India's First "Referendum" on an Industrial Project?

Posted by Ritwick Dutta (October 8, 2008) 

In a very first in terms of public participation in environmental decision making, the State/Provincial Government of the western Indian State of Maharashtra organized on 22nd of September 2008 a Referendum in District Raigad for deciding the fate of the new Special Economic Zone. As per reports, farmers are said to lose over 3400 Hectares if the project is allowed to come up and have been opposing the project not only in terms of the displacement and loss of land but also the impact on the ecology of the area characterized by agricultural holdings, dense forests and mangroves and coasts offering varied livlihoood options.
The referendum was held in stages and as per reports in the media, the project has been opposed by an overwhelming majority of villagers. The proponent of the Special Economic zone, Indian Industrial giant : Reliance Industries claimed that the referendum reflected the view of ‘so called farmers’ and not the ‘landowners’.

As per the existing practice only a Public Hearing is conducted under the provisions of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 for eliciting the views of the affected public. However, the outcome of the Public hearing is rarely give weight in the decision making process. Organizing a Referendum thus is an interesting development and offers hope for communities opposed to socially and ecologically destructive projects.

Earlier, the affected farmers under the banner of Shetkari Samiti had filed an Appeal before the National Environmental Appellate Authority with assistance from Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) against the approval granted to the 4000 MW Thermal power Plant at Raigad on the grounds of: • The project been approved only on the basis of a Rapid Environment Impact Assessment report based on two months data despite the need for a comprehensive one year data; • The outcome of the Public Hearing not been considered (in fact the Ministry of Environment and Forest been totally unaware of the Public Hearing process) by the decision making body; • The thermal power project is located in highly ecologically sensitive estuary and coastal zone and also a designated Green Zone where such activity is prohibited

The outcome of the Referendum is clear so far as the opposition of the farmers are concerned. However, seeing the views of the people, the government seems to have turned turtle. While the Referendum was announced and conducted by the District Collector (the highest government officer of a District), the Chief Minister (the head of the State Government) has stated that what was held was not a ‘referendum’ at all.

Like most struggles in India, this too had landed in the Court with Reliance Industries filing an Petition in the Bombay High Court. Whatever its outcome, the events in Maharashtra marks an important landmark in the struggle for greater voice for the affected communities on decisions which affect their lives and environment.

Ritwick (ritwickdutta@gmail.com) is an environmental lawyer and leader of the TAI Himalayan Coalition