Caught in a corporate web
The revival of the port project in Dhamra, Orissa, places huge risks on the endangered Olive Ridley turtle and Gahirmatha, the largest turtle nesting site in the world, says PANKAJ SEKHSARIA.
The Olive Ridley hatchling ... headed towards an uncertain future?
THE timing could be a mere coincidence; it could also be plain doublespeak. The occasion was the release of the centenary journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) on November 12, 2003. Before the distinguished audience, the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI) Bank announced that it was contributing Rs. 50 lakhs to the BNHS to initiate a "Green Governance Programme" (GGP). The aim of the programme would be to sensitise corporate houses, financial institutions and the media to issues of biodiversity, wildlife habitats, environmental laws and conventions.
The brochure talked of the ecological consequences of financing environmentally damaging projects, of corporate environmental responsibility and how it was a business strategy that works. It also listed out a number of sites and themes which would be included in the programme. This included among others, the Lakshadweep Islands (eco-tourism: problems and prospects); the Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan (extractive industries and conservation), the Kumaon-Garhwal hills (infrastructure development), the Gulf of Kutch (bio-diversity and the impact of oil refineries) and the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary in Orissa (port development and conservation issues).
The inclusion of Bhitarkanika, in particular indicated the sincerity of the bank to the programme. The Bhitarkanika belt of the Orissa coast is probably the most significant little patch on the surface of the earth for the long-term survival of the Olive Ridley turtle, a reptile that has been around for millions of years. This is the largest rookery in the world for the critically endangered species and half a million turtles nest here every winter.
All, however, is not well on the conservation front. For the last few years, thousands of these turtles are being washed ashore dead, after being caught in the nets of the trawlers that continue to ply here illegally during the breeding season. Unable to surface to breathe, they suffocate and drown and are eventually washed onto the beaches along the coast here. The other prominent and potential threat here is the proposed construction of the Dhamra port at the mouth of the Dhamra river on its northern bank. Significantly, this area is only few kilometres from the boundary of the Bhitarkanika National Park and about 20 kilometres north of the most important of the turtle nesting beaches. When first proposed in 1988, Bhitarkanika was spread over an area of 367 sq. km, which included ecologically sensitive areas like the site of the Dhamra port project. When the national park was finally notified in 1998, however, the area was reduced by more than half, to 145 sq. km. and the port site was now outside the boundaries. Significantly, this was just about the time that the proposal for the port here came up. For the development of the minor port at Dhamra (see box), a huge investment of about Rs. 1,500 crores has been proposed, with the bank being the lead financier. The port project is being promoted by International Seaports Ltd., a company in which industrial major Larson & Toubro Ltd holds a third of the stake. Work was to have started in the year 2000, and for obvious reasons, environmentalists and wildlife enthusiasts have been opposing it.
Recent studies have shown congregations of nesting turtles six kilometres offshore and 12 km south of Gahirmatha. Turtle researchers point out that this is probably just a fraction of the total population and there will be other aggregations, both south and north of Gahirmatha. Fear was expressed that the construction work and the increase in shipping traffic here could devastate offshore turtle congregations. Increased illumination in the night too would disorient turtles and hatchlings and prevent them from finding their way to the sea after they hatch. Concern has been expressed internationally as well, which includes the International Sea Turtle Symposium that was held in Florida, U.S. in 2000. Additionally, this area has a dense cover of mangrove forests. A task force constituted by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) reported that areas having mangroves sustained substantially less damage in the coastal belt of Orissa during the "super cyclone" of 1999. This clearly emphasises the importance of mangroves in protecting the coasts from natural calamities. Following this, the ministry released nearly Rs. One crore for the implementation of two management action plans for mangroves; Rs.46.50 lakhs in 1999-2000 for the mangroves in Bhitarkanika and Mahanadi and Rs.55.75 lakhs in 2000-01 for the Subernrekha, Dhamra and Devi mangroves.
The map tracks four turtles fitted with satellite transmitters.
It has been estimated that more than 2,500 hectares of mangrove forests, primarily in the Paradip-Dhamra belt were destroyed in the 1960s when the Paradip port was constructed. This area has since emerged as the most cyclone-prone zone. According to official sources, out of the total 200 sq km of mangrove forest in the Mahanadi delta, only about 30 sq. km is left. These concerns have also been largely neglected in the present project and it is most likely that the port at Dhamra will only aggravate this problem.
A combination of factors, both environmental and financial, led to the abandoning of the project in 2000 and there was a collective sigh of relief all around.
