For a base at Karwar

Published : Aug 29, 1998 00:00 IST

Project Sea Bird, which aims to provide the Indian Navy with a totally integrated base on the western seaboard, appears to be ready for take-off at long last.

ON August 6, the Ministry of Defence and the Government of Karnataka signed a Memorandum of Understanding on an enhanced rehabilitation package for the families that will be displaced by the Indian Navy's proposed Rs. 25,000-crore 'Project Sea Bird' at Karwar. The MoU has apparently helped salvage the project, which had sunk into the depths of uncertainty after the Karnataka High Court forbade the evacuation of people from the project site until "proper rehabilitation measures" were undertaken.

Conceived in the early 1970s, Project Sea Bird is meant to give the Indian Navy an integrated base to locate its operational fleet. On commissioning, INS Sea Bird, the Navy's base for the 21st century and beyond, will be the biggest naval base on this side of the Suez.

Karwar, with its bays and offshore islands, was identified as an ideal site for such a naval base mainly because of the strategic protection the topography affords: the hilly terrain provides cover from prying surveillance satellites (infra-red decoys could further enhance security) and offers positions for defence posts. Besides, the water is deep and almost even, making berthing and navigation of ships easy and the need for dredging minimal. Tidal conditions are such that there is little scope for siltation. The area has a sparse population and plenty of open spaces. And there is a wide Bingy or Binaga Bay: the bay's arms stretch out into the open sea, in the north from the Karwar Head, a rocky promontory, and in the south from the Tadri river. Providing cover to the bay are offshore islands such as the Anjadiv, Oyster and Round islands, which would serve as forward posts.

A crucial operating naval base at Karwar would be farther, compared to the base in Mumbai, from potential threats such as the missile systems of neighbouring countries. (Karwar is around 900 nautical miles from Karachi, while Mumbai is only 580 nautical miles away.) Besides, at Karwar, India would be in a geographically advantageous position to monitor and defend crucial maritime and wartime shipping routes on the Arabian Sea.

For the Navy, there can be no better alternative to Karwar on the western seaboard. Kochi, crowded with merchant vessels, offers hardly any room for expansion; Thiruvnanthapuram is too "flat," too open and too close to Sri Lanka; and the Gujarat coastline is close to Mumbai and hence to the same sources of perceived threats.

ADMIRAL Oscar Stanley Dawson (retd), former Chief of Naval Staff and the original architect of Project Sea Bird (he had christened it the Karwar Naval Base then), said: "Karwar is a golden opportunity to exploit. No other place on the western or eastern seaboards is as valuable as it is. Half a mile into the sea, and the water depth is there. Besides, Karwar's hilly terrain will provide excellent camouflage to ground installations, and pens (enclosures) cut on the rock face could conceal submarines. The extent of the land available in and around Karwar will enable the Navy to disperse its forces, a crucial necessity in times of any attack. At Mumbai we cannot do that. Mumbai has outgrown its utility."

According to sources in the Navy, there are numerous problems in retaining the country's premier naval establishment in Mumbai. For starters, Mumbai was never meant to be a modern naval base. It was a trading post English traders set up after landing in Surat and has ever since been chock-a-block with commercial activity. From the security angle too, Mumbai is a virtual nightmare: the towering Taj Mahal Hotel buildings, the Bombay Stock Exchange building and the Ballad Pier - where any number of foreign merchant navy ships are berthed - overlook the naval base. In addition, fishing vessels and coastal craft abound in Mumbai's coastal waters. The oil terminal on Butcher Island, which stores large quantities of oil, is an added risk. Moreover, Mumbai being a tidal port, there is the problem of silting. Dredging is a continuous and costly process. The fairway leading to the sea is long, with shallow waters on either side.

Another serious security hazard at the Mumbai naval base is that submarines, a vital requirement of any fighting navy, have to be berthed alongside the warships. Besides, the naval base does not have a dedicated airfield; the Navy's operation-ready aircraft are stationed at Dabolim in Goa.

