Konkan battles

Published : Feb 11, 2011 00:00 IST

A slew of mega projects threaten the biodiversity of the Konkan coast.

recently in the Konkan

A NUMBER of mega projects along the Konkan coast in Maharashtra are under public scrutiny. The most recent reason for this is the amendment to the rules governing the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ). The rules originally prohibited the setting up of big industries on the coast. The amended version permits them, primarily because of the convenience of transportation by sea. The nuclear power plant at Jaitapur in Rajapur taluk of Ratnagiri district has also drawn public attention to the region. There has been local support for the protests against the nuclear facility, but national attention was focussed on the plant in December during the visit of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. It was at that time that a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India and the French company Areva, which will supply two nuclear reactors to the 9,900-MW plant.

About 120 kilometres north of the Jaitapur plant are seven other gas- and coal-based power plants with a total capacity of almost 21,000 MW. The State government has also granted permission to mining projects in Mandangad, Dapoli and Dodamarg taluks, all in the Konkan. A further 100 km north on the Konkan coast is another mega project Mumbai's second international airport, which covers about 2,000 hectares of land right on the coast. Thus, on a stretch of about 200 km, the State government has planned nine gigantic projects. There are also smaller mining leases, small ports and shipyards. Another 15 coal-fired plants, with a total capacity of 25 MW, are reportedly planned along the Konkan.

The Maharashtra government's decision to industrialise the Konkan is at odds with its recognition of the area as a region of rich biodiversity. In 1997, it declared the region eco-sensitive. The zone consists of the Western Ghats, which slope down to the narrow strip of the Konkan coast, which is 50 to 90 km wide. Deepak Apte, Marine scientist and Deputy Director, Conservation, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), says that mining in the ghats is already affecting the Konkan and that in the foreseeable future the region will have to battle not only destruction in the ghats but along the coast itself.

The problem lies with the intensity of the industry. If it had been one power plant, it might have been all right, says Apte, but this contiguous development will have a cumulative impact. The total generating capacity of the power plants will be almost 21,000 MW. Plus, each of the power plants will have its own port that can berth big ships.

These projects have carried out Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs), but on an individual basis. In normal circumstances this would have been acceptable, but the proximity of these projects to each other has to a great extent nullified the individual EIAs. As far as the natural environment is concerned, the effect that will be felt will be a cumulative one. Hence the BNHS' call for a Cumulative Environment Impact Assessment report.

The Konkan coast has maintained its pristine nature to a great degree. Mangroves, mudflats and breeding sites of fish, turtle, birds and molluscs flourish here. There are stretches of coral reefs, and migratory birds are still drawn to the region. There are dolphins and porpoises; even sperm whales have been sighted. In fact, Apte and his team were intent on mapping this coastal ecology when they became aware of the planned industrial development in the region and the damage that could ensue. Their year-long study culminated in a preliminary report on the Diversity of Coastal Marine Ecosystem of Maharashtra, which highlighted the region's natural riches and the immense destruction the industries can cause.

The report was submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) with the strong recommendation that a Cumulative Environment Impact Assessment study was crucial to the survival of the region's biodiversity. The MoEF agreed to this. The assessment will be the first of its kind in India.

The BNHS report shows that at least 11 eco-sensitive sites will be severely damaged from the thermal discharge from the power plants. Ministry regulations allow thermal discharge to be 7 Celsius hotter than the ambient temperature of the sea water. After receiving the preliminary study, the MoEF altered the norm to 5 C, but Apte says even that will be destructive because of the volume of water.

The report shows that at Mandavi village, which is close to the already constructed Finolex thermal power project, there is danger to a large variety of Opisthobranchs, a diverse group of snails and slugs. A possible new species of sea slug, called Facelina sp, would face threats from changes in water temperature. Mirya village, though not affected by the power plant, is close to Finolex's jetty and the high possibility of an accidental oil spillage leaves the marine life there vulnerable. The report also describes the mangroves along the Jaigad creek as excellent mangrove cover, which is probably among the best mangroves along the Konkan coast as well as Maharashtra.

