Lavasa may be allowed to continue after ‘heavy fine’

Two days after it pulled up state Urban Development officials for giving ‘environment clearance’ to the Adarsh Society without any jurisdiction, the union environment ministry has again lashed out against the state government, this time for issuing a clearance to the Lavasa hill city.

In a long-winded order, the ministry headed by Jairam Ramesh pulled up the Maharashtra state government for issuing an ‘environment clearance’ to Lavasa when it had no right to do so. The order, based on a site-visit, found the Lavasa project in violation of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification of 1994, EIA Notification of 2004 and EIA Notification of 2006.

The ministry, which held public hearings at the site two weeks ago, however said it is ready to let the project go ahead if Lavasa pays a “substantial penalty” and rectifies its mistakes. Till then, Lavasa cannot move a stone in the project area.

“Taking into account all the facts and circumstances of the case, particularly the submissions made with regard to the investment already incurred, third party rights.., the employment generated and the claimed upliftment of the area.., the MoEF is prepared to consider the project on merits..,” the order, originally prepared on Monday, read.

To arrive at the quantum of punishment and other details, Lavasa has been asked to submit all the minute details of its project, as well as an account of every penny spent on the same. “The haphazard way in which the hill cutting has taken place in the project area is expected to result in landslides, high erosion and consequent siltation of water bodies,” the report said.

However, the tone of the order is softer than in case of the Adarsh Society, where Jairam Ramesh had summarily dismissed the ‘investment incurred’ argument and ordered the building to be demolished.

What seems to have softened blow for Lavasa seemed to be the plight of hundreds of construction workers and ordinary people who have booked flats in the project. Lavasa Corporation, a subsidiary of Hindustan Construction Company has already invested nearly Rs 3,000 crore in setting up the hill city which will house 2 lakh people by 2020.

The ministry’s order, however, minces now words in expressing its consternation with the state government’s approach — starting with issuing an ‘environmental clearance’ to the project in 2004 when the state had no right to do so.

“The powers for according clearance were not available to the State Governments in March, 2004 since no such delegation of power existed in the EIA Notification of 1994.. no documents were made availabe to the Committee regarding the powers of the State Government for issuing such a clearance,” the order, based on a report by ministry Advisor Nalini Bhat said. Bhat’s report also mocked the so-called environment clearance issued by Maharashtra, pointing out that the ‘clearance’ did not even mention the basic details of the project such as the number of buildings and the total built up area.

The report also criticised the Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation, a state-government agency, for leasing out land to Lavasa. “It is indeed remarkable as to how the land acquired for public purposes had been leased out by the MKVDC for private use by Lavasa,” Dr Bhat noted.

The order also urged the Maharashtra government to rethink its Hill Station Development Policy and associated mechanism, which were found to be ecologically insensitive by the report.

Lavasa, in a statement, attacked the ministry for focusing on issuing such as why the state government issued an environment clearance, accusing the ministry of focusing on legal nitty gritty and “amplifying minor faults” and ignoring the “environmental work” done. “[We] are studying the order and will explore all options
available to the Company,” it said.