoods of the farmers but also undermines the ecology of these villages. The company had acquired 1,714 hectares of land in the district of Bhavnagar between 1999 and 2001 for mining limestone, of which 1640 hectares of land (98%) was private agricultural land. It had received Environmental Clearance for mining in villages Talli and Bambhor of Talaja Taluka on January 5, 2017. Petitioners who are residents of these villages contend that the grant of EC was mechanical, without a meaningful public hearing, thus ignoring several vital aspects.
In the process of acquiring an EC the company declared that there was no wildlife corridor or biosphere reserve in 10km of the mining site and even the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report contained false information, misreported data and concealed facts. The letter from the Deputy Forest Officer in Bhavnagar (p. 241 of EIA Report) clearly states that “As per Ministry of Forest & Environment, Gujarat Government Notification WLP-1107-572-G1 Dated 18.05.2007 this area (the land in question) has been declared as Greater Gir, making the company’s declaration completely false. The area falls within underlist-1 as reserved for wild animals like leopard, lion, wolf, peacock and sea lion corridor.
As per the lion count in 2015, 37 lions were counted in Bhavnagar district of the total 523 in Gujarat i.e.,7% lion population resides in Bhavnagar, and these are the precise talukas where EC is given. The area is home to lions, leopards, and Mangroves which makes it an eco-sensitive zone. The mining and heavy traffic activity will endanger the protected animals and birds.
UltraTech has been given 3 different leases for limestone mining spread over these 13 villages. However, all the 13 villages are contiguous villages and the buffer zone of one lease area becomes the core zone of the other lease area, and vice versa. The separate EIAs and EPHs are a ploy to hide the entirety of the bio-diversity, endangered and protected wildlife as well as minimize (on paper) the tremendous loss of livelihoods and the irreversible damage to the numerous water bodies that the project will unleash. It is a ploy to ultimately mislead the Ministry and the public at large. Therefore, the farmers have demanded that the entire mining operation over these 13 villages be treated as one project, so that the magnitude of its devastation can be projected accurately.
Furthermore, if the acquired fertile agricultural land in the area is mined and polluted it will lead to disbursement of dust on fields and water bodies which could eventually lead to desertification and stunting of crops thus threatening the employment of farmers and those depended on agro industries in these districts. The company contended in its own half yearly report (Chap 2, point 2.4.4 pp 61) that the entire mining operation would provide employment to only around 30 people, plainly indicating that the Gujarat government does not care about the population of about 50,000 directly or indirectly depended on agriculture, who would fall into poverty after losing their livelihoods as a result of this project. How can employment for 30 become the core job sector defies my imagination. Does it justify destroying the livelihood of the remaining 49,970?
The company has also failed to adhere to the norms and has violated condition 6 of the EC which clearly instructs that “Transport of minerals shall be done either by dedicated road or it should be ensured that the trucks/dumpers carrying the mineral should not be allowed to pass through the villages.” The above condition has been brazenly defied. An inspection report of the Bhavnagar regional office of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) in July states that the company supplies limestone to the cement unit via dumper trucks through village roads and not through separately constructed road. During the grant of EC, the company was ordered to rehabilitate 147 families and provide house to each family as per the Resettlement Act, 2013. The affected people allege that Ultratech has so far not offered any rehabilitation or compensation. Despite several breaches the EC given to the company has not been cancelled. The government appears to be safeguarding the interests of the corporate house rather than that of the citizens.
The government is not only ignorant about the corporate house defying laws but is also brutally cracking down on the protesting farmers and residents. On January 2, 2019, the protest against the mining project in Mahuva Tehsil had turned violent after the 2,000 dissenting residents clashed with the police. This was the eight protest since December 26, 2018 when around 1,000 farmers in 11 villages of Talaja and Mahuva tehsils protested to force ultra tech cement to suspend its mining operations in their villages. A total of 92 farmers were initially slapped with charges of attempt to murder and arrested. Later the Bhavnagar police added 13 more names of those who were seriously injured and had to be hospitalised. The 92 farmers, including women, were jailed in Bhavnagar and Amreli for 12 days.
The farmers then approached the high court seeking action against the police for alleged custodial torture of agitators including women and children. The court reportedly transferred the case to the state Criminal Investigation Department after preliminary judicial inquiry findings pointed to police atrocity. The legal battle for saving their land continues after the NGT dismissed the plea filed by the petitioners challenging the its order on September 24,2020. In February 2021, the Supreme Court sought response from the Centre on the appeal that had challenged NGT’s order to dismiss a plea against grant of environmental clearance (EC) for the limestone mining project of UltraTech Cement.
The entire episode raises serious doubts about how a deaf ear and a blind eye is being turned by the government to the violation of EC conditions at the cost of ecosystem and the lives of people. The destruction that this Ultratech mining project is going to cause to the wildlife, environment, agriculture and the lives of people will be irreparable and therefore, immediate action must be taken by the concerned authorities to analyse and investigate the environmental hazards of this mining project and halt it. It is important to note that all this is happening at a time when the Indian government’s ministry of Environment has come out with an order in which the mining industry can avoid public hearing for projects which were granted environment clearance under the Environmental Impact Assessment notification 1994. This indicates how the centre is eager to dilute the public hearing process that is so vital to assessing the environmental impact of industrial projects.
It leads us to questions like is the government pro corporate and wants to make money over the lives of people and at the loss of biodiversity? Is environmental ministry an independent organisation, free from the influence of the bureaucracy and corporations?
~ The article is written by Naitri Derasari, volunteer at Yugma Network
~ Artwork by Chhavi Mathur, volunteer at Yugma Network