The Navy realised the need to shift its base out of Mumbai as far back as December 1961, the year Goa was liberated. When INS Vikrant was ordered to sail to Goa, a message stating "The elephant has left", informing the Portugese that the aircraft carrier had set sail for Goa, was sent from the Bombay Telegraph Office to an address in Goa. This happened despite the fact that INS Vikrant had left under the cover of darkness. The Indian authorities thus realised how vulnerable the naval base in Mumbai was to spy surveillance.

This reality was reconfirmed during the December 1971 conflict with Pakistan. The surveillance of merchant ships and other commercial vessels with foreign crews, which were anchored in the Mumbai harbour, was a monumental task. Dawson, who was Director of Naval Operations in 1971, said: "For anyone sitting in the Taj (Mahal Hotel), the Stock Exchange building or in the huge merchant ships, the naval base was like an open book. In 1971, there were serious lapses (because of this). Something had to be done. Mumbai was a hopeless place to have a naval base."

Dawson said that even as far back as the time of the Second World War, while undertaking harbour defence motor launches at the Mumbai harbour as a lieutenant with the 120 Squadron of the Coastal Forces, he had realised that the density of shipping vessels docked there was not conducive to the task of maintaining a secure naval base.

Dawson said that the realisation that Karwar could be an ideal site for a naval base struck him as early as 1951, when he visited Karwar periodically as a navigator on the frigate INS Jamuna . "We used to come to Karwar, which was a sort of an operational staging post. Rear Admiral Barnard, then Flag Officer, Flotilla - Indian Fleet, wanted to teach the boys how to land in surf on a beach. We had one landing craft called the 'Magar' (crocodile). But landing in the small cog on Karwar's calm Lady's Beach did not give one the real feeling of landing on a beach. The tide, the nature of the sea bottom or the beach gradient did not matter. It was as easy as getting off on a platform. So I requested permission from my Squadron Commander, Captain B.S. Soman, to do a beach gradient. It was then that I discovered Bingy Bay and the possibilities the area offered."

Dawson's opportunity to influence naval thinking in the matter came in 1979 when he was appointed Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command. In addition to using his own operational experience, he set up a small team, based in Kochi, to go into the question of establishing a base in Karwar. Dawson's elevation as Chief of the Naval Staff provided a fillip to the project, and by early 1984 a Naval Detachment had been set up in Karwar. In mid-1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave her approval to the project in principle.

A framework paper, which was ready in September 1984, called for initiating work on the project, completing the assessment of allied aspects such as land availability and the State Government's position vis-a-vis the project, obtaining the Prime Minister's approval and making a presentation to the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA). The CCPA gave its approval soon. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi laid the foundation stone for the project in October 1986.

The project definition and the consultants to the project were finalised. According to Dawson, the project was to cost Rs. 1,760 crores, and the construction was to begin in January 1986 and end in seven years. The land required for the project was 20,400 acres (8,160 hectares), with a further 10,000 acres (4,000 ha) required for a sterile zone. The acquisition of the land (mainly forest and revenue lands) and the shifting of inhabitants were to be completed by June 1985.

However, obstacles soon cropped up, mainly because of inadequate allocations in the defence budget. This was, according to a former commodore, "because of the Navy's own dithering and reluctance to push for the project." Dawson's proposal that the project be executed by a Project Management Authority headed by a Flag Officer (of Vice-Admiral's rank) and that a Greater Karwar Development Authority be established did not come through. The Navy's operations in Karwar were initially headed by a Commodore. It was then downgraded, to be headed by a commander. Now, 12 years after its foundation stone was laid, the Navy has a few temporary structures in Karwar.

In 1985, the Ministry of Defence requested the Government of Karnataka "to initiate steps for the acquisition of 8,072.39 acres of land scattered over 13 villages along the west coast." Of this, 5,580 acres was virgin forest, while the rest was private land(2,411.13 acres) or revenue land (81.26 acres). So far the Karnataka Government has handed over 7,503 acres.

