Biosphere in peril
... and what is responsible is a corporate project that has all the ingredients of a modern day tourism blockbuster, and one that could well sound the death knell of this unique ecosystem, says PANKAJ SEKHSARIA.
How long will it remain a picture of tranquillity?
IT cannot get bigger, more ambitious or expensive than this. At least that is how it is being projected.
The location is the famous Sunderbans in the State of West Bengal. The largest delta and mangrove forest in the world, the Sunderbans is spread over 10,000 sq.km in India and Bangadesh. Of this roughly 4,000 sq.km lies within Indian boundaries and roughly 2,500 sq.km is being conserved at the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve.
The Sunderbans Tiger Reserve is home to the largest contiguous population of the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger. It also plays host to 50 of the 60 mangrove species found in India, hundreds of species of migratory birds, and a wide range of biological diversity. The sea and the creeks support significant populations of marine life including crustaceans, molluscs, crabs, dolphins, and sea turtles that nest on some of the beaches here. It is an extremely rich and productive eco-system that supports millions of families and livelihoods. Thanks to its uniqueness and importance it has been declared a "World Heritage Site" and was also made a biosphere reserve in 1989.
The "It" (in paragraph one) is the over Rs. 500 crores Sunderbans Tourism Project, which itself is a part of the Sahara India Pariwar's huge Integrated Sahara Tourism Circuit In West Bengal. The Air Sahara website (http://www.airsahara.net/airsahara/Sunderban.jsp) presents as rosy a picture as is possible. "The Sahara Group", the website says, "will develop five virgin islands in the 36,000 sq.km of water area in the Sunderbans ... as tourist destinations of global standing ... these islands would set new standards in hospitality and entertainment. Some of the facilities planned for this dream destination are: modern aqua sports, a mini golf course, a spa, a health centre, a club house and a casino. About 75 per cent of the accommodation would be on floating boat houses and 25 per cent as on-shore cottages, stylish huts and fabulous tents. The exclusive, beautiful virgin beaches of the region would be preserved in their pristine glory. The complex would also have a 30-seater, multi-utility high-speed power craft for a floating clinic, a fire fighting unit, an ultra modern security system and both small and big ships. All cottages and house boats would be equipped with broadband internet facilities, video on demand with interactive dish antenna". (Also check http://www.saharaindiapariwar.org/forthcom/sunder/default.htm and http://www.saharahousing.com/project/sundarban.htm)
"Virgin" islands and beaches of "pristine glory", a project with "global standing", dream destination, floating boat houses, and a casino. Throw in a tiger breeding centre (it's been advertised) and even scuba diving facilities ... and you have it all perfectly laid out a modern tourism (it's also being pushed as eco-tourism) blockbuster if there was one.
Importantly, this time, even the "Leftist" State Government is playing ball. It is the vital signal that West Bengal is coming of age, that this is a State that welcomes large projects and large money and that the right climate for investment and growth has been created. It is only one in a slew of many mega projects of various kinds that the State is welcoming with gusto.
In January 2004, the West Bengal Government and the Sahara group signed a Memorandum of Agreement for the project as well. It will be a joint venture with the State making available about 750 acres of land on the islands of the Lower Long Sand Island, Sagar, Frasergunj, L- Plot, Jharkhali and Kaikhali for a paltry sum of only Rs. 20 crores. The responsibility of developing and running the initiative would be that of Sahara India Pariwar's sub-agency the Sahara India Tourism Development Corporation Ltd.
If all seems in place then what is the problem?
Simply, that a project with this investment and ambition, could well sound the death knell of the extremely fragile and unique Sunderbans. It will kill the golden goose, the very ecosystem that makes it such an attractive tourism proposition in the first place. The impunity with which environmental and social concerns have been neglected in the planning of this project could certainly be called spectacular, if indeed they were not so serious and "deadly". There is violation on every single front, as was found by a team of independent observers who investigated the project area in March this year. This included among others, representatives of People United for Better Living In Calcutta (PUBLIC), Kolkata; Bombay Environment Action Group (BEAG), Mumbai, and the Bangalore-based EQUATIONS that works on issues related to tourism.
"It is important to remember," says Samir Mehta of BEAG, "that the entire Sunderbans, including all the project sites, has been notified as a Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) I region." It is an acknowledgment of the fact that this is an extremely sensitive zone and any activity has to be initiated with care and concern. None of this is, however, evident in any of the project documents of the promoters. "First and probably most important," he points out, "is the violation of the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA) 1986. As per the Memorandum of Agreement, what we have is only a Rapid EIA and this," he stresses, "is nowhere sufficient or comprehensive enough to deal with a project this size." Further, the West Bengal Coastal Zone Management Authority (WBCZMA) has not yet prepared the Area Specific Management Plan and Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan for the Sunderbans, as mandated by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Unless these are available, there is no basis for such a project being cleared. Yet, the State Government's expert committee on Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) is said to have cleared the project.
