Monday, February 24, 2014

7,000 trees cut in eco-zone for one ‘useless’ toll plaza

Govt Eyeing Rich Mineral Site On Maha-Goa Border, Claim Activists
Banda village (Sindhudurg): Around 7,000 trees across 32 acres (think 1.5 times the size of Oval Maidan in south Mumbai) of forest land have been cut down in an eco-sensitive zone of the Western Ghats between December 2013 and January 2014 to make way for a toll plaza on NH-17. If built, it will involve the flattening of hills on either side of a road. The issue is currently in appeal in the Bombay high court.

The area, which falls within Banda village on the Mumbai-Goa highway, is a stone’s throw from the Maharashtra-Goa border. A cursory glance at a map shows that the area is unsuitable for a toll booth as several roads around it can help bypass the spot.

A high court petition against the project claimed mining is the real reason why the government wants to acquire the 1.3 lakh sq m land. A 2010 note by Maharashtra’s Directorate of Geology and Mines said: “It is expected that the project area may incorporate substantial quantity of iron ore, so no-objection certificate may not be given to RTO (to build the toll booth).” Several other objections, including by government officials, have been made, but been brushed aside.

Banda village was never a part of the original plan for the toll booth. Villagers say the area is also an elephant corridor. Moreover, it is now among the villages on the list of eco-sensitive areas declared by the ministry of environment and forests in a November 2013 directive. Activities such as quarrying, mining and building and construction projects on 20,000 sq m and above are not allowed in such areas.

Banda village is very close to Maharashtra-Goa border MSRDC wants to set up a toll booth on NH-17 there although at least 7 roads nearby will help bypass it Villager allege ulterior motive, says govt wants to acquire 1.3 lakh sq m of land with an eye on minerals Konkan officials had flagged land acquisition violations

More Trees Cut Than Permitted, Says Forest Dept

But a month later, in December 2013, the tree authority of the Sawantwadi forest department allowed 1,279 trees to be cleared in the area on the grounds that no part of Sindhudurg district had been declared eco-sensitive. In a matter of days, the area was shorn of trees. Now the same tree authority has said that while permission was given to cut 1,279 trees, Maharashtra’s border check-post authorities had cut an additional 5,429.

The toll booth is part of a 2008 proposal by the Maharashtra State Road Development Cooperation (MSRDC) for the modernization and computerization of 22 toll booths. The original proposal talks only about Insuli village. Till today, the MSRDC website shows Insuli as the spot for the proposed toll booth. Banda cropped up in a handwritten government note which called for a study of the costs and benefits of both Insuli and Banda for the toll booth. No mention was made of the fact that more roads from Goa to Mumbai bypass Banda than Insuli. Incidentally, there is already a checkpost at Insuli.

The divisional commissioner for the Konkan region, in a letter dated June 20, 2012, had raised several issues over violations in the process of land acquisition for the project.

Further, villagers from Banda who lost their land for the proposed toll booth have shown, in their petition to the high court, the area falls under the command area of the Tilari-Banda canal. According to the Maharashtra Irrigation Act, no quarrying or mining using explosives is allowed within 200m of a canal boundary. The irrigation department, in response to an RTI application filed by Saiprasad Kalyankar, a chartered accountant from the village and one of those affected by the project, says it has not given the government any permission for blasting or quarrying in the area.

The villagers battling the project have pointed out in court that a report on the site by a land acquisition officer in 2009 was fraudulent, did not mention the canal, and was made without a site visit. The high court, in an order dated April 5, 2013, ruled against the villagers. “The objection that a false report was submitted without actually carrying out inspection does not render the acquisition illegal,” the court said, adding, “Merely because certain queries were made by the Divisional Commissioner, the acquisition does not become illegal.”

When contacted, MSRDC MD Bipin Shrimali said the site was identified by the transport department and land acquisition done by the revenue department. “I cannot comment on this particular spot. However, when it comes to cutting trees, this is always done with the approval of the competent authority,” he adds.

  • Banda village is around 200-odd metres from the Maharashtra-Goa border
  • MSRDC wants to set up a toll booth on NH 17 there though at least seven roads nearby will help bypass it
  • 32 acres (1.3 lakh sq m) of Western Ghats is acquired; construction will mean flattening of two hillsides with green cover
  • Villagers protest, move Bombay HC saying area rich in mineral content, and the govt is acquiring the land with an eye on minerals and metals
  • Moreover, the land is in the command area of an irrigation project, where construction is now allowed
  • On April 5, 2013, the HC rules in favour of the Maharashtra government and MSRDC, allowing acquisition of land
  • The order says: “The objections that a false report was submitted without actually carrying out inspection do not render the acquisition illegal.”
  • But directions by ministry of environment and forests issued on Nov 13, 2013, make it clear Banda falls within the list of ecologically sensitive areas on the Western Ghats
  • According to the circular, activities not permitted in such areas include mining, quarrying as well as building and construction projects spread over 20,000 sq m and above
  • Environmentalists file a special leave petition in Supreme Court. They later withdraw it and instead go for an appeal in the HC

  • Over 7,000 trees cut across 32 acres on the Western Ghats
  • On Dec 23, 2013, tree officer at Sawantwadi forest department allows cutting of trees in the earmarked plot on the grounds that no part of Sindhudurg had been declared eco-sensitive
  • Later, the same officer pulls up Maharashtra’s toll booth authority for cutting 5,429 additional trees, when they were given permission to cut 1,279
  • An earlier survey of trees in the area by the revenue department had shown 7,409 trees
Anahita Mukherji

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