Minutes of Environmental Public Hearing for Bhadbhut barrage suggest orchestrated industry support was organised for the project

A fisherman in Narmada river
Fishermen in Narmada river

By Rajiv Shah

The Gujarat government has claimed that there exists a huge support for the Bhadbhut weir-cum-causeway, which it is seeking to implement by spending Rs 4,000 crore on the mouth of Narmada river. Revealing this in the minutes of the Environmental Public Hearing (EPH) on Bhadbhut, put on the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) website (click HERE to see minutes), the state government has said, “Out of total 54 written representations received with respect to the public hearing, 32 representations are with affirmative nod, i.e. fully supporting this project, having multi-facet benefits for its implementation in the interest of public at large”. However, an analysis of the 32 “positive” written responses reveals certain glaring discrepancies.

First of all, of the 32 “positive responses” which have been purportedly been handed over to the Bharuch district collector, who was chairman of the EPH, held on July 19, there is just one environmental organization, which too operates from the premises of the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) estate, Ankaleshwar – Ankaleshwar Environmental Preservation Society. Secondly, 22 of the 32 “supporters” are either industrial units operating in the GIDC estates in the neighbourhood of Bhadbhut or are trade or industry associations operating in the region. These include the Ankleshwar Chemical Dealers Association, Ankleshwar, Panoli Industries Association, Panoli, Ankleshwar Truck Transportation Association, Ankleshwar, and Ankleshwar lndustries Association, Ankleshwar.

As for the rest, the “positive responses” included those from the Lions Club of Bharuch and Rotary Club of Bharuch, two caste bodies, lnternational Pust Margiya Vaishnav Parisad, Bharuch, Shri Brahman Suvarnakar Samaj, Bharuch, two organizations “representing” people of Mehsana who have settled down in Bharuch – Mehsana Jilla Mitra Mandal, Bharuch, Mehsana Bar Gam Kadva Patidar Samaj, Bharuch, and one housing cooperative society, Aayushi Bunglows Cooperative Housing Service Society, Bharuch. Significantly, no fishermen or their association, or farmers or their associations, not to talk of environmentalists – which are the main aggrieved parties – are part of any of the “positive” responses. And thirdly, what is found to be most distressing in the minutes is, several of the entrepreneur-supporters of the project just signed up a letter handed, apparently over to them. They did not even other to change even full stop or comma, not to talk of language!

The “positive responses” from Sanofi India Ltd, Coromandel International Ltd, Cadila Healthcare Ltd, Sajjan India Ltd, Industrial Solvents and Chemicals Pvt Ltd, GRP Reclaim Rubber, and Shree Sulphurics Pvt Ltd, Ankaleshwar Industries Association, had the following uniform write-up:

“As we understand, the State Government has approved the proposal for construction of weir-cum-causeway across River Narmada, near Bhadbhut. Similarly the project for development of Ankleshwar-Bharuch as twin city is also in progress.

“As we believe, on implementation of weir-cum-causeway across River Narmada, major issues related to Ankleshwar-Bharuch twin city, as under would be solved to a great extent:

“(1) Traffic congestion on Golden Bridge as well as Narmada Bridge is a daily phenomenon. On diversion of vehicular traIfic to the proposed weir-cum-cause way, this traffic problem can be sorted out to some extent.

“(2) Traffic to Dahej, Vagra, Vilayat, Jambusar etc. where mega industrial estates are coming up can be made convenient, without affecting traffic of Bharuch city.

“(3) Diversion of heavy vehicular traffic to proposed weir-cum-causeway would not only reduce load on NH 8, but also shorten the distance to Olpad, Hazira, Surat City etc.

“(4) Due to salinity, water of Narmada up to Shuklatirth is not potable. On development of weir-cum-cause way, spreading of salinity can be prevented, making water potable and agricultural activities in entire Bharuch district now almost nil due to salinity, can be revived.

“In view of above facts, we request you to move the state government for implementation of weir-cum-causeway project as early as possible.”

There was slight variation in language in the “positive” responses in Gujarati, but almost all of them had the same two-paragraph content. A few of them began with “Jai Bharat” and then followed up with what, apparently, was handed over to them to sign up, while others began with “Vande Mataram”. This type of uniform response was offered without any analysis of the Bhadbhut project, not to talk of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report prepared by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, based on which the EPH was held. Obviously, all this goes one to suspect that the “support” to the project was not just orchestrated, it was one-sided, it was fake and it was masterminded by somebody sitting in Gandhinagar Sachivalaya. Indeed, it raises serious questions on the legitimacy of the Environmental Public Hearing at Bhadbhut.

