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A port project under fire

Print edition : Apr 25, 1998 T+T-

Environmentalists and fisherfolk protest against the proposed construction of an international port at Vadhavan, an ecologically fragile region near Mumbai, that is also rich in marine resources.

ON April 15, at a rally organised by the Vadhavan Bandar Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti at Mumbai's Azad Maidan, about 2,000 people demonstrated against a proposed 30-berth international port at Vadhavan in Maharashtra's Thane district.

The protestors, who included diemakers, fishermen, dock workers, dock transport workers, farmers and adivasis, represented the Akhil Maharashtra Macchimar Kruti Samiti, the Maharashtra Macchimar Kruti Samiti, the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, the Harit Vasai, the Mumbai Port Trust Dock and General Workers Union and the Transport and Dock Workers Union. The organisations, except the last two, come under the umbrella of the National Alliance of People's Movements, of which Fr. Thomas Kocherry is the national coordinator.

According to Thomas Kocherry, a hi-tech commercial harbour like the one being planned, would displace Mumbai's dock workers.

If cleared, Vadhavan will be the first Indian port to be built with foreign investment and also with Government participation. It is meant to be run on a 'build, own, operate and transfer' basis (a unique feature for an Indian port) by Peninsular and Oriental Australia Ports Private Limited (P&O). The State Government will have 11 per cent of equity, while the remaining 89 per cent will go to P&O. The estimated initial project cost is $ 320-400 million. P&O has guaranteed an investment of Rs. 1,080 crores in the first phase.

Over the past year, the local people have made known their opposition to the project that would deprive them of their livelihood and violate environmental regulations that were specially formulated for the area. Apart from small-scale farming and diemaking, the people of Vadhavan and the surrounding coastal taluks depend on fishing for a livelihood. A rock shelf that extends to about 7 km into the sea from Vadhavan provides a prime area for breeding as well as catching lobsters. Fishermen who come from as far away as 400 km to cast their nets here, are worried about the problems they may face after the port becomes operational.

According to Vasant Patil, deputy president of the Dahanu Taluk Congress, in season, the lobster catch is about 500 kg a day. "The Government tells us that we will only lose a rocky shelf. But that rocky shelf provides livelihood to about 5,000 fishing families," he said. Patil's claim was substantiated by a rapid environment impact assessment of the Vadhavan site done by the National Institute of Oceanography. Its report stated that the "investigation site falls under potential fishing grounds." Ashok Ambire, a local fisherman and Bharatiya Janata Party supporter, who is also the chairman of the Dhakti Dahanu Gongwada Macchimar Society, said that the catch in this area is so good that some export companies offer fishermen up to Rs. 800 a kg of the catch even before they set out to sea.

THERE are three arguments cited against the construction of the port. First, the area comes under Coastal Regulation Zone-I. Secondly, the regional plan for the area does not include a port. Thirdly, the Dahanu Notification forbids any industrial activity within a 25-km radius of Dahanu town.

A Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) notification and the Coastal Regulation Zone ruling make clear the complexity of the problem. An MoEF Notification dated June 20, 1991 declared Dahanu and areas within a 25-km radius of it as ecologically fragile. Since Vadhavan is only 8 km from Dahanu town, it obviously comes under this ban. However, since the backup area of the port is supposed to occupy 12 sq km, local people believe that this premise will nullify the effectiveness of the notification. The Dahanu Notification limits the industrialisation and urbanisation of the taluk: under this, only 500 acres (200 hectares) in the taluk can be used for industrial activity.

The area is also protected by the Coastal Zone Management Plan submitted by Maharashtra to the Central Government in 1996. Under this plan, Dahanu's coastline is categorised as Coastal Regulation Zone-I, which means that no new construction will be permitted within 500 metres of the high tide line.

Jimmy Sarbh, regional manager, P&O Ports, however, says that the port would not violate the provisions of the CRZ because it would be constructed in the inter-tidal zone. Environmentalists say that construction is forbidden under CRZ-I, and that even if it is permitted, P&O would still be violating the law because back-up facilities such as roads and storage areas would have to be provided for within 500 metres of the high tide line, which would in turn infringe the CRZ laws.

While directing the State to implement the CRZ provisions and the Dahanu Notification, the Supreme Court had on October 31, 1996, ordered that an authority be constituted to implement the safeguards (Frontline, February 21, 1997). This was subsequently published as an extraordinary gazette notification, and the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA) came into being. The DTEPA is headed by Justice C.S. Dharmadhikari, and its members are drawn from government as well as non-governmental organisations.

