Dahanu, Maharashtra: India’s first bullet train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. The extension of a suburban railway. A national freight corridor.
These multibillion dollar new projects will rip through a lush land that was once called the “fruit basket” of Gujarat and Maharashtra, the last island of green between the two states, as the laws that once protected a region legally classified an “ecologically fragile area”in 1991 have been—and continue to be—set aside.
This is Dahanu, an 868-km swathe of land on the Konkan coast, where the lives and livelihoods of fisherfolk, farmers in fruit orchards and tribal communities have already been crippled over the last 26 years by a power plant on the edge of what was once an area restricted to industries.
About the size of Coimbatore, 140 km northwest of Mumbai, Adivasi-dominated Dahanu is a splash of green between the grey industrial areas of south Gujarat and north Maharashtra: 36% of Dahanu is forest, but that is set to change.
Nearly 22,000 mangroves and 1,500 other trees will be cut (of more than 80,000 in total) for the Rs. 1.08 lakh crore ($13.56 billion) Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train. It was cleared in 2019 by the union ministry of environment and forests amidst controversy and received its final clearance in July 2022.
The trees cut are meant to be compensated by afforestation elsewhere, a policy called compensatory afforestation that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced in 2018 to speed up the removal of forests for industry and infrastructure. That policy has repeatedly been criticised because of its failures (here, here and here).
The other major railway lines set to cut through Dahanu’s forests and orchards are: the Rs 54,777 crore Virar-Dahanu railway, the extension of a Mumbai suburban rail line; and the Rs 81,000 crore Delhi-Mumbai industrial freight corridor.
The brief for public consultation about the suburban rail project lists the environmental impacts that must be monitored, including air and water quality in the forest from toxic construction emissions, noise and vibration levels of heavy machinery and construction, and impact on flora and fauna.
Locals said going by past experience, these concerns may be restricted to paper, exacerbating Dahanu’s decline as a land of plentiful fruit harvests.
Dahanu's Endangered Harvest: Fruits, Farms And Fish
Over a third of Dahanu’s area is orchards, growing chikoo (also called sapodilla or sapota), guava, mango and coconut. Farmers also grow capsicum and supply cattle fodder to other parts of the state. Some have shellfish farms.
Over 50% of Dahanu’s residents are Adivasi, dominated by the Warli tribe, largely animistic and meat eating, speaking Varli, a form of Marathi influenced by Bhili, a tribal dialect based on Gujarati. The other locals are primarily from Hindu castes connected to their occupations: fishing, farming and toddy tapping—collecting from coconut trees the sap that becomes an alcoholic beverage.
Over the last 30 years, Dahanu’s locals have frequently moved court (here, here, here and here) to protect their lands and livelihoods as governments and industry encroached on what the union government had described in 1999 as an “ecologically fragile area”.
They have argued that industries and infrastructure, such as the contentious power plant, the proposed rail lines and a new port, will significantly alter the area's fragile ecosystem and hinder the livelihood of Adivasis and fisherfolk.
Until 2017, the latest year for which data are available, half of India’s chikoo harvest came from Dahanu.
“We are the third generation to grow chikoo in Dahanu,” said Vinayak Raghunath Bari, a chikoo farmer for three decades and president of the Maharashtra Rajya Chikoo Utpadak Sangh or the Maharashtra State Chikoo Producers Union. “But production has crashed. This year is the worst we have ever seen.”
Bari said he now found it difficult to pay farm labour, paying them half of what he once did: Rs 200-250 instead of Rs 400 to pick about 100 kg. “Now that I can't produce enough chikoos, what will I give the labourers?" he said.
Annual yields in Dahanu’s orchards have decreased by almost 50% over the last five years, according to a report by the Healthy Energy Initiative (HEI), a global advocacy and research group, based in Chennai.
In January 2021, with much fanfare, the government launched a ‘Kisan Rail’ special train to transport chikoos from Dahanu to New Delhi, meant to provide chikoo farmers affordable transportation for their produce.
“The train was stopped in May 2022 because there wasn't enough chikoo to ferry,” said Bari.
Fly Ash & Blackened Chikoos
While the earliest record of a harvest decline in Dahanu was first recorded in 1995, “the vast majority of farms… felt the brunt much later by 1999-2000”, said a 2004 study by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History in Coimbatore.
The power plant, now called the Adani Dahanu Thermal Power Station, was not then owned by the Adani group. Reports of blackened fruit in Dahanu, followed by declining yields, were widely reported (here, here and here),
Most locals attribute the blackening to fly ash from the power plant on the edge of Dahanu, while the power company blames a fungus.
Basant, 31, an Adivasi, who has worked on chikoo farms since he was a child, showed this reporter a pile of blackened chikoo.
