February 22, 2020
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A Greenie Turns On The Heat

A decade of fighting against the polluting effects of a thermal power plant in Maharashtra brings victory to Nergis Irani

A Greenie Turns On The Heat

THIS one is straight out of the escapist fiction she loves. At 5ft 5", Nergis Irani stands taller than the 275 metre chimney, Asia’s highest, that belongs to her bete noire, the Rs-4,000-crore, 500-MW, sprawling Brihanmumbai Suburban Electric Supply (BSES) thermal plant in Dahanu. Taller in more ways than one, as the 62-year-old Nergis generates as much, if not more, power than the mega project in her all-out bid to prevent it from polluting her land. "You must have a lot of energy. For every step they take, you try to take a leap. Only then can you win," says the lady.

In the last decade, Nergis has turned Dahanu, a coastal stretch 120 km off Mumbai, upside down. And consequently attracted immense flak. "Earlier they used to call me mad. Now that we have fought city hall, the state government, the Central Government, BSES and the World Bank and have won, things are different," she says. Felicitation time is now round the bend. But what turned the tide in her favour was the Supreme Court order accepting the stringent observations and recommendations made by the National Environmental Engineering and Research Institute (NEERI) regarding the irresponsible disposal of fly ash, the dumping of solid waste in the creek, the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) violations and the non-starting flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) installation. The order is likely to throw a spanner in the expansion plans and a big question mark on the workings of the power plant. "We began the fight long before BSES had spent a naya paisa on the project," reminisces Nergis. And over the years battling with BSES on the one hand and a strong builders’ lobby on the other, she has lost a lot, but learnt a lot more.

It was a long-drawn dream going right back to 1988 for the formidable Nergis Irani. A rebel from the start, she had eloped and married outside her community much to the consternation of the conservative Irani community. A 10-year stint in England and a crumbling marriage brought her back to piece life together. Nergis had always hated the big city—home was Dahanu, the land of chickoo orchards where she spent much of her childhood. One home having come apart, she was determined not to let the same happen to the other. "Dahanu and the sustainable development here is a celebration of life. Land value is high, traders have good business and nowhere else in the country are adivasis (tribals) as well off as they are in Dahanu. In fact, I’d want Dahanu to be a prototype for the rest of the country," she asserts. Working in that direction, Nergis was the first to start a vigilance organisation soon after Dahanu was designated a municipality in 1985. The action group founded over coffee and cake had the locals hungering for action. Beaches used as burial grounds were cleaned up and corrupt rationing officials taken to task.

But it was a stray statement by her brother that set her thinking. "When there is the possibility of a thermal power plant being put up, how can you be running around protesting about garbage like a chicken with its head cut off?" he asked. Consequently, the next step in her scheme of saving the land was the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Group (DTEPG), later renamed the Dahanu Taluka Environment Welfare Association (DTEWA). Doing the pillar-to-post routine, she managed to win support at a national level from INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) which soon set up a Dahanu chapter. In 1989, she filed a writ petition in the Mumbai High Court against the setting up of the BSES thermal plant. A disappointing order from the Mumbai High Court, followed by a similar one from the Supreme Court in 1991 bogged down her spirits, albeit temporarily.

 "The Ministry of Environment findings of the S.K. Roy Committee and Dr Maudgal’s report, both of which were not in favour of Dahanu as a site for a thermal power plant, were ignored. If it wasn’t for the Dahanu Taluka notification dated June 20, 1991, which declared the area ‘ecologically fragile’, it would have been tough going. By this time, the CRZ law had come into being," observes Nergis. Having found a loop firm enough to tighten her case, a fresh petition was drafted. And this time round, the Supreme Court suggested the setting up of a ‘Green Bench’ in the Mumbai High Court and an additional monitoring committee to oversee the implementation of the notification. An outcome which ensures that the thermal plant will continue to feel the heat.

Almost simultaneously, Nergis persisted with her attempts to keep builders and unauthorised constructions at bay—specifically, ensuring that the 500-metre-high tide line was honoured. As more illegal buildings came up, her popularity plummeted.

 Then came threats followed by actual violence. In August 1992, goons hired by a strong builders’ lobby, which was flouting CRZ violations at Bordi, gave Nergis a 10-km chase along the road from Bordi to Dahanu. "One hand on the horn, another on the wheel, she drove like crazy," recalls Kitayun Rustom, joint secretary of DTEWA, who was at the scene. More terrorist tactics were used when the local MLA instigated tribals to set fire to her land on grounds of encroaching on their territory. "She has proved title to the land, possession has been granted by the district court and yet her land has been set ablaze at least thrice during the past two years," says Kerban Anklesaria, one of Nergis’ lawyers. The harrassment was stepped up in 1995 when municipal authorities invited her for a meeting and then slapped a case of trespassing on her. Other hurdles were thrown in her path, including objections to a water-shed project on the grounds that it was akin to quarrying.

 The final straw, however, came in early 1996 when the district revenue authorities sent notices that they were going to acquire her land. They alleged that she was a British citizen and contended that she had illegally acquired agricultural land. The idea, according to her family, was to get her to mind her own business for a change. "We are Indians and come from a family of agriculturists. The land was bought in 1971 and their ridiculous contention is that the deal has not complied with the FERA act of 1973. That is how we managed to get a stay order from the high court," says her daughter Seema.

NERGIS emerged from the ordeal as a lone ranger with just a handful of friends to help her maintain her fervour. The morcha of 2,000 people who had stood by her in the movement’s initial days—including Bhai Bandarkar, president of the Machchimar Kruti Samiti and Datta Patil, former legislator—had opted to lie low. "Yes, the movement flagged but I don’t blame them," philosophises Nergis.

"They had their reasons. That is why you can’t have payoffs. No pay-offs means no fear. If there is a building proposal to be cleared, how can you have commitment?" However, in 1991, when living in Dahanu became too dangerous, she was compelled to seek refuge in the US for over a month. But she could not keep away from the action she had initiated, and soon found herself back home. She had to pay for her persistence though. Walking on the edge almost took its toll on her sanity several times and it was a strong will and the support of her second husband that kept Nergis from breaking down. "But for a wonderful husband and a supportive family, I do not know how all this would have been possible," she says. Close friends remember her frequent mood swings, ranging from deep depression to unending elation, depending on the course the movement was taking.

 Throughout the series of slumps, her belief in the law was unwavering. "This isn’t about the BSES or corruption. This is about the implementation of the law," opines Nergis, "Why should one indulge in rasta rokos (road blocks) or fasts when we are governed by our own people and (have recourse to) the law. It is the only thing that works in the country. Everything else has a conspiracy of silence." Nergis feels that with the emergence of an active judiciary, the time is right for a Green party. "Probably one headed by T.N. Seshan as (Menaka Gandhi) tends to rub people the wrong way."

 For Nergis, who 10 years ago didn’t know the difference between a taluka and a tehsildar, it is the "beginning of the beginning". "I have packed 20 years of living into one decade," she laughs. "Still, I would never want to be anyone else." Her next battle will be for recognition of the tribal people who form 60 per cent of the population of Dahanu, the channelling of the Surya Canal waters for their development and finally, for herself, one against the bulge. "I am going back to aerobics," she says. In the meantime, in her eight-acre sanctuary, she plans to let a wild boar loose and is pleased about the python she has set free on her land. "I paid Rs 400 for it. I hope it will keep the rats under control." In the concrete counterpart of chickoo country, that’s exactly what she has done.

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