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Nothing less than Adam’s Dilemma
Dhamra Port on the coasts of Orissa may well Open The Gates of fortune for The State, but at The Same time it may also Prove fatal for The rare Olive Ridley Turtles. This is now writing The Newest Chapter of Tussles between Environmentalists and Industrialists in The State.
Issue Date - 17/02/2011
Ever since the Naveen Patnaik government stepped ahead to bring in an industrial revolution in Orissa, the state has been witnessing increasing number of agitations and activism cases. Owing to the same while India’s biggest FDI backed (Rs.520 billion) POSCO steel plant project is stuck with land acquisition issues, global steel major Arcelor Mittal, who signed a MoU with Orissa government in 2006 to set-up a Rs.400 billion steel plant, finally gave up hope and moved on to sign a MoU with the Karnataka government. Vedanta Group suffered a double blow with it’s aluminium plant in Lanjigarh (Western Orissa) and Rs.150 billion Vedanta University in the eastern part of the state. Most of the mega industrial ventures in Orissa are now at halt or fighting hard to salvage a situation out of nothing. They are facing road blocks created by either pro-environment activists or anti-displacement agitators. The latest addition to this struggling bunch of projects is the Port of Dhamra, though with a little twist. While most of the above mentioned projects are struggling to start off, Dhamra port is facing the heat when it is just about to be completed.

Before getting into a discussion of development vs environment, which is the real issue haunting the project at the moment, one must know that on completion Dhamra port – developed by Dhamra Port Company Ltd. (a 50:50 joint venture between L&T and Tata Steel at an estimated cost of Rs.24.6 billion) – will become the first ever fully mechanised port on the eastern shore of the country. In addition, the port, which is strategically located between Haldia (West Bengal) and Paradip port (Orissa) on the Bay of Bengal, will be one of the largest deep water ports in India adding impetus not only to the trades of the state but also of the country in a serious way. The important fact about this port is that when the project work started in 2006 (agitation against POSCO for land issues were at their peak), there were no such issues against DPCL though government acquired around 3,000 acres of land in 74 villages for the port and rail corridor. Displacement was never a hurdle for the project. Recollects K. C. Patra, District Collector, Bhadrak, “Issues relating land acquisition were handled in an exemplary manner. The process was accomplished in a way that no one was left landless at the end. Thus district administration did not face any problem during acquisition of lands.”

However, the real pain for DPCL at the moment is the protest of environmentalists, which has gained a lot of momentum with international NGOs jumping into the bandwagon in a big way. And the issue raised by the environmental NGOs is the ports closeness to Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary, where 200,000 to 500,000 Olive Ridley turtles nest every year. Though the port site is not a nesting area, environmentalists are concerned about the fact that dredging and industrial pollution will disrupt the environment and the natural food chain in the whole region.

Environmental protests against DPCL came to limelight for the first time when Greenpeace staged a rally in front of Bombay House, Headquarters of the TATA Group, demanding a halt to construction of the port. Though DPCL rejected these concerns stating that all environmental clearances were obtained correctly, the NGO never stopped after that. Last December itself, in one of its kind of an attempt, it flexed its financial muscles and placed half page advertisements in leading business dailies of the country as a part of its campaign against Dhamra Port. On the other hand, there are a few other NGOs which are now protesting against DPCL on the context that the deep water port will damage the nearby Bhitarkanika Mangroves conservation area (which also houses a crocodile sanctuary).

The protest gained further steam last year when a non-partisan group of 20 politicians began lobbying to halt the project work, which they claimed was going on in violation of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 (FCA). (It can be well mentioned here that, in September 2009, prominent conservationists like Romulus Whitaker and Shekar Dattatri had filed a case before the Supreme Court against forest act violation by the port). However, the state government, as it replied to the Supreme Court, continues to stand on its statement that the port is not on any forest land. But activist Dr. Bijay Mishra avers, “State government is hiding the truth. In 2008, the state forest department had conducted an inspection to confirm the allegation. The Conservator of Forest of the concerned area, who was in charge of the inspection, had confirmed violation of FCA in his report and he had submitted that report to Principal Conservator of Forest as well.”

DPCL spokes person Himansu Sahu, however, refutes these allegations. He says, “Our project never violated any law. The company is concerned about the safety of Olive Ridleys and mangroves. Therefore, we had signed International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an environmental agency of global repute, to provide us assistance in developing environmental standards, designing potential mitigation measures during construction of the port and developing a sound environment management plant for development and operation of the port.” DPCL also claims that IUCN has reviewed and assessed potential dredging and lighting impacts on turtles and the port authority is very much committed to the best protocols recommended by the agency.

Nevertheless, concerns of activists and environmental organisations has, in a way, pushed the port authorities to take some immediate action. They are now in a process to make Dhamra an eco-friendly port by undertaking massive plantation programs along the 62 km-long rail corridor from Bhadrak to Dhamra to make it a green corridor.

In the mean time, amidst on going concerns, criticisms and controversies, the first phase construction of the project is almost complete. Out of 13, 2 berths of 350 meters (with a capacity of 15.25 mn tonnes of import coal and limestone and 9.75 mn tonnes of export of ore and steel) are ready to handle cargo in a fully mechanised environment to add an impetus to the steel and mining industries of Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal. For that matter, the port has already received its first cargo vessel, an Australian ship bringing 45,000 tonnes of cooking coal to supply Tata Steel’s Jamshedpur plant. Certainly, Dhamra port will become a ‘development gateway’ for Orissa once it operates in full swing. But then, will that happen over the dead bodies of the Olive Ridleys, which have so far given Orissa a distinct identity in the world map so far, is a concern that needs to be addressed immediately.

Dhrutikam Mohanty           

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