There are a number of laws that the project and government authorities are either ignorant of, or are deliberately violating. Both, of course, are inexcusable.
The project proposes a number of activities that are strictly prohibited in CRZ I areas. These include dredging in creeks and water bodies and the use of coastal salt marsh for developmental activities during the construction phase. Nothing is known of the plans for the disposal of waste and sewage; neither of those to deal with the inevitable oil, grease and other forms of pollution resulting from the operation of the boats, barges and floatels.
There is serious concern being expressed about availability of fresh water, which is already a problem in this marshy and saline region. Presently available only at a depth of about 1,000 feet, many are worried that the huge requirements of the project will only worsen the situation for the environment in general and the local populace in particular. One such large requirement is for a mini golf course at L-Plot.
... displacement and restrictions on fishing are likely.
There have been serious problems with the public hearing process that is mandated for projects of this kind. This was pointed out by Bonani Kakkar of PUBLIC, after participation in the hearing that was held on January 28, 2004, at Ramganga in the 24 Parganas district. While the project is multi-locational, the public hearing was held in only one place.
In a letter written to the West Bengal State Pollution Control Board, the agency responsible for the public hearings, PUBLIC also pointed out that the average time required for people to travel from places like Jharkhali, L-Plot and Kaikhali to the site of public hearing was about five hours one way, and that most people in these locations had not even heard of the public hearing. "This is not surprising," the letter continues, "considering that two small advertisements were placed in newspapers and the print medium is hardly read in these areas". (Sahara, on the other hand often releases three to four full pages in leading newspapers for their own advertisements).
"There is also the crucial issue of forest lands and those being protected here in the interest of wildlife," points out Syed Liyakhat of EQUATIONS. Certain critical parts of land and forests to be developed for the project are already designated as reserve forests under the Indian Forest Act (IFA) 1927, and will need special permission for dereservation.
These have not been sought. Further all the project sites, with the exception of Gangasagar, are within a distance of 10 km from the boundaries of the Lothian and the Sajnekhali wildlife sanctuaries or a wildlife corridor. The Indian Board for Wildlife, that is chaired by the Prime Minister, had taken a decision in January 2002 that all areas within 10 km of the boundaries of national parks and sanctuaries and the wildlife corridors would be declared as eco-sensitive under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986.
"State governments had even been asked to list out such areas and furnish detailed proposals for their notification. How then," questions Liyakhat, "can the project be allowed to go ahead in this context? The problem with tourism development," he continues, "is that Governments and tourism developers have always overlooked environmental concerns and tried corrective measures only when the damage has already been done. In the case of the Sunderbans, however, there is too much at stake vis-à-vis the ecosystem and natural resources to repeat the mistake. We should also not forget that the Sunderbans extends into Bangladesh as well and any attempt on the Indian side to upset the already stressed fragile ecosystem," he warns, "could have serious international and political implications."
In another significant move, it has apparently been decided that fishermen will not be allowed to fish in areas where Sahara has its project or the creeks where their boats will ply. Presumably, they want their "virgin" beaches and islands. It's also become clear that this project will not only harm the environment but also adversely affect the local population, by direct displacement and by the restrictions on their fishing activities. Another area of controversy that has now arisen is to do with a directive that no other tourism operator will be allowed into the Sunderbans without the permission of Sahara. Some competition that would be!
THERE has been international concern too. The London based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) recently issued a briefing note challenging Sahara's claims that this was an ecotourism project (www.eia-international.org). They have pointed out that the project does not adhere to; rather clearly violates basic principles like those of ensuring conservation, environmental sustainability, involvement and benefits to the local communities and ensuring cultural respect; principles that guide and define an eco-tourism project.
All put together, it's not clear how the project can go ahead at all . It has all the potential for an environmental disaster. "The earlier experience of the Sahara group in creating the Amby Valley Lake city near Lonavla in Maharashtra does not inspire any confidence either," says Mehta. He should know, for it was BEAG that had highlighted the serious environmental problems and many of Sahara's legal wrong doings here. There are even serious doubts about its economic viability if the marketing, rather the lack of its success, in Amby Valley is anything to go by.
The Sunderbans, it appears, can certainly do without this Sahara.
Pankaj Sekhsaria is a member of the environmental action group Kalpavriksh.
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