AS per present plans, Project Sea Bird will be executed on a 23-km-long stretch between Bingy Bay in the north and Bhavikeri in Ankola taluk in the south. It will, for most part, be sandwiched between National Highway 17 in the east and the Arabian Sea on the west. It is to be built in two phases in nearly 20 years. The first phase, which will go on until 2005 and cost around Rs. 1,500 crores, will entail the construction of a deep-sea harbour, two breakwaters (the northern breakwater, 1.3-km road, will run between the mainland and the Anjidiv island, while the southern breakwater, a 3.2-km road, will run between the Round island and Arga village); jetties for the simultaneous berthing of 12 to 15 ships; a ship-yard (for repair and maintenance work); a township to house 3,500 personnel; a hospital; a Dockyard Uplift Centre (technology centre); and a state-of-the-art ship lift (in place of the more expensive dry docks). An airstrip, with an air station and a naval research centre, will come up in the second phase.

Dawson is critical of the decision to reduce the size of Project Sea Bird. "The current plan has had to squeeze everything in. This will prove detrimental (to India's security), especially in the event of nuclear attack. The high hill features overlooking the Bingy Bay should not be made available for any commercial activity - such as hotels or industries." Dawson is also unhappy that one of his predecessors permitted the setting up of an oil terminal virtually at the doorstep of the proposed base. "It has to be ensured that industries that come up in the vicinity of Karwar do not overlook the base. The presence of a large civil workforce will make it difficult to check infiltrators."

In 1985, the Karnataka Government requested the Navy to return to the Kamat Bay (in a bid to promote tourism) and some land at Baithkol (to construct major port). The request was turned down on security grounds. The prospects for tourism in Karwar will end when the Navy occupies more than five of its beaches. Meanwhile, the Karnataka Government has called for tenders to develop Kadri, 50 km south of Karwar, as a commercial port.

DESPITE having almost finalised the contracts for the construction of the harbour and the jetties, the naval and State authorities dropped anchor, over the question of compensating the evacuees. According to revenue records, the number of families that would have been displaced in 1986 because of the project was 2,915. This included 1,664 families of agriculturists and 1,200 families of fisherfolk. The figure has now grown to 4,444 families, including 3,315 families of agriculturists (the majority of them own less than one acre of land), the 856 families of fisherfolk. Besides, there are 335 family units which form undivided families. However, according to Prabhakar Rane, honorary president of the Sea Bird Naval Base and Konkan Railway Evacuees Forum, the number of families that will be affected is 8,000.

Although the Karnataka Govern-ment recently enhanced the compensation package for the evacuees of Project Sea Bird, the 12-year delay in the implementation of the project and the long-drawn-out land acquisition proceedings (land prices have increased manifold over the years) have left the local population exasperated and led to political manipulations. It is alleged that a number of families from elsewhere have, with the active support of local politicians, encroached on the land meant for the project, hoping to benefit from the resettlement and rehabilitation package. It is also alleged that some families continue to occupy their houses and cultivate their land after receiving compensation.

The revenue and naval authorities blame each other for this situation. According to naval sources, the Navy has not taken over private lands though it has acquired them, since people continue to live in the buildings on them. However, Jithendra Nayak, Special Deputy Commissioner, Land Acquisition, disagrees with this agreement. "Once the final notification 6(1) is passed (this was done in 1986) and the land is handed over to the Navy, there is no question of waiting to demolish the dwellings. We even passed a resolution to this effect at a high-level committee in 1995," he said.

Karwar's Deputy Commissioner, Bharatlal Meena, said: "The Navy is not utilising the land that has been handed over to it. This has led the people to question whether the project will ever come through." The Navy even suspended the construction of a compound wall abutting the Naval detachment. A naval officer said: "This was because a former State Minister objected to it, saying that the wall spoiled the view of the sea."

Revenue officials criticise the Navy also for not posting a Military Estate Officer (MEO), as the custodian of the military estate at Karwar. "The land surveys should have been done together," said Nayak, "but the MEO was not in the picture." According to Nayak, Rs. 12 crores of a total Rs. 23 crores has so far been paid towards land acquisition.

