New Delhi: It was 9 p.m. The coastal village of Nicha Kotda was engulfed by the dark of night. In the village library, under the light of a sole bulb, two young men were sitting on the floor, waiting for others to turn up. It was April 1, the day of their monthly congregation to plan strategy and action for resisting the takeover of their fertile lands by a cement company for limestone mining. Since 2018, the farmers of Nicha Kotda have protested more than 10 times, taken the matter to the court and even secured a win in panchayat elections. "We will do everything in our ability to save our farms," Bharat Bhil, a teacher and activist from Nicha Kotda village, told IndiaSpend.

Yet, limestone mining by UltraTech Cement, an Aditya Birla Group company, is slowly eating into private agricultural lands in Mahuva and Talaja talukas (blocks) of Bhavnagar district in south Gujarat, our investigation shows. Over the years, companies including UltraTech have benefited from a change in mining regulations, loopholes in the environmental appraisal process and lack of effective state action against pollution violations, documents reviewed by IndiaSpend show.

Even as limestone mining has picked up pace, work on a state government-sanctioned check dam which would benefit the 30,000-strong agrarian community in 10 villages in the region has stalled. The construction of the dam will lead to the area becoming a wetland, and this could hinder environmental clearance for more mining projects, locals allege.

We wrote to Rammohan Regulapati, the communications in charge at UltraTech Cement, seeking a response on the allegations made by the villagers regarding mineral transport and the impact of mining on agriculture in the region. We will update the story when we hear from him.

Fast-tracking the grant of right to mine

In 1999, the Gujarat government's Department of Industries and Mines granted a letter of intent (LoI) to Indian Rayon & Industries to mine limestone over an area of 851.32 hectares spread over six villages in Talaja taluka. In 2001, it granted two more LoIs to Grasim Industries to mine limestone over an area of 883.8 hectares in five villages of Talaja and Mahuva taluka in the same district. On the merger of Indian Rayon & Industries with Grasim Industries in 2009, the state department of industries and mines issued a detailed order outlining the terms of the LoI to Grasim Industries for the total area of 1,735.12 hectares. Subsequently, the company's name was changed to UltraTech Cement Ltd and, in 2015, the department changed the grantee from Grasim to UltraTech.

Although the LoIs were valid for a period of 30 years from the date of grant, i.e. till 2029, in January 2015, changes to central mining laws shrank this time period for UltraTech. The Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation (MMDR) Amendment Ordinance cancelled all existing applications for grant of mineral concession except those that had either obtained an LoI from a state government or an approval from the central government, or had a valid prospecting/reconnaissance license. For those with LoIs such as UltraTech, it granted two years' time until January 2017 to fulfil the conditions of the LoI -- one condition being a valid environmental clearance -- so as to obtain a mining lease.

In early June 2016, the mines ministry released lists of 'saved cases' that could be granted the right to mine before this two-year deadline for fulfilling conditions ended in January 2017. UltraTech Cement was on the list for 'pending public hearing'. On June 15 and 16, 2016, the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) held public hearings for all three mining projects.

Rushed public hearings, public concerns ignored

Prior to the public hearings, the gram panchayats (elected village councils) of Madhuvan, Reliya-Gathula and Methala, along with several local groups and individuals, demanded from the GPCB that the mining projects not be pursued. But the GPCB went ahead with the public hearings. The Expert Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change recommended in October 2016 that the first mine lease be granted environmental clearance.

Noting that their objections in the public hearings had not had an impact, in November 2016, the local villagers complained in writing to the Expert Appraisal Committee that the three public hearings had been held over just two days. The committee was appraising the request for EC to the second mine lease. The locals also highlighted that out of a total of 1,714 hectares (851, 670 and 193 ha) for which UltraTech Cement had sought ECs, 1,650 hectares was private fertile land and not a single landowner had favoured the project.

The site of the limestone mining by UltraTech in Bambhor village in Gujarat's Bhavnagar district.

The Expert Appraisal Committee deferred the proposal and asked the environment ministry to take 'a view' on the complaints.

The ministry, in turn, forwarded the complaints to the then district collector Aayush Oak, who responded saying the points raised in the complaint letter were already included in the public hearing proceedings. The concerns were duly documented, but not addressed, yet the Expert Appraisal Committee recommended in July 2017 that the second lease be given environmental clearance.

"The environmental impact assessment notification [2006] doesn't mandate that the government has to abide by the people's opinion. Public hearings in the EIA process do not meet the requirement of a deliberative governance structure that takes people along. This flawed process then pushes people to articulate their dissent either through protests or by approaching the courts," says Arpitha Kodiveri, who has been researching environmental law.

In the case of UltraTech Cement, we will see that people have resorted to both routes.

