Dialogue January-March, 2005, Volume 6 No. 3
Industry Versus Environment
Meghalaya is among the few states in this country which has some of the most extraordinary caves. These caves which are essentially of limestone formation have been meticulously mapped by Mr Brian Daly Kharpran, a local speleologist with assistance from interested cavers from across the world. Several caving expeditions have been organized by the Meghalaya Adventures Association (MAA) which was formed in August 1990. Mr Kharpran was conferred the prestigious Tenzing Norgay award for adventure sports by the President of India for single-mindedly pursuing his hobby and putting Meghalaya in the caving map of the world.
Caves are a natural heritage. They not only attract large numbers of cavers who are into adventure tourism but are also an environmental wonder which should evoke the interest of avowed environmentalists and speleologists because it forms the basis for constructing temperatures and climates thousands of years back. While much hue and cry is raised about wild life that threaten to become extinct and there are numerous projects for saving the Bengal Tiger or the one-horned rhino, caves are as yet an unknown territory perhaps because there is dearth of information about them. In fact Assam even had its rain forest festival where a world audience of concerned environmentalists made their presence felt and were ready to pool their efforts toward conserving this threatened natural space. The upcoming Kaziranga festival for instance is essentially about protecting wild life and not encroaching into areas clearly designated as wild life sanctuaries. It is time we turned our attention to caves.
Caves, contrary to popular understanding are not lifeless beings. They are constantly changing shape because of the action of rain water. Exquisite stalactites and stalagmites are formed inside these natural caves and they deserve to be protected as much as wild life and rain forests are. Usually environmentalists network with one another and strengthen each other’s conservation efforts. In fact there is a strong network of groups that try to protect the rights of forest dwellers and who communicate to each other over e-mail on a daily basis. It is unfortunate that they are unaware of the story of caves in Meghalaya which are now under threat from cement companies which have come to this state to enjoy the seven-year tax holiday. Both companies have their Board offices outside Meghalaya, one in Bengal, the other in Delhi.
Tax and other incentives are provided by Government of India (GOI) to speed up the process of industrialisation in the North Eastern states. Unfortunately, GOI has failed to anticipate the damage that would occur to the fragile environment of this region, much of which is a biosphere reserve and supports 63 % of this country’s forests. In the absence of a land use policy, forests and even agricultural land have been allocated to set up Export Promotion Industrial Parks (EPIP) in Meghalaya and Assam. Recently, the Governor of Assam, Lt Gen (Retd) Ajai Singh made a graphic presentation of the possibilities for investment in North East India to the Indian Merchants Chamber at Mumbai. He whetted their appetite by listing the various tax exemptions and plethora of subsidies available to commercial houses willing to set up shop in the region. The Governor even went as far as offering the hospitality of Raj Bhavan to members of the Indian Merchants Chamber if they would deign to come and scout for investment opportunities in the region. This almost fantastic presentation reeked of a sell-out of the North East and its vast wealth of natural resources.
In Meghalaya, two cement factories have recently come up around the fragile limestone caves in Lumshnong and in the vicinity of the Narpuh Reserved Forests of Jaintia Hills. Both plants involve investments above Rs 100 crores. While the Cement Manufacturing Company Ltd (CMCL) has set up a 230 crore project with an daily production of 3000 metric tonnes (MT) of cement, Meghalaya Cements Ltd (CML) has a 145 crore plant with a daily production capacity of 1000 MT. As per norms laid out by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) vide their Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification dated 1994, cement plants above Rs 100 crore investment. should not be set up at a place which is (a) Less than 5 Km (aerial distance) from Reserved Forests (RF) or Wild Life Sanctuaries) (b) Less than 5 Km aerial distance from place of Tourist or Cultural or Historical importance (c) Less than 5 Km aerial distance from the International or State Borders. The notification further says that cement plants are highly polluting industries and fall under the RED category of polluting industries.
Apart from site clearance which is to be granted by MoEF, Delhi and Forest Clearance which is to be given by the State Forest Department, the companies intending to set up cement plants have to prepare a detailed Environmental Management Plan (EMP) which is to be submitted to the State and Central Government for clearance. One mandatory clause which has never been followed in Meghalaya is that of Environmental Public Hearings which the District Administration and the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) should jointly conduct. Conditional clearance can be given by the SPCB only after the public hearing. The final environmental clearance is to be given by MoEF, Delhi. After this, the mining lease is given by the Department of Mining and Geology of the State.
The two above-named companies have set up their cement plants on top of India’s longest cave and very close to the Narpuh Reserve Forest. Both Plants have allegedly come up without the necessary environmental and other clearances from relevant departments. To speed up the clearance they have allegedly shown an investment lesser than Rs 100 crores and also indicated lesser production. In which case the plants would not be viable. It is criminal to think of a cement factory coming up near a reserved forest and atop a cave. Mawmluh Cherra Cements Limited (MCCL) in Cherrapunjee today stands in a deforested area with not even a spike of grass growing around a ten kilometers radius from the plant. In recent times people have begun to complain of respiratory ailments but this public voice is unfortunately still very muted. Government has not paid any heed or chosen to conduct an environmental impact assessment around the MCCL area.
