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Restoring Lumbini’s integrity

OCT 25 - How did 11 cement companies begin manufacturing in the Lumbini Protected Zone (LPZ) after UNESCO had already inscribed this sacred place, the Birthplace of the Buddha, as a World Heritage Site? These firms began operations between 2001 and 2007 despite the decision on Dec. 6, 1997 of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) to inscribe Lumbini as a property with outstanding universal value. These industries produce over 2.3 million tonnes of cement products annually and their emissions and effluents have contaminated local ground water, streams and atmosphere in flagrant contravention of Nepal’s Environmental Protection Act. This pollution impacts local agriculture, drinking water, the health of Lumbini residents as well as wildlife and endangered species in surrounding nature preserves. Their cement trucks have caused accidents, traffic snarls and road deterioration on the Bhairahawa-Lumbini highway.

The government’s Department of Commerce (DoC) has tested products manufactured by six cement companies, four of which are in the LPZ (Nepal Ambuja, Reliance, Agni, and Jagadamba) and found several failed to meet its criteria for composition of raw materials and compressive strength. As a result, the DoC has banned production and sale of these products.

But cement production is not the only source of Lumbini’s pollution. There

are 37 brick kilns, two steel mills and a pulp and paper mill adding to LPZ contamination. This pollution will undoubtedly cause deterioration of archaeological sites (e.g. Ashoka’s pillar).

Some LPZ cement industries under Indian ownership capitalise on cheaper Nepali labour, water availability, and proximity to the border. They gain preferential access to existing infrastructure (i.e. electricity supply and paved roads) originally intended to serve pilgrims and tourists, leaving Lumbini in darkness for an average of 11 hours daily. By using their own imported limestone inputs, they shut out competing Nepali limestone enterprises and capture a larger share of the economic value of their cement products. Apart from a boost to local employment, of what economic benefit are these industries to Nepal?

The inescapable conclusion is that this concentration of heavy industries is transforming the character of LPZ from a world-class tourist, archaeological and pilgrim destination nestled in an agrarian community to an increasingly polluted industrial zone. This situation must be turned around before it becomes an environmental, public health and public safety catastrophe.

To its credit, the government has awakened to the dilemma. On Nov. 27, 2009, the Ministry of Industry’s Industrial Promotion Board (IPB) responded positively to a petition signed by attendees of an environmental conference—including representatives of government, local industries and hospitality firms, archaeologists, journalists and monastics—held in Lumbini’s Sacred Gardens on Nov. 7-9, 2009. The petition requested that the government: (1) create an industry-free zone around Lumbini, (2) freeze the establishment of new industries outside the industry-free area, and (3) strictly monitor existing industrial firms.

The IPB made several decisions that will help restrict industrial activities: (1) New carbon emitting industries will be excluded from a designated area around the Lumbini World Heritage Property (LWHP) that extends 15 km north, east and west of the LWHP boundaries, south to the Indian border, and 800 metres on both sides of the road along the Lumbini-Bhairahawa Corridor; (2) Existing LPZ industries can operate only if they respect the Environment Protection Act. Industries not respecting the Act must relocate within two years; and will be denied further increases to their capital, capacity, objectives and present levels of electricity consumption; (3) A Lumbini Development Trust representative will be a member of the Environmental Review Committee overseeing approvals under the Act by non-carbon emitting enterprises to establish operations in the Lumbini area and along the Bhairahawa-Lumbini roads up to the airport, and by existing industries for further increases in their capital, capacity, objectives and electricity consumption; (4) Registered, non-operating LPZ industries must observe the Act and take pollution control measures before operating. Non-performers will be relocated elsewhere promptly.

The IPB’s decision sparked the establishment of the Lumbini Environmental Protection Alliance (LEPA) including the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT), which oversees this World Heritage Site; Lumbini Institutions (the monastic community of Lumbini); and Lumbini stakeholders (local and international people and organisations related to Buddhism and the environment, and district-level government bodies). LEPA has developed an online petition with recommendations that has been signed already by over 6,000 supporters worldwide.

LEPA has used Google Earth’s satellite imagery to define LPZ boundaries using GPS coordinates, pinpoint LPZ industries, and document their footprints (their capital, capacity and objectives where available;

and close up aerial photos of their operations). In addition, LEPA has recommended that the IPB’s Nov. 27, 2009 Decisions and LPZ boundaries should be published through a public notice in a national newspaper. Also that a concise, integrated zoning plan should be developed for the area and presented to the public. This will clarify the allowable new development and industrial activity in the LPZ.  

The IPB’s decisions should be expanded to require notification by letter of other interested parties and stakeholders before applications for development or industrial activity are approved. Requests for new development permits or expansion of existing facilities should include GPS coordinates, verified by an independent third party, of the proposed site and the Village Development Committee (VDC). The IPB’s laudable decision to spend Rs. 150,000 on an initial LPZ environmental survey should be expanded to require an ongoing, comprehensive, professional environmental monitoring

programme to meet the Act’s pollution control standards. A long term strategy to monitor and measure the potential and

actual environmental impacts of all LPZ industrial activities and to manage industrial growth should be developed and published. This strategy should include a coordinated plan with zoning guidelines for managing development in the LPZ (including truck traffic on the Lumbini-Bhairahawa road and noise pollution).

An Aug. 25, 2010 report in Gorkhapatra noted a recent IPB decision permitting

non-carbon emitting industries, including small and cottage industries, to locate

in the LPZ. According to Tara Prasad Bhattarai, Cottage and Small Industries Officer for the government, this decision would include small manufacturing and service industries; and exclude 28 types of large carbon emitting industries—among them cement, leather, sugar, paper, distillery, stone and concrete, brick and tiles, tobacco and animal slaughtering.

Despite the IPB’s rulings however, Goenka (Goyanka) Cement Pvt. Ltd. began constructing a new cement plant in

the LPZ in June 2010. This plant’s location violates two provisions of the IPB’s Nov. 2009 ruling, because of its location within both the LPZ and the prohibited 800 metre corridor around the Lumbini-Bhairahawa road. In July 2010, this firm also filed trademark applications.

We call upon the government to act swiftly and diligently to enforce its own

IPB decisions and stop this new heavy industry construction. Lumbini’s friends everywhere ask that the government act now to restore its environmental integrity and the original Nepali and international vision for this World Heritage Site.

(Heller is associate professor at Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto)

james g. heller

Posted on: 2010-10-26 08:02

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