Grant to mine without environmental clearance

Despite the rushed public hearings, environmental appraisal of the projects was not completed and environmental clearance was pending for two of UltraTech's three proposals by the deadline of January 2017.

After an inter-ministerial meeting, on January 5, 2017, the mines ministry issued the 'Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Removal of Difficulties Order, 2017. The order allowed grant of mining rights in those LoIs that had not obtained an EC, though subject to eventually obtaining an EC. UltraTech Cement benefitted from the change when three days later, on January 8, 2017, the government of Gujarat granted leases to 11 projects for limestone mining, including three to UltraTech Cement, which the farmers of Talaja and Mahuva talukas continue to fight against.

UltraTech Cement was granted mining leases for 193.32 hectares in Bambhor and Talli villages of Talaja taluka; 632 hectares in Kotda, Dayal and Kalsar villages; and 499.72 hectares in Methala, Zanzmer, Madhuvan, Rajpara and Relia villages of Mahuva taluka in Bhavnagar district--slightly less area than it had sought. Till then, only one of the three projects had obtained an EC, which came on the same day as the mines ministry order, i.e January 5, 2017.

We wrote to the Joint Secretary, Ministry of Mines, seeking her views on the purpose and impact of the changes made to mining regulations in 2017. We will update the story when we hear from her.

People resist through protests and court petitions

The land lease documents reviewed by IndiaSpend list 1,109 land parcels to be acquired in total for UltraTech Cement's three mine leases. But so far, only about 100 landowners from Bambhor and Talli villages have sold their land, amounting to a total of 1,200 bigha (a bigha is 0.16 hectares in Gujarat) to UltraTech, according to Bhil, an activist from Nicha Kotda, and Govindbhai Vitthalbhai Vashiya, a resident of Talli village.

In fact, mining is going on only over a small portion of the acquired land. UltraTech is extracting limestone from an area of 3.5 hectares (about 22 bigha) under the first lease of 193.3 hectares in Bambhor and Talli villages, according to an affidavit filed by UltraTech in a court case, reviewed by IndiaSpend.

"Mining is yet to start at the 8 bigha of land that my father sold to Ultratech in 2000. My father received Rs 54,000 at the time. Later, when the affidavit was made, we were promised Rs 1 lakh per bigha but we have only received half the amount so far. UltraTech Cement says the rest will be given when the mining work starts," said Karenbhai Bhaubhai Bharvad from Talli village.

Farmers have been opposing the acquisition of the remaining land and the ongoing mining operations, forcing UltraTech to suspend mining on many occasions.

At one such protest on January 2, 2019, about 1,500 villagers including 500 women and 200 children marched peacefully from Nicha Kotda to Bambhor village to protest mining that was to start in Bambhor and Talli villages. Matters escalated after alleged stone-pelting and lathi-charge by the police. The police arrested over 100 persons on charges of rioting and attacking the police. Bharat Bhil filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court the same month, alleging that 54 of those arrested, including him, were tortured in custody.

Subsequently, the high court on May 10 formed a committee of independent experts, comprising agricultural scientist Kapil Shah, founder of Bhavnagar-based Lokbharati Community Science Centre Arunbhai Dave, and executive director of Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture G.V. Ramajaneyulu, to assess the impact of mining on agriculture in Mahuva and Talaja talukas.

Before the committee's visit, farmers alleged that UltraTech Cement was filling up the mine to cover up the violations. The company denied the allegations.

A reading of the petition, orders and affidavits in the case revealed that on June 24, 2019, UltraTech had filed a memo seeking recall of the May 10 order that constituted the committee to assess the impact of mining on agriculture. UltraTech Cement objected to it on the grounds that as a party in the issue, it had not been heard in the matter before the order was issued. While the court has not revoked the May 10 order as yet, the committee proceedings have since come to a halt.

"The company was trying to get a stay. They approached the court for it. We were not told why the process was stalled," Ramajaneyulu told IndiaSpend.

"We were asked to assess the impact of limestone mining on agriculture; 90 days' time was given. We had made one visit, we met some people. We had more visits and meetings planned but the process got halted. It has been over a year since then," Kapil Shah told IndiaSpend.

Both Ramajaneyulu and Shah declined to share their findings from the only visit to assess the impact of the project on agriculture, as the matter was sub judice.

The locals also challenged the second EC in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2020, which did not admit the appeal, citing delay in filing the case. The petitioners took the matter to the Supreme Court, which admitted the appeal and issued notices to the environment ministry, UltraTech Cement and the GPCB in February this year. The case is pending hearing.

History of people's struggle for their land

The people of Mahuva have resisted the takeover of their land in the past too. Their struggle had made headlines between 2008 and 2016, when the environment ministry had issued an EC for a 1.91 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) Nirma Limited cement plant. The locals had opposed the project as it was planned over a bandhara (a check dam to prevent salinity ingress) in Samdhiyala village and part of a project cluster with three limestone mines planned on agricultural lands. They had challenged the EC in the Gujarat High Court, which had allowed the project to proceed.