So far, the Department of Defence has made available Rs.24.87 crores to the Government of Karnataka and Rs.22.55 crores to the Deputy Commissioner of Karwar. As against this, Rs.22.28 crores has been spent on resettlement and rehabilitation. The naval authorities realise to their dismay that rehabilitation package has escalated from Rs.23 crores to Rs.142 crores.

The Karnataka Government's decision to draw a comparison between the evacuees of Karwar and those who are being rehabilitated from areas that come under the Upper Krishna Project (UKP) is, according to Rane, flawed. "The UKP is an irrigation project which will benefit the local people. Sea Bird will provide no direct benefits to those being displaced."

The evacuee forums now plan to approach the Karnataka High Court seeking the implementation of its original order, which forbade the evacuation of people from the project site until proper rehabilitation measures were taken. They insist that all members of every family above the age of 18 should be considered as a separate family unit and be given all the rehabilitation benefits. As is the practice in other resettlement and rehabilitation packages (such as the one in the case of the UKP), the Government has agreed to consider the claims of only two adult sons and unmarried daughters above the age of 35 for rehabilitation grants. According to revenue records, there are 3,536 such persons. This will cost the Government an additional Rs.17.68 crores.

As per the resettlement plan, agricultural plots will be created (some have already been created) at Sakalben, Agsur and Shirgunji. Housing sites for agriculturists will be created at Toddur, Hattikeri, Mudgeri and Belikeri, while the fishing community will be rehabilitated at Amdalli, Chitakula and Harwada (these areas are close to the sea). In addition, fishing harbours are to be built at Amdalli and Majali villages.

Besides, under the MoU, the rehabilitation grant will be enhanced to a uniform Rs.70,000, depreciation on buildings will be waived, jobs will be provided for members of displaced families and a scheme will be introduced to train unemployed youth in technical institutes. The total financial implication for these is around Rs.140 crores.

However, work on many of the rehabilitation centres is yet to be completed. Even basic infrastructure is lacking at some of them. At Shirgunji, the Government spent Rs. 70 lakhs five years ago on soil conservation, bund checking and so on and distributed 169 sites. However, nobody went there. The reason was lack of irrigation facilities. As per the latest MoU, Rs. 5 crores will be spent on irrigating the land at Shirgunji and Agsur.

At Mudigeri, the Government spent Rs.1 crore in 1989 and distributed 429 sites, but the displaced people have still not moved in. They said that Mudigeri is too far (18 km) from Karwar and lacks employment opportunities. Nayak contends that such a situation exists because the people had themselves opposed the setting up of industries there. Once the people started moving in, the Government would be duty-bound to improve the facilities, he said. However, there are few takers for this assurance.

It is the fishing community that will bear the brunt of any displacement. It is believed that many of its members will lose their livelihood along with their villages, since traditional fishing will not be possible in the new areas where they will be resettled. They will also have to face greater competition on a stretch of the coast. The Government has advised them to switch to mud crab rearing, oyster farming and so on.

However, most of the evacuees appear to be willing to move out if better facilities are offered. Their only hope is that Project Sea Bird will change the face of Karwar in the same way as the Eastern Naval Command changed the face of Visakhapatnam.

Defence Minister George Fernandes' statement during his visit to Karwar in July that he was "under pressure to shift the project from Karwar" had caused some concern. However, the subsequent signing of the MoU came soon afterwards. But the Navy will have to move fast and start work on the project before the end of the year if it wants to beat the 1999 deadline.

The naval base at Karwar has become an absolutely necessity since the old bases have outlived their utility. As Admiral Dawson said, "The importance of the sea had never been realised; all along, the emphasis was on continental strategies. The 1971 war, however, brought to light the importance of the Navy when it was able to use sea power effectively in protecting merchant ships, harbours and installations and also in preventing 80,000 Pakistani soldiers from being evacuated from erstwhile East Pakistan by (Pakistani) merchant ships, camouflaged as ships of other countries."

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