A biosphere reserve in danger

Print edition : April 27, 2018

THE location of the Sterlite plant, in Thoothukudi, is a sore point with environmentalists. They blame the Tamil Nadu government for allowing the industry to be located just 14 kilometres from the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve. The reserve, according to the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, has a core spread area of about 560 sq km from Rameswaram to Thoothukudi on the south-east coast of India.

While inaugurating the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Trust in December 2000, under the aegis of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the then Union Minister of Environment and Forests, T.R. Baalu, said this was the first marine biosphere reserve in the whole of South and South-East Asia. The biosphere reserve is home to an estimated 3,600 sea plants and marine species, thus making it one of the richest coastal regions in India.

A note dated October 9, 1986, from the Tamil Nadu government declared the Gulf of Mannar a marine biosphere and later a reserve park. “The State government is striving hard to impress upon the Centre the inherent need to notify it as a national park under Section 35(4) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Once it is notified, no adverse activity, including industrial development, will be permitted within a 25 sq km range of the biosphere reserve,” said a senior officer of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB).

The TNPCB had stipulated in its consent at the time of granting approval for the Sterlite plant that it would have to ensure that its location was not within 25 sq km of the biosphere reserve. “But the State government permitted Sterlite to establish its unit on the premises of the existing SIPCOT Industrial complex, which is 14 km from the biosphere reserve,” said M. Krishnamurthi, who has been active in the anti-Sterlite struggle since the late 1990s. He said even the 25-metre green belt that was mandatory for the company to develop around its premises had not been done.

On the issues of environmental and industrial regulations, too, Sterlite has faced accusations. Though the company claims to have achieved “zero discharge” of effluents, activists allege that it has violated many provisions of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act (1974) and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act (1981). These laws, they pointed out, prescribed the standards for effluent discharge and emissions and established the TNPCB as the enforcer. The TNPCB administers the Union government’s Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notifications (1986) too.

Even the ferrous silicate slag is found to have been dumped behind the plant and adjacent to Therkkuveerapandiapuram village. The samples of groundwater in the cluster of villages lying close to the plant carry heavy loads of cadmium and fluoride. The water has arsenic content. The TNPCB, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Indian Institute of Technology Madras, and other independent groups, besides court-appointed experts, have carried out studies on Sterlite’s effluent treatment since 1997. The NEERI filed reports in 1998, 1999, 2003 and 2005, of which the first three claimed that the company had not conformed to the emission standards. Its fourth report, however, claimed that the company had adhered to the regulations.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran

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