Meghalaya has a Land Transfer Act (LTA) which does not allow a non-tribal to purchase land in the State. But the Act has a clause which states that land can be alienated in favour of a non-tribal if it is in the interest of the tribal. Several companies have circumvented the LTA by claiming that they would provide jobs for unemployed tribals. But after the plant starts functioning all companies import cheap manpower from Bihar, UP and even nearby Bangladesh. Managerial posts are invariably held by non-locals since the companies are based outside Meghalaya.
After a sustained media campaign against the manner in which the two cement plants have been set up, Meghalaya Chief Minister, DD Lapang and Forest Minister Dr Mukul Sangma have reacted positively. Both have publicly stated that they would institute an enquiry to find out how and under whose discretion the companies managed to get clearance from the single window cell of the State Government for setting up their cement plants.
What Meghalaya and the entire region needs is not a stand-alone Industrial Policy but a comprehensive economic policy which will factor in all the costs such as environmental destruction, pollution, energy consumption etc. An industrial policy that does not take into consideration the fragile environment and eco-system of the region and which cannot protect the rich natural resources from being exploited and sent out in their raw form is not a people-friendly policy. When the seven year tax holiday is over the local population will be left to clean up the mess because the policy does not even have a viable exit plan which will protect the interests of the State.
Two developments have been hogging the headlines in Manipur apart from the ongoing NSCN(IM)-Government of India peace talks in New Delhi. One has to do with the hope of a breakthrough in peace initiatives with two of the major underground organizations operating in the state, namely the United National Liberation Front, UNLF, and the Revolutionary People’s Front, RPF, the political wing of the better known, People’s Liberation Army, PLA.
The UNLF’s overture was somewhat in response to the Republic Day message this year, of the Manipur Governor Dr SS Sidhu. In a departure from past gestures by the government, which have always taken the view that the militants were misguided youth needing to be brought to the mainstream, Dr Sidhu had appealed to the various underground organizations referring to them as “brethrens” whose points of difference with the establishment are worth being tabled as the agenda in any peace negotiation.
The UNLF’s Central Committee, which is the organisation’s highest decision making body, took kindly to the statement and on February 3 and 8, made a four-point proposal that it would be willing to have its dispute with the Government of India settled by a plebiscite on the issue of reverting Manipur’s lost independence after the erstwhile kingdom’s controversial merger with India on November 15, 1949. The condition for such a plebiscite, the organisation’s statement said, was that it would have to be supervised by a neutral third party, most specifically the United Nations. It also said it would even deposit its arms with the UN supervisors if the Government of India also in reciprocal action, withdraws all its troops from the soil of Manipur. It said it would be willing to take as final, the people’s verdict on the issue of Manipur’s sovereignty decided by such a plebiscite.
In a related development, the top leader of the RPF, L Chaoren, in his customary speech on the occasion of his organisation’s foundation day on February 25, also made a peace overture to the government, saying it too is willing to go for a negotiated settlement if the central agenda of such a negotiation ware to remain the sovereignty of Manipur. Unlike the UNLF however, the RPF said it would never lay down arms to any agency, neutral or otherwise, for its armed wing, the PLA was being groomed to be the future army of sovereign Manipur.
Apart from the two, no other underground organization has so far come forward with any overt show of intent for a peaceful settlement of the insurrection in the land. However, the government and its security mechanisms are not at all cynical about the developments. For one thing, the UNLF and the PLA are the two most powerful underground groups amongst the valley dwelling Meiteis, and even if their gestures are predicated by problematic conditions, they are still seen as a very optimistic beginning.
The other issue that has been on centre stage is the campaign by a Meitei revivalist group, the Meitei Erol Eyek Loinasillon Apunba Lup, MEELAL, to have the use of the Bengali script in written Manipuri discontinued and be replaced by the old Meitei script known as Meitei Mayek. Volunteers of the organization have been on a trail of burning Manipuri school textbooks written in the Bengali script after snatching them from students. They have also come in conflict with the media when they issued a deadline to all vernacular dailies and journals to reserve their front pages for news written in Meitei Mayek.
The dailies resisted, reasoning that an immediate switch would have a telling effect on their circulations as not many are familiar with the disused Meitei Mayek now. All of them however were willing to switch in stages, doing it completely as and when the readers are ready. The MEELAL got impatient, and in a predawn sweep on March 11, physically froze the circulation of all newspapers in the state using coercive means on the newspaper houses, as well as the distributors. The Manipur media is currently on an agitation and has in an emergency meeting later the same day, decided to stop publication in protest until the matter is settled.