At Undi village in Jaigad, Ratnagiri district, a site within the 10-square-kilometre impact zone of the Jindal thermal power plant was assessed. It is proposed to expand the capacity of phase II of the plant, and this will leave local species open to threats. Ambolgad, among the most pristine marine habitats in the Konkan, will be affected by the thermal discharge from the proposed nuclear plant at Jaitapur, which will alter temperature regimes in the water.

The area around the Jaitapur nuclear power plant came in for a close assessment. A radius of 10 km around the site was covered by the team's survey. In all, 45 sites, including five villages in close proximity to the Jaitapur site, were surveyed. The report says that the species diversity of mangroves in the area is high and makes for very thick and tall forests. In all 11 mangrove species and nine mangrove associates were recorded from the area. The report says the area around the Jaitapur plant due to its habitat richness supports great floral and faunal diversity.

The Jaitapur project, which has been set up by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, has been opposed by local residents on the grounds of land acquisition and issues of nuclear safety. The tectonic volatility of the region has also been cited. In a letter written in March 2010 to Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, the Gandhian Dr G.G. Parikh and the economist Dr Sulabha Brahme, among others, explained why the site was inappropriate.

The norm as per Vengurlekar Committee recommendations is that a nuclear power plant shall not be put up in an area which falls beyond seismic zone 1 or 2. The site selected comes under seismic zone 4. The tremors experienced over the years in Koyna valley and Ratnagiri district makes the site inappropriate for a nuclear power plant. The tremors from end September '09 to end December '09 experienced in this region created a crater; 40 ft long & 40 ft deep on a State highway and changed the course of a rivulet, just a few kilometres away from the selected site, they wrote. They also expressed concern over the lacs of litres of sea water sucked in and released into sea at higher than the ambient temperature every day

Mumbai's second airport

The environmental clearance for the proposed second international airport for Mumbai took a long time to come. As in the 17 other sites that had been shortlisted for it, there were valid environmental reasons not to build it at Navi Mumbai. It would have violated the CRZ rules had the State not conveniently secured an amendment to accommodate the airport, calling it a one-time exception. In the CRZ's 20-year existence, the rules have been amended about 25 times.

So it turned out that over 2,000 ha (at least 30 per cent of it falls in the CRZ category) was earmarked for the airport and its subsidiary facilities. It is astonishing that mangroves, mudflats, wetlands, a creek, riverine topography and a hill were deemed suitable for destruction. The EIA says that the Navi Mumbai site is less sensitive to environment and is, therefore, technically and environmentally [the] preferred site.

So what exactly happened at Navi Mumbai from a green point of view? With the Ministry of Aviation clamouring that the existing Mumbai international airport would be saturated by 2014, Jairam Ramesh ordered a relook at the Navi Mumbai site in February last year. At stake was the destruction of 161 ha of mangrove, the diversion of the Ulwe and Gadhi rivers, the possible siltation of the Panvel creek into which they drain, and the destruction of a hill which, as Ramesh ironically noted, was already partially destroyed by quarrying. Eight months later, the MoEF gave permission to build the airport.

When the announcement was made, much importance was given to the reduction in the distance between the two parallel runways from 1.8 km to 1.5 km. This reduction saved the river Ulwe from diversion without compromising on aviation safety regulations. (If the solution was so simple, why was the Ulwe considered for diversion in the first place?) Much of the existing 161 ha of mangroves will be uprooted and the promised 678 ha of mangrove will come about only after replanting. Besides, it remains to be seen how the diversion of the Gadhi will affect the mangroves. No projections were made on this aspect. So far only 65 per cent of the land has been acquired. The balance 35 per cent is yet to be found and processed. How was environmental clearance given when all the land had not yet been acquired?

At the time of the announcement of the clearance, the then Chief Minister, Ashok Chavan, said the green clearance for the airport was an important and significant step taken in the interest of Mumbai, Maharashtra, Konkan belt and for the country it was a classic example for seeking approval for other mega projects.

Industry usually wins out over environmental considerations. The amendment to the CRZ rules bolsters this belief. Jairam Ramesh himself, at the time of granting clearance to the Jaitapur nuclear project, said that 95 per cent of the project proposals submitted to his Ministry got clearance. However, with the BNHS intervening and the MoEF agreeing to carry out a Cumulative Environment Impact Assessment, there is hope that this story may yet turn out to be one of David and Goliath.

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