Significantly, one of the key players and financiers of the port project in Dhamra is the ICICI Bank. The inauguration of the GGP seemed to indicate that the bank was willing to lead from the front and that it was sincere and honest when speaking about corporate environment responsibility and sensitivity to the environment, wildlife habitats and bio-diversity. The signal from the bank seemed to be, "We shall not support any such industrial or infrastructure development activity in the sensitive Bhitarkanika-Gahirmatha environment". It therefore came as a rude shock when The Hindu Business Line carried a report titled "Construction work at Dhamra port expected to begin soon" on December 20, 2003 (only about a month after the initiation of the GGP). "The port's private promoter, International Seaports Ltd," the report said, "... is working towards achieving financial closure during the first quarter of 2004 .... Construction of the Rs. 1,500-crore port project, on the basis of build, own and transfer (BOT), was supposed to begin in November 2000, but was delayed due to initial environment-related problems. Later, the lead financier, ICICI, suggested certain modifications to be made in the concession agreement to improve the bankability of the project ... ."
A few months earlier, The Business Standard, had reported ("Dhamra port project revived", June 25, 2003), that the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) had also decided to promote the port project. The NMDC gesture, that reportedly gave a fresh lease of life to the project, is linked to the allotment of iron ore mines to the company in the Bimalgarh area of Sundergarh district. The report went on to say that, "... the Orissa government has modified the concession agreement for Dhamra port incorporating the suggestions of Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI), the lead financier, to improve its bankability. ICICI said the changes would protect investments in the project." Work on land acquisition for the project too is reportedly going on. The website of the Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corportation of Orissa (IDCO), the only statutory agency in the State to procure land exclusively for industrial/infrastructure development projects, reports that it has already initiated the process of the acquisition of 4,000 acres in Bhadrak district to facilitate the project.
One would have thought that the bank would immediately issue a clarification in the context of these reports saying that it was not interested in this project anymore as it was committed to the GGP. It has, however, neither done this, nor has it clarified its official position on the same. By the looks of it then, the project is once again on, with the key issue being the "bankability of the project". Nothing about the environment, nothing about the turtles, nothing that would indicate that the ICICI was also supporting a programme about green governance and corporate environment responsibility.
On the coast of Orissa meanwhile, oblivious of the intentions and actions of the humans they share this earth with, the Olive Ridleys have started nesting once again this year. This is just the right time for the corporates involved, especially the bank involved, to live up to the "green corporate" image that it has sought to create for itself. Otherwise, the turtles, when they come back next year or the year after, might well be swimming into a drastically altered, even devastated reality.
Note: (The map shows the patterns of four turtles which were fitted with satellite transmitters when they came to nest at a site at the mouth of the Devi river, which is even further south of Gahirmata. One turtle (marked in blue) travelled north immediately after nesting. This specimen was tagged on April 18, 2001, and on April 30, was at a point that is nearly 21°longitude. The coordinates of Dhamra are 20.48°N and 86.56°E, which indicates that this turtle had passed this spot. It is important to note that this specimen was tagged at Devi and not at Gahirmata, which is just south of the port site. Now that thousands of turtles are nesting on these sands and without doubt swim and congregate opposite to and north of the port site at Dhamra, is proof enough of how they will be impacted once the port comes up).
Minor port, major trouble
IN 1994 the Central Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) issued its "Environment Impact Assessment" (EIA) notification. Meant as a tool to ensure that developmental projects did not ride rough shod over environmental concerns it listed 29 (later increased to 30) industrial and developmental activities that needed environmental clearance from the Government of India. Schedule I of the notification contains this list of projects. Point 3 reads ... ports, harbours, airports (except minor ports and harbours).
Why an exception was made for minor ports is not very clear. What is now clear, however, is that this exception has created one of the biggest loopholes in environmental legislation in the country, allowing in the process, for the development of at least a 100-odd such "minor ports" along the country's coastline. Many like Dhamra in fact are located in areas that are ecologically extremely sensitive.
Presumably, the reason to exclude a minor port from environment clearance is that it is "minor", investment is limited, land requirements are negligible, not many people will be affected, and the overall environmental impact will be minimal, if not negligible. Following this logic, environmental clearance to the Dhamra port project was given by the Ministry of Surface Transport, not even the MoEF.
The reality is however quite a different one. The difference between a major and a minor port, strangely, is not of size or investment, but one of jurisdiction alone. While the major ports (like Kandla, Cochin (Kochi), Chennai. Paradip and Vishakapatnam) are under the Central Government, minor ports are in the charge of state governments. The proposed port at Dhamra is to be developed over an area of nearly 1,000 acres, and another 3,000 acres are being acquired for other project related development activities. The proposed investment too is about Rs. 1,500 crores. This kind of investment and land requirement is definitely not minor, and neither the impact environmentally and ecologically. Legally, however, this "major" port is a minor one and therefore exempt from the provisions of the EIA notification.
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