If the minutes of the EPH are any guide, the poor quality of “support” stood in sharp contrast to the deeply studied critical remarks by environmental organizations, all of whom represented in detail to the EPH on or before July 19, the day of the hearing at Bhadbhut. Even the villagers, including fishermen, who either spoke at the EPH site at Bhadbhut or gave in writing their responses, expressed their views on specific concerns about the barrage in the context of the NEERI report. Some of them gave positive suggestions, too. Even if they may not have read NEERI’s EIA report, whose full text was available only in English, most of them had complete knowledge of its contents, something that was grossly missing in the orchestrated “positive responses” by industry associations, individual entrepreneurs and caste bodies. In fact, as against 907 who had signed up to attend the EPH at Bhadbhut on July 19, with some of them publicly expressing their dismay over Bhardbhut project, there was not one speaker who had any positive comment to offer.

Senior environmentalist Mahesh Pandya of Paryavaran Mitra, who had handed over a written critical response to the EIA report a few days ahead of the hearing, and who also attended the EPH, said, “Except the project proponents, there was no positive speaker during the hearing. It seems that, on finding such huge opposition to the Bhadbhut barrage, the Gujarat government, as an afterthought, orchestrated support from whoever was available, whether chemical industrialists, or truckers’ associations, or rotary and lions clubs to show support. Otherwise, how was it that the minutes of the EPH, which should as a rule be out within a week, took a fortnight to be made public?” He stressed, “Those who write minutes have no right to analyze the responses. They should merely state facts, and leave at that. Clearly, the minutes are not in proper order.”

Indeed, all the so-called negative responses carried lot of analytical stuff. Pravinbhai Tandel, belonging to Bhadbhut village, spoke at length on the possible impact of the Bhadbhut barrage on fishery activities, rejecting NEERI figures one by one. He spoke in detail on how the barrage might adversely impact the main fish catch, Hisla, which was found only on the mouth of rivers Ganges or Narmada, how the fish fetches a huge Rs 1,200 per kg to fishermen, how the barrage would lead to lack of brackish water in which the fish’s breeding takes place, and how fishermen of Bharuch have been devoid of the Rs 11,000 crore package announced by the Gujarat government a few years ago.

Kamlesh Padhiyar, also from Bhadbhut village, spoke of how 60 per cent of the water collected as a result of the barrage will go to industry, and hundreds of fishing boats will be rendered useless. The barrage will lead to higher sedimentation being deposited in the river bed than is the case today, he added.

Advocate Rikesh Patel from Bharuch wondered why were no “people’s representatives” present at the hearing, asking, why not divert the money that was to be spent on the barrage for the welfare of the fishermen? Bachubhai Patel, ex-sarpanch, Dhantudiya village, expressed the fear that the movement of the polluted industrial water currently going to the sea via Amlakhadi will stop movement because of the construction of the barrage, expressing the fear that it might enter into the village and it would adversely impact the land. Mohammad Hasan of Aliyabet village, which is situated on the mouth of river Narmada, said, animal husbandry, which is their main occupation, would be adversely affected. He wanted to to know how 1,500 buffalos and 500-600 camels, dependent on the open land next to Aliyabet, would be affected because of the barrage.

In his written statement, an individual, Pravinbhai Sheth, from Ankaleshwar, wonders why the EIA report is silent on the project proponent’s name or cost of the project, adding it is also not clear who has carried out baseline study – whether in-house or by a third agency.  The Bhadbhut Dam Macchimar Sangharsh Samiti, in its written statement, takes up the cause of the poorest of poor families living in the region, Halpatis, who are below poverty line and are a scheduled tribe.

“How would the dam benefit them is not clear”, the Samiti says. The newspaper “Ladat” in its representation wanted full details on who would be the contractors of the proposed barrage, and how would it help generate employment to the local people. Safety Health Environment Association, Bharuch, wonders what would be the impact of the barrage on the health of the people living in the region, as the polluted industrial water, currently going into the sea via Amlakhadi and Chhaprakhadi, would stop flowing further into the Gulf of Khambhat because of the barrage.

Among the well-studied analytical responses, handed over in writing, the one by Paryavaran Mitra wondered how the Bhadbhut barrage could become a category B project, instead of category A. By turning it into category B project, only state government environmental clearance would be needed, and not from the Government of India. Does it mean that it is not part of the Kalpasar project, which is to be built by damming the Gulf of Khambhat in order to create a huge sweet water reservoir?, the response wonders.

The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, in its representation, wonders how would the concentration of pollution in the upstream and downstream affect the fish, adding this “has not been studied by the EIA”. And, Brackish Water Research Institute, Olpad, says that the proposal to have a causeway on the barrage can be achieved “without having a barrage at Bhadbhut. A six-lane bridge can be built at Bhadbhut, flood protection wall can be built without any barrage.” Significantly, a similar viewpoint was expressed by Kamleshbhai Padhiyar of Bhadbhut village, who wanted easy transportation of between Surat and Hazira, adding, “We do not oppose the bridge but we oppose the barrage.”

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