After the villagers appealed against the order in the Supreme Court, the environment ministry constituted a committee in January 2011. The committee classified the bandhara as a wetland, and in December 2011, the environment ministry revoked Nirma's EC, and the Supreme Court dismissed the petition. However, Nirma challenged the revocation of its EC in the NGT.

The NGT's expert members visited the site, and it reversed the revocation of the EC and allowed the cement plant to resume operations. After the 2017 MMDR amendment ordinance, the state government granted mining rights to Nirma Ltd on the three sites in Mahuva.

Both Nirma Ltd and UltraTech Cement benefited from the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Removal of Difficulties Order, 2017. They received leases to mine limestone prior to receiving environmental clearance. But in the case of Nirma Ltd, in 2016, the environment ministry's Expert Appraisal Committee deferred its three proposals for limestone mining on an area of more than 2,700 hectares. The committee noted "these three projects together would divert large private agricultural land, affect a large number of families and would therefore have a large socio-economic impact by affecting agriculture and allied activities." Nirma Ltd was asked to look for an alternative site or reduce the area considerably. By October 2016, Nirma Ltd had withdrawn from the three mining projects in the region. It's cement plant did not take off either.

In the case of UltraTech too, 98% of the site of limestone mine leases is agricultural land, claimed locals. Mahuva and Talaja talukas produce significant quantities of onion and house several onion processing plants. Earlier, due to lack of irrigation during the rabi season (winter planting), people from the two talukas used to migrate to Bhavnagar, Surat and Vapi for work. But migration has stopped now, locals claim. They credit the small bandhara in Methala village that they have built with their own money and hard work for this. "We grow onion, bajra, wheat, jowar, fodder and peanuts. Crop production has increased by 85% and profit by three times. Now we take three crops in a year," said Bhil.

Methala bandhara, a check dam to prevent salinity ingress, built by the farmers in Gujarat's Bhavnagar district.

The state has also been planning a bandhara in Methala covering a much larger area, approved in 1992, to stop the water of the Baghad river from entering the sea. It would be spread over an area of 1,700 hectares of land, creating a wetland. The state government predicted that 30,000 people in 10 villages of Talaja taluka will benefit from irrigation of 6,500 hectares of land and control of salinity ingress. The government documents also predict that it would stall migration.

In 2015, then chief minister Anandiben Patel allotted Rs 53 crore for the bandhara. The current estimate of expenditure has reached Rs 136 crore but the project is yet to start. Locals too have been demanding this bigger bandhara. Besides the issue of land acquisition, the presence of limestone and lignite in the area is allegedly delaying the construction.

We sent a query to the district collector regarding the status of bandhara construction and the reasons for the delay. The story will be updated when we hear from him.

Meanwhile, the negative impact of mining operations has started to show, villagers say. "Our fears have come true. The land, which we nurtured with the bandhara, is losing its fertility. Bajre aur pyaz ki fasal mein paidavar ghat rahi hai (crops of pearl millet and onion are giving less yield)," said Vashiya from Talli village, who owns 7.5 bigha of agricultural land just 200 m away from the UltraTech mine.

Violations of existing environmental clearance

UltraTech Cement, as noted above, mines limestone from Bambhor and Talli and supplies it to its cement plant in Rajula taluka in Amreli. In the EC letter issued to the project, one of the conditions states that the trucks carrying the mineral should not pass through the villages. In October 2019, the GPCB found during its inspection that the company was doing exactly this and issued a show-cause notice.

As recently as late June, company trucks were allegedly plying through the villages. Residents of the 10 villages gathered at Talli village and stopped the trucks from passing through their villages. They demanded an alternate route for the transport of the mineral. On July 26, the residents of Talli village made their third representation before the district collector and the district head of the GPCB, demanding they pass an order against plying of trucks through their village. "They [district collector and pollution control board] agree with our demand verbally but don't provide anything in writing." alleges Bhil.

Trucks carrying limestone from the mines ply in the region. In the environment clearance issued to mine, one of the conditions states that the trucks carrying the mineral should not pass through the villages. Residents claim that this condition was violated as recently as in June 2021.

In their last meeting, the district head of the GPCB has assured them that he would inspect the region in two weeks' time, according to Bhil. We sent a set of questions to GPCB asking about the action taken against the company after the show-cause notice and the steps taken regarding the recent violation of the EC condition pertaining to transport of minerals. We will update the story when we hear from them.

Although the plying of trucks has stopped for now, mining is on. "We don't know for how long we can keep the trucks from plying especially during this Covid-19 pandemic with restrictions for people to gather in large numbers in one place," rued Vashiya.

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