Controversy over chemical complex in Gujarat

Potential ecological impacts of chemical complex near Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat ignored

Local communities express strong displeasure over the environment report and protest against the chemical complex. Gujarat Heavy Chemicals Limited (GHCL) responds to The Probe on the proposed complex.
First Published: Nov 29,2022 10:19PM
by Ayaskant Das

Last Updated on December 4, 2022

Mandvi beach in Gujarat | Photo courtesy: @gauravg85 | Twitter

A critical report prepared to assess the potential impacts of a chemical-manufacturing complex on the ecology of the biodiversity-rich Kutch region of Gujarat has met with stiff resistance from local communities on the grounds that it has been allegedly fudged. Barely a couple of weeks before the model code of conduct came into force in Gujarat for the state’s assembly elections to be held in early December, the ruling BJP state government conducted a public hearing for the chemical project, allegedly in a forceful manner, disregarding concerns raised by local communities on environmental issues.

It has been claimed that the government bypassed norms pertaining to the public hearing, which was held on October 17 – mandatory 15 days notice period was not served, and sections of the population to be affected by the project were left out. The project, a soda ash manufacturing unit, is proposed to be established in Bada village in Mandvi, a coastal taluka in the Kutch district, with an investment of more than Rs 3,500 crore by Gujarat Heavy Chemicals Limited (GHCL), a subsidiary company of the multibillion-dollar business conglomerate Dalmia Group. The project site is located at a distance of around 800 meters from the Arabian Sea.

A set of documents available with the Probe – obtained from the government by Kutch-based activists through RTI – reveal that the region where the manufacturing unit will be set up is rich with flora and fauna, including animals enjoying protection under Indian laws. These documents contain information which is in gross contrast to the claims put forth in the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report that has been prepared by the project proponent. Studies undertaken in the past by various government agencies also point to the varied ecological wealth of the region. However, the project proponent has allegedly left out these facts from the EIA report, for example, the nesting and breeding of sea turtles near the project site along the coastline of the Gulf of Kutch.

Carcass of a sea turtle along the sea coast near Bada village in Mandvi taluka of Kutch district | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

“The environment impact assessment report has not taken into consideration the potential adverse impacts that this project could have upon lives and livelihood of local communities, environment, wildlife and climate of the region. Several crucial facts regarding flora and fauna of the area have been deliberately left out from the report in order to ensure faster clearance while placing minimal responsibility on the project proponent as far as environment protection is concerned,” said Kutch-based environmental activist Valji Jasraj Gadhvi.

The EIA report on the website of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) states that no turtles were sighted in the area near the project site during the study period. In the section on the presence of reptiles near the Gulf of Kutch, the EIA report states that in the Gulf of Kutch, reptiles are mainly represented by marine turtles chelonia mydas and lepidochelys olivacea which have their breeding and spawning ground on the sandy beaches along the coast as well as on islands to its south. “No turtle, however, was sighted off Bada during the study period,” states the report.

However, as per a study on ecological profiles of all coastal talukas along the Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat, prepared by the state government in September 2014, the coast of Bada is a nesting site of the olive ridley, a species of sea turtles classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an organisation working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. The olive ridley is also listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a multilateral treaty for the protection of endangered species, to which India is a signatory. Appendix I of CITES lists those species which are threatened with extinction and are thereby afforded the highest levels of protection.

“Nesting site of Olive Ridley turtle at Bada, Layja Nana, and Mandvi palace beaches, 61 nests reported in 2013,” states the report titled Ecological Profile for Coastal Talukas of Gulf of Kachchh. The aforementioned study, sponsored by the Gujarat Ecology Commission, a public sector organisation under the state’s forest and environment department, had even recommended that beach tourism could be considered in the region after reviewing the turtle nesting sites.

Existing threats on the sea turtles of the Gujarat coast | Photo courtesy: GOI-UNDP Sea Turtle Project Report

Nesting of the olive ridley in the Bada area has also been confirmed in the past by yet another study undertaken through a national sea turtle conservation project. This project was being executed by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change of India in association with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In a study under this conservation project by the public sector Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology to assess the status of the breeding population of sea turtles along the Gujarat coast, it was found that the area near Bada village in Mandvi taluka along the Gulf of Kutch had a significant density of olive ridley nesting sites. Various sections of a stretch of 83.5 km of the coastline along the Gulf of Kutch were surveyed during night hours to discover the potential nesting sites of olive ridley turtles.

