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From Our Special Correspondent | Nongstoin/Shillong, Sept 06, 2018:
Tucked away in the North Eastern part of India, Meghalaya has successfully managed to attract many tourists, both domestic and foreign, over the past few years. But unfortunately, with the passage of time, the craze for development and industrialization at the expense of the environment has reduced some pockets of the green landscapes to a barren wasteland.
And the deforested, plain and barren lands in mineral-rich areas of Jaintia Hills, West Khasi Hills and Garo Hills serve as a perfect example of how nature has, time and again, been mercilessly exploited and ravaged in the name of development, economic transformation and revenue generation.
The ban on coal mining in Meghalaya imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has prevented unscientific mining (though illegal mining is still reported in some areas) from further poisoning the river bodies and exploiting the already bare and naked hills, previously subjected to massive deforestation.
But coal mining is just one part of this severe ecological destruction. Illegal production of charcoal to fuel the ever growing industries is another critical factor which contributes to environmental degradation in the state.
FERRO-SILICON FACTORY: ILLEGALITIES UNDER THE TABLES?
One such case has been unearthed in West Khasi Hills which houses the Shakambari Ferro Alloys Pvt Ltd in Rwiang village. This factory has been alleged of being responsible for the pollution of the Rwiang River and ridding many hilly areas off their trees to 'illegally produce charcoal'.
This factory, which was established in 2012-13 at Rwiang village, located 15 kms away from Nongstoin, the headquarters of West Khasi Hills, came under scanner after it was alleged that labourers are being brought from outside the state without adhering to the Migrant Workmen Rule and for 'violation of environmental norms'.
Few days ago, a students' body – Hynniewtrep Youth Council (HYC) conducted an inspection at the factory site and found that many of the labourers from outside the state are without labour licence and work permit besides alleging that the factory is illegal manufacturing charcoal and releases its effluents directly into the Rwiang River, thereby polluting and reducing the number of aquatic species in the river.
"They (Factory) have been manufacturing charcoal illegally and this is evident from the rampant deforestation in some hillocks. What is even worse is that the pollution caused to the river bodies. According to the Forest and Environmental norms, the main ferro-silicon plant should be located more than 500 meters away from the river; however, such is not the case. The plant is located right next to the river hardly 25 meters away from the same," HYC Education Secretary, Wellesley Lyngkhoi told this scribe.
WHAT WAS PROMISED DURING THE 2010 ENVIRONMENTAL PUBLIC HEARING?
According to RTI findings filed by a social activist recently (a copy of which is available with the scribe), it was informed that the environmental public hearing in respect of the proposed Ferro Silicon Plant (8940 MT per annum) along with Captive Power Plant of 10 MW at Riwiang village, Nongstoin in West Khasi Hills by M/s Shree Shakambari Ferro Alloys Pvt Ltd was held on April 28, 2010.
During the hearing, it was informed that company has acquired 11.47 hectares of land and the project would be the first big scale project in West Khasi Hills. The Company had also proposed to spend Rs 655.09 lakh on air pollution control systems with a recurring cost of Rs 80 lakh.
Furthermore, the Company had proposed to undertake plantation over an area of 3.65 acres in phases, the same of which was "never followed in letter and spirit", said the HYC leader adding that they promised hospitals, schools and many others but sadly, nothing much of what they assured materialised.
The then headman for Peace and Development Council of WKH, SK Bani had requested the company not to use charcoal as raw material as this will lead to deforestation. But, it was alleged that much has been going on, under the carpet.
Replying to one of the public' queries, the company had informed that the main ferro-silicon plant shall be located more than 500 meters away from the river. However, reports say otherwise.
Referring to the public hearing, Lyngkhoi said there were some people who were sceptical of the proposal of setting up the plant. "However, these same people, who had expressed their apprehensions and who had recently issued several complaints regarding violation of environmental norms and recruitment of migrants, are now turning their back and shifting their stance. Maybe money power and false assurances have done the job," said the HYC leader.
