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The hills are alive with the sound of controversy

Raghavendra Kamath  |  Mumbai 

While activists claim the has flouted several environmental norms, the company insists it has all the necessary permissions from the state government.

The township of Lavasa, spread over 25,000 acres, is embraced by seven hills that girdle its 60-km lakefront. What is, however, creating ripples in the otherwise placid waters of the lake is a barrage of allegations from environmentalists against Independent India’s first planned hill-town, which is a three-hour drive from Mumbai.

After noted lawyer and former Indian Police Service officer YP Singh, who represents six organisations, sent a legal notice to the (MoEF) over Lavasa violating environmental norms, Environment Minister last week asked Maharashtra Chief Minister to look into the allegations.

The crux of the charge is that Lavasa failed to obtain clearance under the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, The notice filed by Singh claims the developer received approval from the state government’s environment department, whereas the Notification rests such powers only with the central government through the environment ministry. The notice alleges the state department issued permissions without statutory powers to do so.

“The project has not taken permission under any law. They have directly approached the state government and taken the approval,” said Singh, who has demanded that work at Lavasa be stopped immediately. Lavasa is a development of five towns. The first, Dasve, is expected to be completed by 2010-11 and the second, Mugaon, by 2013. All five towns will be completed by 2020.

Singh’s notice also states that at some places, construction of the Lavasa hill-town crossed an altitude of 1,000 metres, which is the maximum threshold for tourism-related projects. If the notice was not enough, the project also saw protests by the likes of activist Medha Patkar. Their main grouse is that the project damaged the ecology of the Sahyadri Hills, an ecologically sensitive area. There were also complaints about project authorities forcibly relocating tribals and villageRs from the project land.

The company, however, dismisses the charges. Officials argue that being a tourism project, it did not require environmental clearance from the Union government. They say the project is supported by Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation and has received ‘mega tourism project’ status from the state. Suresh Pendharkar, chief planner, Lavasa Corporation, says the project was exempted from environment clearance under Schedule 1, Serial 18 of the notification.

His argument is that since the project was started in 2003, the amendments of 2004 (to the 1994 notification) and revised notification of 2006 did not apply to the project. On the charge of flouting norms on elevation, Pendharkar says the project did not carry out any developmental work in areas that were notified as being above 1,000 metres, for which environment clearance is required.

The project abided by the Special Regulation for the Development of Hill Stations by Private Developers, promulgated by the state urban development department in 1996, Pendharkar said. Lavasa submitted an environment assessment impact study in 2001 and received in-principle approval from the state government the same year.

On the charges of forcibly evicting tribals, Anuradha Paraskar, senior vice-president, marketing, Lavasa, said the company does not own any tribal land, but bought tracts in negotiations with private owners.

The controversy comes at a time when Lavasa’s parent, HCC, is planning a Rs 2,000-crore initial public offering of shares for the hill-town project. The company plans to file a draft red-herring prospectus for the IPO in a week or two, HCC Chief Financial Officer Praveen Sood said. HCC’s stock has fallen over 11 per cent in the last fortnight.

Lavasa didn’t get clearance under
Environment Impact Assessment
Notification, 1994
Project was exempted from
clearance under Schedule 1,
Serial 18 of 1994 notification
State’s environment dept issued
permissions without statutory
powers to do so
Being a tourism project, it did not
require environmental clearance
from Union government
Construction crossed 1,000-m
altitude threshold for
tourism-related projects
No developmental work was
carried out in areas notified as
being above 1,000 metres
Project authorities forcibly
relocated tribals and villagers
from the project land
Company does not own any
tribal land, but bought tracts
from private owners

Lavasa, whose revenues went up 94 per cent in the June quarter of FY11 to Rs 181 crore and net profit by 87 per cent to Rs 49 crore, is planning to start the sale process for the second phase of the project from next month. The first phase is already sold out. Analysts say the allegations and delay in the launch of the second phase could have a major impact on the IPO.

HCC owns 66.99 per cent in Lavasa, while the Thapar group’s Avanta, Venkateshwara Hatcheries and private investor Vinay Maniar own the rest. Additionally, eight banks, including Bank of India, Axis Bank, ICICI Bank and financial institutions hold over 11 per cent trough convertible debentures. The project’s initial promoteRs included Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule and her husband, Sadanan Sule, who withdrew in 2004.

That the controversy is taking distinct political overtones is evident from the fact that residents of 14 villages included in the Lavasa project area organised a meeting last Saturday to protest what they described as attempts to defame the project. Laxman Pasalkar, president of the Mose Khore Nagrik Vikas Sangh, a body of villagers from Mose valley, told reporters they do not want another Singur in Lavasa.

First Published: Tue, September 07 2010. 01:49 IST