“ … the beach area between Bada-Nanalayja and Nanalayja-Mandvi showed comparatively more density (1.61 and 1.69 nests/km respectively) than other stretches. Based on the diameter of 15 eggs from 5 nests, crawl width, nest depth and information from the local egg collectors, it has been confirmed that all the nests belonged to olive ridley,” states the study report prepared in May 2002.

Activists have argued that apart from human activities, seawater intake and effluent discharge system for the greenfield chemical complex will adversely impact marine ecology, including the nesting of turtles along the coast.

“The proposed project site is within the stretch from Nanalayja to Bada. As per studies, it has been ranked as the best potential site for the nesting and breeding of sea turtles. The stretch between Mandvi and Pingleshwar is the only stretch without industrial activity and, thereby, suitable for nesting turtles. If this stretch is polluted too by industrial activities, it is a matter of time before it is abandoned by turtles for nesting purposes,” said Gadhvi, adding, “The field visits for the report were carried out before and after the rainy season but not during the rainy season. Sea turtles frequently visit Bada beach. The female of the species of Green Sea Turtles and the Olive Ridley lay eggs during the rainy season, and that too only during the night.”

In reply to an RTI query by Gadhvi – a copy of which is with The Probe – the forest department of Gujarat informed in March this year that it has rescued more than 8,548 turtle eggs, between the years 2011 and 2021, from the Mandvi Forest Range area which includes Bada village. The forest department further informed that 6,905 baby turtles were successfully hatched and released back into the sea.

Earlier, too, a public hearing that was scheduled to be held in April 2022 was cancelled following massive protests over ecological concerns by local communities. Soon thereafter, local communities had written to the Gujarat government, highlighting alleged factual inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the EIA report. They presented evidence to the government authorities, in the form of photographs clicked using GPS-enabled cameras, that several species of animals, birds and plants, which are protected under laws, are found in the project site area. This included species listed for protection under Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 as well. The names of these species include chinkaras, honey badgers, caracals, peacocks, Indian monitor lizards, black shoulder kites and marsh harriers, which are listed under Schedule I of the Act and thereby enjoy the highest levels of protection.

“More than 1,500 peacocks live in the 10-km radius around the project site. Flocks of peacocks with more than 100 males and females can be seen anytime of the year in Panchotiya village and near the temple of Astrai-vada-pir. The core area of the proposed project site is a breeding and nestling ground for peacocks during the rainy season. It is a matter of public knowledge in this region that a couple of years ago, the forest department had carried out exercises to prevent hunting of Chinkaras in the area around Bada,” they had written.

Burrows of reptiles near the project site area in Bada village of Kutch district; photograph taken by activists using GPS-enabled mobile phone camera

In contrast to the claims in the EIA report that there are not too many reptiles in the region, local communities have claimed that the area around a lake in Bada, which falls right in the middle of the proposed project site, is inhabited by a variety of reptiles including spiny-tailed lizard and Indian monitor lizards. They have further provided photographic evidence along with their letter as evidence about the presence of mangroves in the area, a fact which has been denied in the EIA report by the project proponent (See Page vii of EIA report).

As per the study, Ecological Profile for Coastal Talukas of Gulf of Kutch, the Mandvi taluka does not have a high level of industrialisation. There was only one medium-scale industry in Mandvi when the study was finalised in September 2014. With roughly 4.4 per cent of the total geographical area of Mandvi under forest cover, it has the lowest forested area amongst all six talukas studied, second only to Bhachau, in which a mere 2.72 per cent area is forested.

The study says the following about the presence of mangroves in the region: “Mangrove vegetation occurs in the intertidal zone, all along the Gulf of Kutch up to Jakhau, but is with stunted growth except mangroves in Mundra, Mandvi and Naliya talukas. The height of the mangrove ranged from 5 to 7 metres. Cher (avicenna officianalis) is the main species in these forest areas, with rhizophora mucronata interspersed. Gulf of Kutch, along with the Western Mangroves in and around Kori creek, supports the second largest mangrove area in the world.”

