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Fruit And Nut
Can vehicular pollution benefit trees? In fact, make them healthier than those in non-polluted areas? Perplexing as it may sound, that was the conclusion of an expert appointed by the Union ministry of environment and forests (MOEF) to ascertain the possible impact of pollution from JSW Energy Ltd’s coal-fired power plant in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, on the area’s famed Alphonso mangoes and cashew.
C.R. Babu, head of the Delhi-based Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems, had visited the area last November. Since there were no functional thermal power plants there, he chose to study the impact of vehicular pollution instead. And in a report submitted this February, he said the trees in the area under study “are normal and even better than those found near the project site due to the edaphic factor”—that is, the subsoil there has a unique property that enables trees to metabolise sulphur and nitrogen better. Nor did he find any leaf injuries or difference in plant type or physiological parameters.
Babu also observed that the concerned area was close to “tropical seas” (sic) and had an excellent drainage system. It also got high rainfall for at least 4-6 months a year. No winter deviations can be observed in the normal atmospheric properties either. “Self-purification of atmosphere takes place with no build-up of pollution load,” he noted. “Consequently, plantations may not be affected the same way as conceived by local communities.”
A big lie, allege activists. “He (Babu) spent only about a day here, that too a day after Cyclone Phyan hit Ratnagiri (Nov 11, 2009) that uprooted many trees,” says Vivek Bhide of the Ratnagiri Zila Jagruk Manch. Earlier studies, he adds, have shown that carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and other emissions from brick kilns are directly responsible for black tips in mango trees, a disorder that retards the growth of fruit and renders it inedible. The Lucknow-based Industrial Toxicology Research Centre too in its study had attributed a reduction in the quality and quantity of mangoes to SO2 emissions. “Given this, are we to believe that burning 12,000 metric tonnes of coal everyday in the plant will benefit the mango trees?” Bhide asks.
Based on Babu’s report, the MOEF had cleared JSW’s 1,200 mw power plant. But following the public outcry, the ministry in June ordered the creation of a supervisory committee headed by P. Pujari of Dr Balasaheb Sawant Konkan Krishi Vidyapeeth in Dapoli. A planned 3,600-mw expansion of the plant hasn’t been cleared yet. Opposition has also built up against a planned nuclear plant of over 10,000 MW in Jaitapur (in Ratnagiri district) and mining projects around Kalane (in Sindhudurg district).
Given this spate of public sentiment against existing and planned projects, the MOEF on August 16 issued a moratorium on further proposals in these two districts till Dec 2010, calling for a “regional approach” in the appraisal of these projects. Madhav Gadgil, member of the National Advisory Council and also the chairman of the MOEF’s Western Ghats ecology expert panel, says it has received many submissions expressing concerns about the ecological impact of the growing number of projects. “We certainly plan to take a review in our next meeting on September 27 in Goa,” he says. Having issued a red flag to Vedanta’s mining project, the MOEF finally seems to be restoring its long-lost writ on the country’s other eco-sensitive regions.