By HH Mohrmen
In one sentence the recent finding of the High Level Committee probing into the allegation that cement plants in the Narpuh area of Khliehriat Sub Division were set up in a forested land in contravention of the Forest Conservation Act is nothing but a case of the officers and staff of the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council and the State Forest Department mistaking a shrub for a forest. But not everyone is convinced that the blame should rest entirely be on the two Forest Departments. The role of the Single Window Agency should also be questioned but the most important question is the timing that both the opposition and government chose to raise this important issue. With the Meghalaya Right to Information Movement (MRTIM) coming up with hard evidence pertaining to the issue, the most important question is whether there is more to all this than meets the eye.
The findings of the HPC have only validated the argument that local environmentalists have all along pointed out – that the setting up of cement plants in the area is illegal in the first place. Not only that plants were started in a forested area by clearing huge forests, (including reserved forests in some cases) but the most important issue is that the mining sites which these companies have acquired through nefarious means is also covered with thick sub-tropical forests. A large part of the limestone and clay rich land in the elaka Narpuh is now in the hands of the cement companies and almost all the lands are still covered with green forests.
The question is not only about cement companies mining in mineral-rich lands without clearing the forests but how the cement company which is a non-tribal entity could procure land in the tribal areas in the first place. The role of the officers and staffs of the forest department of the District Council and the State Forest Department is crucial since the authority to confirm whether the industries and the mining sites are in the forest land or not is bestowed on the two departments. Obviously the report the two forest departments provided is that the cement plants and mine sites were not in the forested area. In most cases these agencies pass off the proposed land as covered with shrubs and not forest. The other vital point that this writer in particular has pointed out is that most of these plants are located within the radius of 5 KM from the Narpuh Reserved Forest which seriously violates the Forest act.
These agencies are largely to be blamed for providing false information and government should conduct an inquiry to find out if any of the officials and staff of the Forest Departments of both the District Council and the state have acquired assets disproportionate to their known sources of income.
A large part of the forest area in elaka Narpuh falls under the un-classed forest category as per information collected, but during the last ten or fifteen years all these lands have been allotted to the near and dear ones of those in power in the District Council. More importantly people would like to know what the role of the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board is in this whole issue. The Board is like a lame duck; at time it looks like the role of the Board is to cater to the whims of the companies only because it only comes in the picture when a public hearing is to be conducted. As for the test conducted by the Board on the discoloring and mass death of fishes in Lukha River, even experts in the area in the NEHU are not convinced by the results of the finding.
Is it right to blame the departments and the board only for the entire cement plant imbroglio in Jaintia Hills? What about the Single Window Agency (SWA)? Let us assume that those in the SWA are not familiar with the environment laws. Still the question is can the SWA issue licenses for starting of 8 cement plants in the area within the 10 KM radius? Does it not occur to those in the helm of affairs of the SWA that they are creating an environmental catastrophe in the area by allowing 8 cement plants to come up in one place at the same time? Who are the members of the SWA when the licenses for setting up of the cement plants were issued? Are they not as guilty as the forest departments?
The SWA obviously is not concerned about environment sustainability, and elaka Narpuh and Lumchnong villages in particular are losing the most exotic caves in the state to mining. Krem Kotsati-Umlawan cave system and 11 other caves in the area are in the verge of extinction due to rampant mining in the area. Krem Kotsati-Umlawan system also figures in the list of the longest and deepest caves in India. Krem Kotsati-Umlawan (21, 530 metres) and Krem Synrang Pamiang (14, 157 metres) are the second and third longest caves in the country respectively. Again in the list of the deepest caves in the country, Krem Synrang Pamiang 317 metres in depth is the deepest while Krem Kotsati-Umlawan 215 metres deep is the third deepest cave in the country (Source, Natures Exotic gift: the caves of Meghalaya, published by Directorate of Information & Public Relations, Government of Meghalaya). The SWA failed to take into consideration these important factors before issuing licenses to the companies to set up plants in the area.
The timing of the HPC report is also questionable. It seems like the Government and the Opposition had learned the trick of some of the NGO in the Khliehriat sub division which is closely in wait for the cement companies to make a false move, then create an issue out of it and make it public. After the companies come to terms with their demands, the NGOs will retreat and the issue will die a natural death. That is why we have all kinds of NGOs in the Khliehriat area; NGOs which are not found anywhere else are hyper active in the Khliehriat Sub division. If the government is really not only making an issue of the cement companies illegal presence in the area because the election is round the corner, then the Government and the Opposition should see to it that the issue comes to a logical conclusion before the election is announced. The government should see to it that the law of the land takes it own course and those found guilty are punished. If both the government and opposition cannot close the issue before the election then it gives the people ample freedom to suspect that they too had followed the NGOs’ footsteps.
On a lighter note, the argument of Pankaj Kejriwal, Executive Director of CMCL that cement industries have not violated the Forest act (ST January, 13, 2012) reminds me of an incident I was told which happened in Delhi a decade or so ago when the JHADC tried to convince the Supreme Court that forest cover in the District is intact and that therefore it should be exempted from the Supreme Court’s blanket bandh of timber logging without any concrete evidence. The JHADC representatives had to return embattled from Delhi when remote sensing images of forest area in the District which proved otherwise were placed on the table for everybody to verify.
It is sad that some people play politics with the environment when all of us breathe the same air and require to conserve the same eco-system that sustains life.
(The writer is a research scholar and environment activist)