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Freeze off Haldia, with rider

Calcutta, Sept. 19: The Union environment and forest ministry has lifted a three-and-a-half-year-old moratorium on ten polluted industrial zones, including three in Bengal: Haldia, Asansol and Howrah.

However, it has warned that the moratorium — on establishment of new industries and expansion of existing ones — may be re-imposed if the pollution levels rise above the cut-off mark again.

A state minister was quick to credit the Trinamul government’s pollution reduction efforts but experts suggested that pollution had fallen “by default” in Haldia because of less port activity, especially imports.

The Union ministry had imposed the moratorium in January 2010 on 43 industrial zones based on a “comprehensive environmental pollution index” (CEPI), put together with IIT Delhi’s help, which assessed the condition of the air, groundwater and land.

Of the 88 industrial clusters evaluated, all those with CEPI scores of 70 or above were declared “critically polluted”. Of the three sites in Bengal, Haldia had the highest CEPI score of 75.43.

However, the latest assessment, done early this year, found that the CEPI value in Haldia had fallen close to 62, central pollution control board (CPCB) sources said. The figures for Howrah and Asansol were not available.

“In view of the re-assessment of the CEPI score and taking into consideration that action plans for improving environment quality take time to yield results, it has been decided to lift the moratorium on consideration of projects for environmental clearance in respect of projects to be located inů Asansole (West Bengal), Haldia (West Bengal), Howrah (West Bengal),” reads a recent Union ministry order.

However, the clearance is conditional. It says:

The state pollution control board must ensure that its clearances are “in line with the overall approved action plan” for these areas.

The new projects need to be “reviewed on quarterly basis”.

The state pollution control board must carry out “monitoring and CEPI calculation” every year (the central board does this every two years).

“If at any time it comes to the notice of (the) CPCB that (the) action plan in any CPA (critically polluted area) is not being implemented properly or the CEPI index in (the) CPA is showing an increasing trend,” the Union ministry “would consider taking an appropriate view in the matter which may include re-imposition of (the) moratorium,” the order warned.

State environment minister Sudarshan Ghosh Dastidar claimed the directive reflected the Trinamul government’s success in reducing pollution in these industrial belts.

Since 2012, the Trinamul government has repeatedly urged the Centre to lift the moratorium, even alleging bias. An Assembly resolution was passed condemning the Centre’s action and Trinamul MP Subhendu Adhikari filed a court case challenging the moratorium’s continuance despite a purported fall in pollution in Haldia.

However, The Telegraph had last December reported how the central pollution control board had, in early 2011, found that Haldia’s CEPI had actually increased to 79.71.

Experts suggested an alternative reason for the recent fall in pollution levels.

“Although the short-term measures taken by the industries must have had a certain impact, the most important aspect was the reduced activity, especially imports, at Haldia port during the past year and a half,” a senior state pollution control board official said.

“Generally, a larger import volume means more transport and other related sources of environmental hazards. So, you may say the improvement has occurred by default.”

Calcutta Port Trust chairman R.P.S. Kahlon said: “It’s a fact that cargo traffic in Haldia has gone down during 2012-13, with the import of iron ore and crude being particularly reduced.”

He agreed that the fall in pollution was “possible” as a consequence.

Figures available with this newspaper show that the import of iron-ore — a major contributor to pollution because of the dust it gives off during transport — had fallen by nearly 60 per cent in the past one year. Coal imports too dropped by around 15 per cent.

Experts said the situation could worsen again unless the state government immediately undertook “long-term action plans” including improvement of roads, building railway flyovers and de-silting the Greenbelt canal in Haldia which takes most of the industrial effluents.