In an order dated April 13, Dharmadhikari directed the State and Central governments not to extend the Letter of Intent given to P&O which is due to expire on April 30. The order also stated that the Centre should "not issue any order or directions for amendment of the Notifications or the Regional Plan for Dahanu taluka, unless this Authority decides the matter finally." The last paragraph of the order specifically directs the authorities concerned not to proceed in the matter of the port until "the Authority finally decides the question relating to the feasibility of the port or otherwise."

Anti-port activists welcomed the order. Legal experts were, however, of the opinion that the DTEPA may have overreached itself.

One of the questions that arise regarding the two-page order is: Why is the Authority concerning itself with the question of conducting surveys, a non-issue, when the main objection is to the site of the proposed port? Environmentalists have all along insisted that the site violates CRZ provisions, the Regional Plan for Dahanu taluk and the Dahanu Notification.

According to an anti-port activist, efforts to convince the DTEPA of the need to consider the entire issue vis-a-vis the location have not received a favourable response. "We can only conclude that the Authority is aware of the fact that if it hears the arguments against the site of the port, it will have no option but to throw out P&O," he said, "so the question seems to be 'How do we buy time?"'

Seen in this light, the order does not appear to be as forceful as it purports to be. Furthermore, according to legal experts, although the Authority, which was constituted under Section 3(3) of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, has wide-ranging powers, it is ultimately subject to the supervision and control of the Government. By directing the Centre to follow a particular course of action, the Authority is overstepping its powers. This, say legal experts, is the fatal flaw of the order since this could provide P&O grounds to challenge the ruling. P&O is, in all probability, trying to buy time until the Centre takes a decision on the CRZ Notification. A move is on to modify the Notification during the next session of Parliament.

Some activists see the order as an outcome of P&O's strategy since it was the non-appearance of the company before the Authority for a couple of meetings that led to the order. Anti-port activists allege that as part of its strategy to buy time, P&O is conducting various surveys. In fact, during an earlier meeting, a member of the Authority had questioned P&O about the need to send survey teams to the site when satellite data, which is more accurate, was available. The minutes of one of the meetings record that P&O insisted that its survey teams be present at the site despite the fact that they were promised the latest data. The activists see this as a tactic to ensure that the company's presence is felt in the area.

Meanwhile, in a letter dated April 3, P&O informed the Authority that comprehensive data and the environment impact assessment report will be ready in November and that a rapid environment impact assessment report will be ready in the last week of April. The villagers, however, assert that there has been no sign, in the form of people or equipment, to indicate that surveys were being carried out. Interestingly, the rapid environment impact assessment for P&O was carried out by a member of the DTEPA. For their part, the local people and environmentalists have commissioned experts to carry out separate marine, terrestial and socio-economic surveys.

Justice Dharmadhikari, who spoke to Frontline after the DTEPA was set up, said that although he did not know of any move to denotify the Dahanu Notification, it was legally possible to do so.

However, with a BJP-led coalition Government assuming power at the Centre and the appointment of the Shiv Sena's Suresh Prabhu as Union Minister for Environment and Forests, environmentalists are concerned about the future of Vadhavan. They are especially apprehensive since the Shiv Sena-BJP Government in Maharashtra has vowed to give priority to the infrastructure sector.

Officials whom Frontline spoke to seemed to believe that an environmental clearance would supersede the Regional Plan. According to Deputy Secretary of the Urban Development Department and Member Secretary of the DTEPA, V.W. Deshpande, it will be easier to get environmental clearance and then tackle the Regional Plan, than it will be the other way round.

"When the MoEF clears the port, the existing Regional Plan can be modified after the public have been informed of the Government's intention to modify the plan," he said. According to him, the public can dispute the proposed modification. "And after everything is settled, we prepare a new Regional Plan under the Town Planning Act." Interestingly, a Supreme Court order dated October 31, 1996 stated that the State Government is under obligation to implement the Regional Plan as it is.

P. Hakeem, Secretary, Infrastructure, Maharashtra Government, said that "the port can be accommodated within the existing laws." Asked if the Regional Plan could be amended despite the Supreme Court's order, Hakeem said that a Regional Plan "can be amended, it is not sacrosanct."