How an Adani Joint Venture Tried to Use Semantics to Circumvent Green Laws – at Cost of Fishers

The Supreme Court on February 1 upheld the National Green Tribunal’s order in 2020, to demolish an edible oil storage facility constructed by two companies, joint ventures of KTV Group and Adani Wilmar Limited.

Kochi: A joint venture of Adani Wilmar Limited, under the Adani Group, has been penalised for violating coastal zone regulations near Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

The Supreme Court on February 1 upheld the National Green Tribunal’s order in 2020 to demolish an edible oil storage facility constructed by two companies, for violating coastal zone regulations near the Chennai port. The companies – K.T.V. Oil Mills Private Limited and K.T.V. Health Food Private Limited – are joint ventures of the Tamil Nadu-based KTV Group and Adani Wilmar Limited.

The apex court noted that the District Coastal Zone Management Authority could take a decision on whether the pipeline attached to the storage tanks may continue to be used or should be demolished.

Fishermen living in nearby villages – part of the Meenava Thanthai Selvarajkumar Sangam, a local fishers’ organisation which first approached the NGT in 2016 raising concerns about the project – have welcomed the SC order. Fishers said it is a good move, and stopping the storage and transit of edible oil would prevent the numerous fish deaths that were being caused in the area due to leaks in the pipeline and in turn better their livelihoods.

‘Affecting our livelihoods’

In 2016, fisherfolk in north Chennai – near Chennai Port – began questioning the impacts of a storage facility that was located close to the fishing villages of Thiruchirakuppam, Thazhankuppam and several others.

They started noticing frequent oil leaks from the 7 km-long pipeline from the harbour to the storage facility set up by the K.T.V. companies, said M.R. Thiagarajan, president of the Meenava Thanthai Selvarajkumar Sangam, a local organisation that takes up fishers’ issues.

Oil would sometimes spill on to the ground; but oil leaks into the sea nearby would frequently result in fish kills – fish would die and rise to the water surface – claimed Thiagarajan.  

“When that happens, fish do not venture into the area for at least three months and this results in low fish catch,” the 57-year-old fisherman told The Wire.

“Fishers’ livelihoods were being affected.”

More traffic to the storage facility, also in the wee hours of mornings when fishermen were setting out to sea also caused accidents in the area, claiming several lives, he said.

That’s when they began inquiring about the coastal zone clearances obtained by the companies to operate the pipeline and facility, and filed a complaint alleging the lack of ‘Coastal Regulation Zone’ clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2016. 

Also read: Despite Court Orders and Latent Tension, Vizhinjam Fishers Continue Protest

A matter of semantics

In 2020, the NGT ordered the demolition of the constructions made by the company in their premises. One of the reasons was that the facilities were not located in the notified area of the Chennai Port. The storage tanks constructed and used by both the companies are located 160 feet away from the shoreline in a CRZ-II area, and around 4 km from Chennai Port. 

As per CRZ Notification 2011, in CRZ-I (comprising ecologically sensitive areas and the intertidal zone), storage of non-hazardous cargo including edible oil, is permitted “within notified Ports”. As per the same notification, in CRZ-II, storage of non-hazardous cargo, including edible oil, is permitted “in notified Ports”.

As per the CRZ, CRZ-II refers to the “developed land areas up to or close to the shoreline, within the existing municipal limits or in other existing legally designated urban areas”.

The K.T.V. companies contended that this difference in use of “within” and “in” for two different regulation zones meant two different things. “Since the word ‘within’ which is used in CRZ-I is not employed in regard to the similar activity in CRZ-II and instead the word ‘in’ is used, the principal contention is that they must receive a different meaning,” the counsel for the companies had argued, as per the SC judgment.

In its 2020 order itself, the NGT had noted that two different meanings cannot be assigned here. “No two different meanings can be given for these same words which have been used in different context unless it was intended by the legislature that the same has to be interpreted or understood with a different meaning,” the NGT said.

“As far as environmental laws are concerned, it was intended for the purpose of protecting environment and it must be interpreted strictly in its literal sense. Any liberal interpretation given for any of the provision of the statute relating to environment protection will have adverse impact on the environment,” it went on to say. In 2017, the NGT had already imposed an environmental compensation of Rs. 25 lakh on K.T.V. Health Food under the “polluter pays” principle for not obtaining CRZ clearance and ruled that the company halt operations.

Its 2020 order stated that the companies should remove the storage facilities within three months (the NGT order was dated September 2020). If not, the Tamil Nadu Coastal Zone Management Authority could do this and recover the expenses from the companies.

Illegalities in clearances

In its 2020 order, the NGT also declared illegal the CRZ clearance granted by the MoEFCC, also since the concerned authorities had not considered several aspects while granting post-facto clearance to the project (including the fact that it was treated as a new proposal when being given clearance, which was not “legal procedure”).

In fact, post-facto clearances for coastal zone violations are a new development. As new as 2018. 

In 2018, the environment ministry amended the CRZ Notification. Apart from listing the validity of clearances afforded under the Notification, this amendment permitted – for the first time – post-facto clearance for activities in the CRZ. It said that all activities that are permitted under the Notification in the coastal regulation zones can be considered for regularization (under some circumstances), and that the respective Coastal Zone Management Authority can recommend such projects for regularization once it certifies that they have not violated the Notification.

The MoEFCC gave post-facto clearance to the project in 2019. And at the NGT, the Ministry also maintained that there were no illegalities in its granting of clearance.

‘An important ruling’

The Supreme Court order dated February 1 states that the five storage tanks constructed by the K.T.V. companies should be demolished within six months. The order also permits the District Coastal Zone Management Authority (DCZMA) to take a decision on whether the pipeline attached to the storage tank may continue to be used or be demolished. (The companies – K.T.V. Health Foods and K.T.V. Oil Mills – can approach the DCZMA for this within a month.)

This is an important ruling by the Supreme Court because it strengthens the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, said Ritwick Dutta, counsel for Meenava Thanthai. 

“It is a landmark judgment in protecting the coasts which are particularly vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels, that these are to be treated as no-go areas…therefore the SC has highlighted the importance of the CRZ for the livelihood security of fisherfolk,” he told The Wire. “Second, it has highlighted that this is important in India’s plan to mitigate or adapt climate change and also to protect vulnerable coastal ecology. That merely because you are able to pay the money for compensation is not grounds for these illegal structures to continue. So it basically reinforces the rule of law.”

Thiagarajan welcomed the move. “We hope that fishers’ livelihoods will not be affected anymore,” he said.