An ambitious venture

Published : Aug 29, 1998 00:00 IST

PROJECT SEA BIRD is one of the most ambitious projects to be undertaken by the Indian Navy. The memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the enhanced rehabilitation package was signed by the Defence Secretary, Ajit Kumar, and the Chief Secretary of Karnataka, B.K. Bhattacharya, in the presence of Defence Minister George Fernandes and Karnataka Chief Minister J.H. Patel. Speaking after the signing of the MoU, Fernandes said that it was a "big day for Karnataka". The Indian Navy's operational headquarters would be located at Karwar, he said, and added that the project would provide a major boost to the local economy. Expressing satisfaction over the MoU, J.H. Patel said that his expectations had been fulfilled.

According to a senior defence official, although the project was conceived way back in 1983 the Government gave the go-ahead only a few months ago. The major hurdle was the issue of rehabilitation of people who would be displaced by the project. Initially, the State Government estimated that 50,000 people would be eligible for compensation. However, as per the terms of the MoU, all those affected by the project who are above 18 years of age will be treated as a family unit and will be paid Rs. 70,000 each. This means an escalation in the Navy's financial costs, since about 1.2 lakh people have to be paid compensation under the new classification.

According to earlier plans, the State Government was to have incurred the rehabilitation costs. Now it is the Navy that has to pick up the tab. As per the original plan, the Navy had allocated Rs.21 crores for rehabilitation. How-ever, according to a senior officer in the Navy, the current rehabilitation package will exceed Rs. 100 crores. He said that rehabilitation could eventually account for up to 10 per cent of the entire budget for the project. The Navy will also help construct two harbours for civilian use. On this count, the Defence Ministry will incur an expenditure of Rs. 8 crores.

Besides this, one child from each affected family, who takes up a technical course of study anywhere in Karnataka, will receive a monthly stipend of Rs. 1,000 for 24 months. This scheme will be in place from the current academic year and will continue for a period of seven years. In addition, the project authorities have allotted 800 acres (320 hectares) of land with lift irrigation facilities in the nearby Ankola taluk. A sum of Rs. 10 crores has been earmarked for this. As per the MoU, the Government of Karnataka is required to expedite the process of rehabilitation.

According to a senior naval official, the base will be built on five sites. Of these, three are contiguous. The officer said that the base would be built on the area envisaged in the original blueprint and the Navy did not have to downscale its size. Unforeseen circumstances had affected the Navy's plans to start work on the project before the onset of the monsoon, he added. According to Defence Ministry sources, senior naval officials have already been deployed at Karwar and the project will take off in a few months' time. The naval base will require a lot of logistical support, support that could benefit the local populace.

THE previous Government at the Centre wanted to give the initial consultancy and construction contract to an Indian firm. However, the naval authorities felt that the company concerned did not have the requisite knowhow.

The initial phase of the project involves the construction of two artificial backwaters. Senior officers in the Navy expect the first phase to be completed in five or six years. According to sources in the Navy, although the indigenous component will be predominant in the initial phase of construction, some foreign expertise will also be needed. The long-term plan is to shift the Navy's operational headquarters to Karwar.

At the same time, those who are in decision-making positions in the Defence Ministry emphasise the fact that Karwar cannot be a replacement for Mumbai. Mumbai would continue to remain the key naval base, an officer said. "The kind of infrastructural support we get in Mumbai cannot be visualised in Karwar in the foreseeable future," he said. Karwar will make the Mumbai facility less clogged. He said that the remains of six shipwrecks lay at the entrance to the Mumbai harbour, making navigation tricky.

MEANWHILE, the Indian Navy is all set to open formally its new Far Eastern Command, with its headquarters at Port Blair in the Andamans. The Command is waiting for clearance from the Finance Ministry and the Cabinet Committee to become operational. Given the changed geopolitical realities in the region, the Navy is seeking to portray the creation of a new independent command as a mere "upgradation". It has no plans to induct new ships; it will concentrate on stepping up search-and-rescue missions and anti-piracy operations. The Indian Navy will also help regulate the heavy traffic in the Straits of Malacca and check pollution.

However, the Defence Minister is not so circumspect. In a speech in the first week of August, he said that the Andamans was India's most insecure frontier and that the new command would counter the threat from China, which has, according to him, set up listening posts in the Coco islands, less than 40 km off the northern tip of the Andamans.

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