“Nobody will buy this pile, pollution has destroyed it, what are we to do?” said Basant, who uses only one name. “On the one hand, there are fewer fruits, and fruits that are there have fungus. When the fungus first appears, you won’t notice any abnormality, it becomes apparent only when the fruits start to fall.”
Damodar Raju Macchi, a former sarpanch or head of the village council of Agwan in Dahanu talked of his losses.“I grow chikoo on the five acres of land I own,” he said. “Six labourers would work on my fields, now I only have one.”
Government regulations issued by the union environment ministry in 1999 required that all coal-fired thermal power plants dispose of their fly ash—toxic residue from burning coal—without damaging the environment. Fly ash damages air, water and soil and adversely impacts human health. It is, in particular, linked to rising rates of cancer.
The Adani power plant has four ash ponds to dispose of fly ash. But villages 5 km from the power plant display the effects of the ash.
“You should visit before the monsoon when our walls are covered in soot,” said Macchi, referring to the Dahanu villages most affected: Chari Kotbi, Saravali, Agwan and Savte.
“The fly ash villagers consume is a slow poison,” said Macchi. “The ash from the plant settles on the flower of the fruits, and it settles on the walls of our house. It is very dangerous but we can’t do anything about it.”
Adani Plant Compiles With Law: Official
Virendra R Singh, an officer with the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) said the Adani power plant complied with the law to the “fullest extent possible”.
This contention was disputed by Debi Goenka, an environmental campaigner, who said the MPCB lacked inspectors to check pollution levels. “The company can trick anyone for optics, they don't reveal real pollution levels, and online pollution tracking can easily be manipulated,” alleged Goenka.
Shyam Asolekar, professor and chair of the environmental science and engineering department at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, said that the bigger concern was ash slurry flowing into Dahanu creek.
“If that occurs,” said Asolekar, “there would be serious environmental, legal and regulatory issues”.
Queries emailed to Makrand Gadgil, corporate communications manager, at the Adani Dahanu plant on 16 August went unanswered. This story will be updated if he responds.
The Laws Protecting Dahanu
Dahanu is no stranger to the environmental damage that results when industry and governments ignore or sidestep the law.
In 1989, the Maharashtra government first approved a proposal by what was then the Bombay Suburban Electricity Supply Company Limited (BSES) to build a thermal power plant (TPP) in Dahanu, initially called the BSES-TPP project.
In 1988, the Maharashtra government designated Dahanu a “green zone”, which meant no hazardous, polluting industries would be permitted in the area. The government also said efforts would be made to preserve the region's cultural history and horticultural status.
But in 1989 state and central governments approved a proposal to build a thermal power plant (TPP) in Dahanu, initially called the BSES-TPP project.
Locals protested against the thermal power plant, concerned about damage to Dahanu’s forests, orchards, farms and marine ecosystem, culminating in the 1991 notification from the ministry of environment and forests.
With the “ecologically fragile area” notification, limits were placed on the construction of industry detrimental to Dahanu, its coastline, creeks, mangroves, hills, forests, rivers, streams and ponds.
But construction of the thermal power plant in Dahanu's boundary continued anyway, a 500 MW coal-powered plant with two units of 250 MW. It started operations, as we said, in 1996.
The 1991 notification said that inside the industrial zones designated in the master plan there would be no construction of any kind within 500 m of the high tide line, prohibited as it was by the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) law.
Court Orders Ignored
A clause in the 1991 notification that “a buffer zone of 25 km should be kept free of industries around the outer periphery of Dahanu” was quietly withdrawn in 1999. There were other restrictions that became the subject of court battles, most filed by the Dahanu Taluka Environment Welfare Association (DTEWA), an amalgam of local residents.
In one court case, Bittu Sehgal vs Union of India, the Supreme Court in 1995 said “continuous monitoring” of Dahanu was “necessary” and ordered the union government to constitute “an independent statutory authority” headed by a retired judge. It transferred the case to the Bombay High Court.
In 1996, the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA) was set up. For years it monitored Dahanu’s environment, rejecting a mega port and forcing companies and others to follow the law.
In 2019, when its chief, former justice C S Dharmadhikari died, the union government requested the Supreme Court to disband the DTEPA, arguing that it was “no longer necessary” since new laws and regulations had been passed.
But such laws are easily violated, as the violation of an important legal requirement for clean air in Dahanu illustrates.
A clause in the 1988 environment ministry clearance for the BSES-TPP project was that the power plant would use only washed coal. Another clause required a flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) system, which would remove 80-90% of sulphur dioxides (SO2) discharged by the furnaces.
In 1993, even before the thermal power plant started operations, the BSES lobbied with the environment ministry to have the FGD condition removed. The government rejected the appeal twice.
Despite a Supreme Court order in 2005 requiring it to install an FGD, the Dahanu power plant started operations without one. From 1996 to 2006, the plant ran without an FGD.
