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The Probe Impact: Government panel returns Gujarat chemical complex’s environment report

Last month, The Probe flagged off the potential ecological impacts of a chemical complex near the Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat. The central government has now taken cognisance of the environmental threat posed by the chemical complex and has returned the application of the Dalmia Group, citing multiple insufficiencies.

By Ayaskant Das
New Update

publive-image Mandvi beach in Gujarat | Photo courtesy: @gauravg85 | Twitter

A central government review panel has returned the application of a Dalmia Group firm to set up a chemical complex near the Gulf of Kutch, citing several shortcomings in its Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report. Gujarat Heavy Chemicals Limited (GHCL), the multibillion-dollar business conglomerate’s subsidiary company, has been asked for details on studies to assess potential threats of the proposed greenfield project to the marine environment and coastal ecosystems.

In an article published on 29 November, The Probe reported that crucial facts pertaining to the fragile ecology of the Gulf of Kutch region had been ignored while preparing the Environment Impact Assessment report of the project. This report was sent, along with an application form, to the central government’s review panel on 30 November for environmental clearance.

The report was examined by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, which reviews the potential impacts of industrial projects on their local ecologies. Amongst other recommendations, the EAC has asked GHCL for details on the clearance status required for the project under rules meant for conserving the country’s coastal ecology and marine biodiversity.

“Please submit all the requisite documents as per CRZ Notification, 2011 and the recommendations of SCZMA ,” the expert review panel has noted in its list of recommendations.

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

The Probe had reported, citing various studies and documents obtained through the RTI Act, 2005, that not only is the greenfield project proposed near an area known to be a rich nesting site of the vulnerable Olive Ridley turtles, apart from other mammals and reptiles, but is also merely 800 meters away from the Arabian Sea.

The Olive Ridley is a species of sea turtle classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an organization working in the 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 threatened with extinction and are thereby afforded the highest levels of protection.

The report was returned to the privately-owned company on 7 December. In the second week of December, local communities in the coastal areas of Mandvi taluk had yet again reported sightings of a large number of Olive Ridley turtles, which had gathered for nesting, near the project site area in Bada village. When contacted, a senior official of the forest department in Kutch told The Probe that though it was not unusual for Olive Ridley turtles to nest along the approximately 100-km coastal stretch between Bada and Naliya (another village), the numbers of nesting sites reported by local communities recently in December were yet to be officially verified.

publive-image An extract from the government response regarding the proposed project | Courtesy: Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change

The project, a soda ash manufacturing unit, is proposed to be established in Bada village in Mandvi, a coastal taluk in Gujarat’s Kutch district, with an investment of more than Rs 3,500 crore by GHCL. Apart from seeking clarity on CRZ clearance, the review panel has also asked the project proponent to furnish information as to whether accredited and certified consultants were engaged by it to prepare the crucial EIA report. Apparently, the project proponent had left the space blank in the application form where it was required to specify whether it had engaged accredited consultants to prepare the EIA report.

“Under Part-A, please revise ‘Whether QCI / NABET Accredited EIA Consultant engaged?’,” the EAC has queried.

The EAC has further directed: “Please upload all the QCI-NABET accreditation certificates of the Consultant for sector 4 (e) for the entire period of engagement for this EIA & EMP. Please upload the NABL accreditation certificates of the laboratory for the entire study period.”

Notably, the NABET is a constituent board of the Quality Council of India and is an independent, autonomous body supported by the central government to provide accreditation to products, services and processes on the basis of quality standards.

Local communities had alleged that the public hearing for the proposed project was rushed through by the BJP-led state government barely a couple of weeks before the model code of conduct was enforced in Gujarat for the assembly polls that took place earlier this month. The hearing took place amidst massive police bandobast despite complaints that consultants engaged in compiling the EIA report were not accredited. Activists and residents of villages near Bada village in Mandvi taluka of Kutch district had also written to the state pollution control board and various other governmental authorities complaining that the public hearing was being conducted based on EIA reports prepared by agencies allegedly lacking accreditation.

The draft report on the environmental impact of the project on the marine ecology of the Gulf of Kutch area was undertaken by the project proponent through the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), a constituent laboratory of the central government’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). The assessment report on the potential impacts of the project on the terrestrial ecology of the area was conducted through the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute NEERI, another constituent laboratory of the CSIR. It was alleged that both these laboratories were not accredited by the NABET. Similarly, it was alleged that the assessment report for mitigation and impact on wildlife, as well as that on the hydrology of the area, were prepared by agencies that allegedly lack accreditation in the field of soda ash manufacturing sector.

Incidentally, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India had, in a report published earlier this year, highlighted 21 instances in which projects were approved by the central government despite the fact that the EIA studies had been carried out with the help of non-accredited agencies (See Annexure 2). In March 2020, the environment ministry issued a Gazette notification vide which it has been made imperative for project proponents to prepare EIA reports through agencies accredited for the particular sector in which the industry is categorized.

“The EIA Report shall be prepared as per the generic structure given in Appendix-X by the project proponent through an ACO , which is accredited for a particular sector and the category of the project for that sector,” states the Gazette order (See Section 8 of Paragraph 13).

The government order also makes it mandatory for project proponents to disclose details of the accredited consultant employed for preparing the EIA report submitted to the central government for approval (Section 10 of Paragraph 13).

There was considerable opposition to the project on environmental grounds in the public hearing for the project – as had been reported in The Probe – when it was held on 17 October. On 29 November, a day before the EIA report was sent to the central government, the voluminous minutes of the public hearing meeting were uploaded on the website of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board. The EAC has asked the project proponent to furnish the duly signed proceedings of the Public Hearing in English as part of the report.