The backfire

Vinita Deshmukh, Intelligent Pune, July 31, 2008
In India, `political influence’ plays a great role in “getting things done.” If you want to bend or break laws and quickly get to what you want, you need ministerial blessings. Once you are so favoured, government agencies are rendered to being spineless outfits and the rest seemingly looks smooth sailing. However, times are changing now and awareness amongst the rural folk about their precious land – thanks to information dissemination and communication at a lightening speed – has become a powerful citizen force to snub high-handedness and the wrong-doing of our elected representatives/authorities. And when such a citizen force turns pro-active and determined, then either there is a flare-up or introspection by the powers that be. Generally, it is the former, as the poor have to battle out their battles no matter how much any political party claims itself to be pro-poor.
This is exactly the turn of events regarding the case of the Multi-National Company, Dow,’s Chemical plant at Shinde Vasuli village, about 10kms from Chakan. Last week, the otherwise peaceful agitation over seven months to protest against the establishment of this company, flared up, literally. Dow, which has proclaimed to use 20 hazardous chemicals under the Schedule I of the Environment Protection Act (EPA) and has earned notoriety for being responsible for the world’s worst industrial of Bhopal in 1984 (Union Carbide is its subsidiary company), has earned the ire not only of villagers but activists in Pune, Chennai, Bhopal and Delhi. The two issues that are being questioned by them are – why should a chemical factory be allowed in the midst of a village (and not in a chemical zone) and where’s the guarantee that there will be no environmental hazard, given the background of this MNC which has a tarnished reputation even in its homeland, USA. Both these have remained unanswered by the government and not being convincingly found in the various official permissions sanctioned to Dow for the setting up of the plant here.
The trigger to last week’s burning of Dow’s machinery apparently worth Rs.2.5 crore, was firstly, the clean chit given to Dow recently by the high level committee which was instituted by the state government under Sham Lal Goyal, secretary, environment. The committee was set up to review the project, after villagers took to streets in early January this year. Secondly, quite shockingly, the committee gave a NOC to Dow to re-start its construction activity without making it binding on it to first submit the extremely stringent clearances that it itself imposed on Dow in its review report, not only from the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoeF) but other central/state agencies as well. Dow sought legal intervention from the High Court seeking protection from the state government to re-start construction, based on the NOC given by the committee. The state government gave a nod and thus, a posse of 300 plus policemen from Pune Rural swooped on the village on July 24 (the interim order was till July 25). While, it was a peaceful protest on July 24 under the aegis of former justices P B Sawant and B G Kolse-Patil, the next day 200 odd `Warkaris’ (reports say they were not local villagers but people from surrounding areas who are extremely sensitive about Dehu (Saint Tukaram) and Alandi (Saint Dnyaneshwar) pilgrimages in the vicinity of Shinde Vasuli) as these are the bastions of the Warkari tradition, are said to have done the damage.
While 30 odd Warkaris are arrested and 150 more voluntary sought arrests at the Chakan Police Station, the fingers should be pointed to the arrogant and callous manner in which the state government and the MNC handled the issue. Firstly, there was utter secrecy over construction which began overnight in the last quarter of 2007. Villagers of Shinde Vasuli were kept in the dark about which factory is coming up despite repeated queries from local authorities. The MNC had not even put up the mandatory board to announce this. So, suddenly when the word spread early this January that it is “Dow, the company responsible for the Bhopal gas tragedy,’ that’s coming up amidst them, villagers began to vent ire. Villagers say when they asked the district collectorate why such a `poisonous’ factory is being allowed in their midst they were allegedly told “`the land belongs to the government so it has a right to set up any kind of factory.’ The MNC, after such social pressure, gave huge advertisements to all major local newspapers swearing it is a pure `Research & Development centre’ and its existence is only going to enhance the environment around. However, documents procured by `Intelligent Pune’ by invoking Section 4 of the RTI Act in the offices of MPCB and MIDC in Pune and in secretary, environment office of the Mantralaya amply proved that Dow was given a consent for “manufacture.” After this exposure the government quickly changed its tone and in the review report changed the word to `R&D’ in stead of `manufacture’ with other things remaining constant, like the use of 20 hazardous chemicals or the haphazard explanation of where Dow is going to dispose of its toxic waste.
`Right to Environment’ is as good as a constitutional right in today’s world of environmental degradation and India is a party to an international convention – `The Declaration of the United Nation Conference on Human Environment/Stockholm Declaration- 16.06.1972)” by which it has to adhere to the `Trans-generational equity principle” which means all common resources such as air, land, rivers, forests, mangroves air and so on are all held by the State not for itself but in trust for all citizens in common. Therefore, it is wrong to assume that the state can deal with these common resources, as it likes, without any reference to the people. Particularly, when people have reservations about a certain project they have a right to public hearing as well. None of this has been done in the case of Shinde Vasuli village. And as can be seen, it will be tough for the government to bulldoze, for the sake of economic prosperity! Also because, now villagers have been instigated by the humiliation meted out to them by the custodians of law.

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