In 2005, the Bombay High Court ordered Reliance, which had taken over operations from BSES in 2003, to pay a Rs-300-crore penalty (later reduced to Rs 100 crore). The FGD was installed in 2007, 11 years after the power plant started operations.
In 2017, Adani took over the power plant from Reliance.
2022 Study Reveals Impact On Humans
Apart from affecting livelihoods, pollution from the Dahanu thermal plant has had its impact on community health and the area’s marine ecosystem.
Rajeev Lamba of Nest Farms, a farm stay, and chairman of the DTEWA, said that since the government had allowed industry to be situated in an area that was supposed to be out of bounds, they invited the HEI to carry out a survey.
In January 2022, the HEI study found locals reporting skin infections, kidney issues, water-borne and respiratory illnesses.
Dahanu’s air pollution levels, based on sampling between 23 January and 30 January 2022 in 12 locations, exceeded the Indian 24-hour national ambient air quality standard for PM 2.5—or particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns, more than 30 times finer than a human hair—by 1.9 to 10.6 times.
The three samples with the highest concentration PM2.5 were found at Patel Pada, Kainad Morpada and Masoli, villages located within 4 to 6 km of the Adani Dahanu thermal power plant.
PM 2.5 penetrates the bloodstream and deepest part of the lungs, causing respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular ailments and strokes. All 12 locations surveyed also had a higher concentration of silica, lead, manganese, and nickel, metals implicated in respiratory distress and neurological damage.
Chikoo Blackening Not From Fly Ash: Adani
Bhushan Bhoir, an oceanographer, and assistant professor of the zoology department at Palghar’s Sonopant Dandekar College, said that chikoo pollination was “severely affected” because fly ash sticks to the plant’s stigma, where the pollen germinates, and dries it out.
The HEI study linked the fungal blackening of chikoo to air pollution, explaining how fly ash and other emissions from the power plant were carried by winds that were stopped by nearby hills.
“Once the southwest monsoon kicks in, rain washes away the pollutants from the tree and flows down to the land area affecting the soil,” said the HEI study. “This facilitates the incidence of Phytophthora fungal disease in the Chikoo trees. This has resulted in a 40-50% reduction in their Chikoo yield.”
Adani Dahanu thermal power plant, in a 2022 statement to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, acknowledged the blackening of chikoos but contended that a “sooty mould disease” was spread through insects and was not related to power-plant emissions.
Vishvaja Sambhat, lead author of the HEI study, said Dahanu’s sampling sites were chosen within a 10-km radius of the thermal power plant. The Adani statement attributed heightened air pollution levels and heavy metals to a sandstorm blowing in from Pakistan and west Asia.
HEI recommended that authorities “urgently issue air quality warnings and advisories to residents of Dahanu”.
At the local public health centre, the medical officer, Vikrant Valve, said patients had increasingly complained about respiratory and skin problems since 2015.
"We can't be sure about the diagnosis of respiratory or skin diseases,” he said. “There could be numerous explanations—one could be unclean water, or a changing environment, or ash—but that's not definite," said Valve.
Fisherfolk Blame Declining Catch On Power Plant
Like the chikoo farmers, Dahanu’s fishing community reported a decline in catch, estimated in 2009 to be more than 370,000 tonnes of crab, pomfret, and other fish, and 17,000 tonnes of prawns. Bombay Duck or bombil, a species of delicate lizardfish and a key export, had been affected by pollution and warming creek water, and shivdi (a large lobster) was longer found in the seas of Dahanu, the HEI study noted.
“Fisherfolk near the Dahanu creek suffer due to the hot water released into the creek,” said Damodar Machhi, a local fisherman. “Fish in that area die due to the polluted water from the plant.”
The Adani statement denied the plant was to blame. Seawater used by the plant was cooled to temperatures less than those prescribed by the government before being discharged into the creek, the statement said.
Ganesh Akre, 58, president of the Dahanu Machhimar (fisherfolk) Society, said the quality of the catch had worsened since the power plant was built 30 years ago.
“The fishing community has been most negatively impacted because this is the only occupation the locals have ever known,” said Akre. “We have protested against the plant, but it has been too long and we have now given up.”
"We had various types of fish, prawns, and crabs, and our business was booming, but now the quality and quantity of fish have deteriorated,” Nand Kumar Vinde, a local fisherman. “People don't buy from us if they learn that our fish catch comes from Dandi creek.”
Apart from the power plant, fisherfolk now have a new worry now: the nearby port of Vadhavan, which is estimated to cost Rs 65,500 crore and will reclaim 5,000 acres of land from the sea.
“It is a government project, so they will ask the fishing community to farm,” said Akre. “But we can’t. We are fishermen, how can we suddenly switch?”
(Arshi Qureshi is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)