SHREE SHAKAMBARI FERRO-SILICON ALLOYS PVT LTD REACTS TO ALLEGATIONS
Amid allegations from several quarters, the Vice President of the Company, SC Mahanta clarified that the company has and is strictly abiding by the Forest and Environmental norms. As was alleged, Mahanta said that the company uses low ash metallurgical coke to run the factory and not charcoal.
"Charcoal is only used for the furnace and the raw material is being imported from Karnataka and not produced locally. We have all the proofs to substantiate our claims," said Mahanta adding that in case of labourers working without permits, majority of the labourers are locals while only a few are from Assam. "The labourers from outside the state are equipped with permits and licences, however, owing to the frequent renewal of the permits, the applications sometime take time to process," he added.
Reacting to the HYC's inspection conducted recently, the Company's VP accused the students' members of assaulting the staffs and labourers of the company while trying to forcefully enter the factory. "We have informed the same to the DC, SP and even took up the matter at the minister level," he added.
On allegations pertaining to violation of environmental norms, Mahanta said that during the public hearing in 2010, he had mistakenly announced that the main ferro-silicon plant shall be located more than 500 meters away from the river. "I made a mistake then; it should have been 500 ft not meters; the mistake was rectified the very next day and the same was forwarded to the pollution control board," he clarified.
He also denied allegations pertaining to the release of effluents directly into the river. "We have pollution control systems, where the effluents are being directed to our own drainage system for re-use and there are no leakages of the same into the river, as alleged," he claimed.
DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION REACTS TO COMPLAINTS: ORDERS ENQUIRY
Reliable sources informed that on July 2 this year, the West Khasi Hills district administration had ordered an enquiry into the alleged illegal manufacturing and use of charcoal by Ferro alloy Factory. The inquiry was conducted by a magistrate on July 4 and report of the same was submitted on July 8.
On July 4, the magistrate made an unannounced visit to the factory. The report stated that the factory uses charcoal and metallurgical coke for combustion. It was informed that the factory procures charcoal from states like Andhra Pradesh and Nagaland (as claimed by the company), but the report stated that the company failed to produce a stock register.
It was alleged that the company produced false receipts from other states which are un-stamped. They claimed that they had procured 10 MT of charcoal from Nagaland on June 2018 and the same was transported but the transit pass issued by the Forest Department of Nagaland was not stamped.
Further on inspection, it was found that about 50 MT of charcoal was available in the factory storage yard as on July 4. It was informed that considering the consumption of charcoal per day, the procurement made and the quantity available in stock, the report concluded that the charcoal procured by the factory is "illegal" and appeared to have been purchased/manufactured locally.
Confirming this, the Deputy Commissioner of West Khasi Hills, KL Nongbri said that an enquiry has been conducted following complaints from certain quarters but the factory was inspected by the officials of the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board recently. "There is nothing bad in the report. It appears the Company has complied with the pollution norms," said Nongbri adding that the Board has recommended for a joint inspection, the same of which is welcomed and will be carried out soon.
When asked whether any enquiry was done by the district administration in the past, the DC said "In the past, we have sent reports to the MSPCB. We conducted inspections from time to time."
When confronted with the question pertaining to various reported anomalies and alleged manufacturing of charcoal leading to deforestation in some areas, the Nongbri said "No, as of now, we are still compiling a report to be sent to the Government. The enquiry has been conducted and we are sending the reports to the government in this regard."
WHAT DOES THE AMBIENT AIR TEST REPORT OF THE MSPCB SAY?
According to the recent test report of the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board, it was highlighted that while other parameters were within the prescribed limits, the Particulate Matter (PM10) was found to be above the prescribed limits of Ambient Air Quality Standards. The PM10 was found to be 130.0 as against the permissible limit which was 100.
Meanwhile, reliable sources have informed that one prominent NGO has decided to approach NGT to take punitive action against Shakambari Ferro alloys factory.
It was alleged that successive governments and officials have failed to take action against this company "for unknown reasons". It is alleged that the company's proprietor is "a well connected man and has been able to weather all allegations in the past."