There have been concerns over the proposed transportation of seawater to the chemical complex using pipelines drilled underneath sand dunes on the grounds of seismicity. The stability of the sand dunes, it has been argued, will be affected by the drilling of tunnels, thereby leaving the area vulnerable to the effects of cyclones. Release of wastewater, at a temperature higher than normal, through these pipelines into the sea will deplete the fish population, thereby affecting the livelihood of fish workers, it has been alleged. It has also been alleged that the EIA report underplays the richness of avifauna in the region.

A wild hyena was reportedly captured by the forest department near Bada village of Kutch district earlier this year pointing to the presence of wild animals in the region | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

“A total of 28 bird varieties were spotted during the fieldwork from the study area. The most common birds recorded are herons, crows, cormorants, plovers, egrets, etc., from the project vicinity,” states the EIA report.

However, the ecological study report by Gujarat Ecology Commission found at least 72 species of birds in the Mandvi taluka. Besides, concerns have also been raised over the storage of chemicals within the complex not very far from human habitations. The proposed chemical complex will include manufacturing plants to produce 11 lakh tons per annum (TPA) light soda ash, 5 lakh TPA dense soda ash and 2 lakh TPA sodium bicarbonate. It will also include a solid fuel based 120 MegaWatt captive power plant, a water purifying plant and seawater intake and effluent disposal systems apart from other facilities. The proposed complex will be spread over an area of 599.54 hectares of land, a bulk of which belongs to private individuals.

A set of queries were emailed to GHCL, asking, amongst other questions, about the reasons behind discrepancies in information on the ecology of the Bada area between the EIA report and the reports compiled, respectively, by the Gujarat Ecology Commission and Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology. It was also asked whether GHCL had filed any application seeking CRZ clearance. In response, representatives of GHCL said they are fully committed to the concerns of the local people and that the company is a socially and environmentally conscious organisation with a lot of focus towards society and the environment.

“Our mission statement clearly outlines our purpose of responsibly maximising value for all our stakeholders, which includes society, vendors, customers, employees and investors. For society, GHCL Foundation Trust is carrying out various CSR activities in the areas of healthcare, agriculture and animal husbandry, education and skill development. More than three lakh people living around our areas of operations have been positively impacted through our various initiatives,” said GHCL in a statement.

Allegedly, notices for the public hearing were issued on 3 and 4 October, barely 13 days ahead of the day on which it took place, thereby giving local communities very less time for preparations. “The public hearing was conducted amidst huge security by putting in place riot-prevention equipment, including water cannons and teargas canisters. Cops armed with batons and guns kept patrolling the area. The hearing was conducted inside a huge tent on the project site. It was cordoned off from the rest of the area using barbed wire fencing. There was only one entry and exit point to the premises inside the fencing. No alternative entry or exit point was provided, keeping in view the safety and security of attendants in case of a possible natural calamity or disaster,” said Dhwani Shah, a Kutch-based environmental activist.

It has been alleged that though nearly 20 villages are likely to be affected by the proposed project, the district administration did not issue notices to all of them. Notices were issued only to around a dozen villages, whereas it has been highlighted in an annexure of the EIA report that the buffer area of the chemical complex mainly consists of revenue areas of 20 villages that fall within a 10-km radius of the project site.

“Majority of the land of the buffer area is occupied by the private unirrigated agriculture fields, forest area, open scrub vegetation, sandy beach, pond/ reservoir, roads & canal network, village habitations, wind turbines etc,” states the report titled, Ecological Study & Wildlife Conservation Plan for Proposed Greenfield Chemical Complex, which was submitted as a separate report to the Gujarat government by the proponent in July 2019.

However, the district administration of Kutch refuted the allegations and said that the hearing was conducted in accordance with the law. “A hearing had been scheduled earlier in April this year which had to be postponed owing to protests of local communities. They did not allow for the public hearing to take place. Allegations that the latest hearing was not adequately publicised are totally irrelevant, therefore. No rules were violated in conducting the rescheduled public hearing on October 17. The hearing went on for more than 12 hours. It began at 9 am and concluded at 11 pm. Objections, suggestions and recommendations of all people who attended the public hearing were adequately recorded,” Kutch district magistrate Dilip Rana told the Probe.

The minutes of the meeting of the public hearing held on October 17 were uploaded on the evening of November 29. The state government had entered into an MoU with the company for setting up a chemical complex in the state during the Vibrant Gujarat summit in January 2017, a few months ahead of the assembly polls held that year.

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