Friends In The Right Place
- Two committees have found evidence of environment damage wreaked by Adani Ports
- Mangroves have been destroyed, forest land has been given to the group, no questions asked
- Neither the UPA, nor the NDA, which promised to end crony capitalism, have taken action
Two years ago, Outlook ran a cover story on the Adani Group’s meteoric rise during the chief ministership of Narendra Modi in Gujarat. There has been a lot of attention on the big, gleaming Adani Port in Mundra. Apart from picking up over 7,000 hectares at rock bottom rates (some for as low as Re 1 per square metre), there was enough evidence of massive environmental damage. “You only have to step outside this world (Adani Port) and spend some time in the villages surrounding the area to see how the group’s businesses have caused havoc in the lives of the villagers,” journalist Megha Bahree wrote then for Outlook.
The fact that this travesty hasn’t been resolved thus far is a glaring indictment of India’s priorities and a sign of the spread of crony capitalism. Despite two committees bringing up damning evidence of gross environment degradation and violation of environmental laws and clearances by Adani Port, satellite images and statements by local people, there was no action by the former UPA government—and now the BJP-led government headed by Modi. In fact, this government has given Adani Ports the clean chit and refused to penalise it for wrongdoing: Last week, in response to a question in Parliament, the government stated that no penalty had been imposed on the company in the last two years. It effectively waived the demand for a Rs 200 crore environment restoration fund (ERF) recommended by the Sunita Narain committee in 2013. At the same time, environmental clearances granted by the UPA government have been extended for the company’s waterfront development project.
The government has said it has made conditions more stringent, which would amount to more spending by the Adani Group. Yet, no such evidence is forthcoming and it does not seem to have affected the group in any way. For them, it is business as usual. Given that the Adani Group shares a special relationship with Modi, group chairman Gautam Adani was quick to deny any special favours in an interview to the Economic Times. This led to a political war-of-words with the UPA’s former environment minister Jairam Ramesh. The Adani Group did not respond to Outlook’s requests. Jairam Ramesh did not respond to repeated requests for an interaction.
The case—like many similar ones—threatens to get drowned in legalese. The Sunita Narain committee came out strongly in its 2013 report against the company—but no fine or penalty was imposed by the government at that time. However, the committee had recommended that Adani Ports pay Rs 200 crore in an ERF. “We did not call it a penalty or a fine, as by law we could not impose a fine, which is the purview of a court. We took the precedence of the Lavassa case, in which the government had imposed an ERF. We did not have a detailed estimation of the damage but the committee felt Rs 200 crore was a large enough amount for this,” Narain told Outlook.
What is interesting is that in April this year, the Gujarat High Court appointed another committee to look into environmental degradation caused by Adani Ports. The two-member committee, comprising Goa-based environmentalist Claude Alvares and ecologist Subrata Maity also came down heavily against the company and found damning evidence in the construction of the Mundra Port.
Gautam Adani is known to be close to PM Modi
The committee, which submitted its report last month, found gross environmental violations and destructions of mangroves in the Mundra Port site. “We were asked by the high court to find 100 hectares where compensatory forestation could be done. But we found the extent of mangroves in that area was more than 7,000 hectares,” Alvares told Outlook. Much of these mangroves had been destroyed because of the port construction. This is the second panel in four years to find gross environmental degradation and violation of environmental laws by the company.
What was even more damning was the committee’s discovery that the company had blocked the creeks that fed the mangroves. Says a source: “By blocking the creeks which provided nutrition to the mangroves, the company has systematically slaughtered the mangroves. This cannot be reforested or relocated to another area. This is surprising because the environmental clearance given to the company categorically stated that the mangroves were not to be touched or harmed in any way.”
The committee also found that about 5,000 hectares of the Adani Port area was declared as reserved forest and this information was never disclosed to any of the authorities who were approving the land. The remaining areas were mangroves. In fact, the main Adani building and headquarters in that area was also constructed in a no-development zone, the committee found. How Adani Ports got permission to construct there is not known.
Environmentalists say that despite the damage, the local authorities have not taken any action. Says Ahmedabad-based environmentalist Mahesh Pandya, “Irreversible and irreparable damage has been done to the area by the Adani Port and it is difficult to monitor the extent of the damage today. The mangroves have been destroyed and it has created an environmental disaster. But if you ask the Gujarat Pollution Control Board or the state environment and forest department how many notices they have served to the company, you will find none. The fisherfolk and common people affected by this degradation cannot fight such a big company.”
What is surprising is that despite such evidence, all the authorities have looked the other way. After all, the earlier Narain committee report was accepted by the UPA government. In a note dated August 27, 2013, then minister for environment and forests Jayanthi Natarajan had stated that the ministry accepted the recommendations of the committee. The note said, “In the committee’s assessment there is incontrovertible evidence of violation of EC conditions and non-compliance. It must also be recognised that the group has bypassed environment procedures in certain cases.”
Activists and experts are of the opinion that the government, especially in the state, has always chosen to overlook these anomalies. Says Ahmedabad-based lawyer and activist Anand Yagnik, “Not a single committee in India has said that Adani is right in this. And the Modi government—both during his chief ministership of Gujarat and now at the Centre—have given him a clean chit. This is the crudest forms of Hindu capitalism.” Even the Narain committee verdict has come for criticism. Says Yagnik, “Rs 200 crore is nothing. Every violation has to be rationally converted into money. Here, it was not done as the committee did not identify the violations properly.”
The NDA government had made tall claims of ending crony capitalism in the country. This does not sit well with the support and favour it has been extending to the Adani group despite evidence against it by three committees. To live up to its word, the government would have to either cancel Adani’s environmental clearance at Mundra or impose strict penalties. But is it ready to put its friendship with Gautam Adani on the block?