Flashpoint in Dahanu
Drop in agricultural yield, degradation of the environment, declining air quality ... Dahanu is no longer a green paradise. MEENA MENON surveys the reasons for this downtrend.
... acres of farmland at stake.
DR. BEHRAMSHAH MAZDA and his son, Farzan, residents of Dahanu, are fond of driving at night. "On one occasion in February, suddenly I could not see and there was fog on my windscreen. I got out and wiped the screen with my towel; it was black. There was a burnt smell."
Dr. Mazda, who has been practising in Dahanu for 20 years, says," In the last few years, I noticed that 80 per cent of my clients suffered from skin disorders, recurring sore throats, and respiratory illnesses. Children are the worst affected. I don't see any reason for this to happen other than the thermal power plant."
Dahanu, 120 km from Mumbai, known for its horticulture and fisheries, has a long history of battles to keep itself green. Initial opposition to the proposed coal-fired thermal power plant led to the Taluka, part of Thane district, being notified as ecologically fragile on June 20, 1991. The power plant, then operated by Bombay Suburban Electric Supply (BSES), was granted environmental clearance in 1989, but industries are severely restricted by the Dahanu notification. In 2003, the Reliance group took over BSES now renamed Reliance Energy.
"On a clear winter night, sometimes you can see dense fog around the plant. The tall chimney stack is obscured by clouds of smoke," Dr. Mazda says. His night watchman woke him once and showed him black dewdrops on his 38-acre farm.
Sorab Mubaraki, another farmer who owns 52 acres, says, "I was walking in the morning and I couldn't see clearly ahead. The fog also hid the Mahalaxmi pinnacle a landmark with a famous temple about 20 km from Dahanu. Instead of Chikoo, I am now growing aloe vera on half my farm, but if you wipe the thick leaves, there is a fine white dust."
Vivek Kore, a farmer who grows mogra on 20 acres, had a shock last winter, when he found his plants did not flower after pruning.
Noshir Irani, Taluka vice- president of the Congress (I), said in Vangaon, farmers growing capsicum found ash and a black residue on their greenhouse netting, which they had to wash every three or four days. "Today, the farmers have lost confidence in their ability to grow crops," says Prabhakar Save, who has a 33- acre farm.
The farmers allege that shutting off the thermal power plant's electrostatic precipitator (ESP) caused the fog. In view of the good horticultural/agricultural potential of the area, one of the conditions for clearance was the installation of a flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) plant to control sulphur dioxide emissions. This has not been complied with. Now Reliance says it has invited global tenders for FGD.
Fed up with the pollution and loss of their agricultural produce, farmers recently formed the Dahanu Parisar Bachao Samiti, which collected 1,400 signatures and sent a letter to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), demanding that the company install an FGD and also switch to a cleaner fuel like gas. Farmers also petitioned the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA) set up by the Supreme Court, to monitor development in the region.
On March 23, the MPCB issued a five-year consent for the plant. But the DTEPA reduced it to one year, subject to the installation of an FGD, after an application filed by Kerban Anklesaria, a lawyer representing the Dahanu Taluka Environment Welfare Association (DTEWA) and the Samiti.
The impact of the plant can be seen not only on big farmers but also on the adivasis who form a large part of the population. Most work as labourers in the orchards and today, they are languishing for want of work. Lakhu Gorwale, an adivasi farmer says, "Over the years, the paddy harvest has declined. We get work now only for a day or two in the orchards. The quality of chikoos is lousy."
Chikoo production has dropped to abysmal levels and only a handful of trucks go to Mumbai from Dahanu now, as opposed to 60-70 trucks a day. Development in the region has always been a contentious issue. When the Supreme Court notified Dahanu Taluka as an eco- fragile region, there was a huge outcry from politicians and industrialists. The notification was challenged in court and Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas, Ram Naik, tried his utmost to get it scrapped. Even today, a powerful section, including most political parties, maintains that the notification is harmful to the region's development.
But local politicians are wising up to its importance. Gustad Mayar Irani, Taluka president, Congress (I), issued an affidavit on March 29, saying that he had earlier opposed the notification but now, he felt that it should not be withdrawn. Today, the region is faced with a massive problem of air quality and environment degradation. Pradip Prabhu of Kashtakari Sanghatana, which is supporting the farmers' struggle, said, "The cumulative effect of pollution is noticeable in the loss of crop and fall in production, which is more than alarming. The Dahanu notification is a critical weapon to place some restraint on Reliance Energy. If the notification goes, then the playing field will not be level. "
Dr. D.B. Boralkar, member secretary of the MPCB, says, "We are putting the onus on the industry to monitor air quality and we get monthly data from Reliance. Based on these readings, the pollution levels, especially sulphur dioxide, are well below limits." He says the plant is one of the best coal-based power plants in the country as the coal has an ash content of only 28 per cent as compared with the usual 40-45 per cent. He also feels a study to determine the impact of emissions on the area must be done and it has been initiated.
A Reliance Energy spokesperson denied that the ESP was shut down and said it was operational 24 hours a day. He said the fog reported by the farmers was a natural phenomenon and not connected with the power plant. It was due to inversion, which occurred in winter. He also denied leaves being covered with ash or acidic dew. To reduce emissions, the company was importing extra low ash coal (one per cent ash) and extra low sulphur coal from Indonesia. He added that the drop in chikoo yield could be due to increase in ambient seasonal temperature, fall in water tables from five to 30 metres, absence of water conservation by farmers who have sunk deep tube wells some so deep that they contain high levels of boron which tends to cause a drop in the flowering pattern.
Farmers, who claim the source of boron was fly ash from the plant, hotly contest this. Water was also in plenty, they said. With 22,000 hectares of farmland at stake, clearly the issue has come to a flashpoint.
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