Mangroves or Mukesh? You must choose, Jairam
Is the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance SEZ more important to the Maharashtra government than mangrove conservation?
Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has suggested that if the State government and the Union Civil Aviation Ministry want Mumbai's second airport to come up at the proposed site in Navi Mumbai, they should use some of the land allotted to the Special Economic Zone which abuts the site to the south, rather than destroying mangroves on the north.
This was among the suggestions made in pursuit of a compromise solution after the Prime Minister's Office asked for a quick decision on an environmental clearance for the airport project. On September 3, the PMO sent a note to the Environment Minister, forwarding a letter from Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan who urged a speedy clearance. Mr. Ramesh says, he replied the same day saying that “we will find a way out, providing there is cooperation from the Civil Aviation Ministry and the State government.”
The two major obstacles blocking the way to an environmental clearance are the 400 acres of mangroves that will be destroyed and the two rivers which will have to be diverted.
While land has already been acquired and allotted to the SEZ projects being developed by the Reliance and CIDCO, Mr. Ramesh says “if the State government is really serious, it can take back some of those thousands of hectares and use it for the airport, rather than destroying mangroves to the north.”
“If they really want to, they can certainly do it,” he said. “I am willing to accept their argument that no alternative site is possible…They must also give way and compromise on some of these things…I have made several suggestions.”
Another suggestion is related to the “non-essential” parts of the project be shifted to minimise the environmental damage. “What is the need for a five-star hotel at the site? What is the need for a shopping mall there?” he asked.
The developer CIDCO has been asked to come back to the clearance panel with a modified proposal incorporating the compromises on September 13. “CIDCO has finally come off its high horse,” said Mr. Ramesh. “We are now working to find a solution.”
The Minister refuted the accusation that the Environment Ministry was dragging its feet on the project. “It was only on July 6, 2010 that the final [Environment Impact Assessment] report and the [Coastal Regulation Zone] approval was submitted,” he said. “So that is when our clock starts ticking. It is just two months since then.”
He added that the timeline submitted as part of Mr. Chavan's letter to the Prime Minister was incomplete. “The project actually started in November 1997, when the Airport Authority of India's expert committee recommended Rewas Mandwa as the best site for Mumbai's second airport.” It was only in December 2000 that, on the recommendation of the State government, the Civil Aviation Ministry shifted its proposal to the Navi Mumbai site instead.
For seven years, the project proponents ignored the fact that an airport at Navi Mumbai would violate the CRZ notification of 1991. Finally, after the Cabinet approved the project in May 2007, the process of amending this notification started. On May 15, 2009 — “exactly two weeks before I took office,” said Mr. Ramesh — the amended notification was issued, permitting the airport to come up provided that measures were taken to reduce the environmental impact.
Incidentally, environmental activists point out that the notification has been amended 25 times in its two decade-existence, mostly to allow “exceptions” for various development projects.
In another obstacle facing the project, a Union government environment clearance may not be enough. According to a Bombay High Court ruling in January 2010, even if a project is cleared by the competent authority on land which includes mangroves, the State government will have to seek the permission of the Court before implementing the project.