Right of way

An upcoming port at Dhamra was cited as the reason for the endangered Olive Ridley turtles giving the Gahirmatha beach a miss last year. This year, they are back. But there are other problems with the port: its environmental clearance is actually flawed

 
By Ravleen Kaur, Ashutosh Mishra, Kirtiman Awasthi
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Right of way

-- (Credit: BIVASH PANDAV)Olive Ridley turtles missed their annual nesting trip to the Orissa coast last year. Conservation groups blamed the upcoming port at Dhamra. The turtles are back this year, and port proponents Tata and L&T claim vindication. They overlook the violations that have allowed the port at Dhamra in the first place

On March 23, 2009, environmental group Green-peace International issu-ed a full-page advert in Financial Times and The International Herald Tribune to draw the world's attention to the Olive Ridley turtles--marine reptiles that come annually to the beaches of Gahirmatha in Orissa to nest. The advertisement drew on the hype around the cheap car Nano by Tata, the company building the port along with the L&T group, to raise alarm about the impact of an upcoming port on the endangered turtles.

   
The Gahirmatha beach in the life of Olive Ridleys
Turtles return to the same beach each year, giving it the slip once in a while for reasons not known
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Nesting period December to March
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Each turtle lays about 100 eggs
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After laying eggs, turtles return to the sea
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Incubation period 50 days
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Hatchlings come out at night
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Hatchlings follow light reflected off the sea to join their kin
 

The port at Dhamra is less than five km from the Bhitarkanika National Park; it is 15 km from the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary.The beaches are one of the world's largest nesting sites for the turtles. The turtles didn't nest there last year; this year's nesting season--from December to March--hadn't seen any turtles.

March 24 proved a surprise.

Unaware of the advertisement--and the talk of construction work driving the turtles away from the beaches where they breed--thousands of olive-coloured, heart-shaped shells emerged from the waters off the Gahirmatha coast. The turtles had arrived finally, said Jogendra Babaji, a fisher from a village near the national park. The turtles were seen floating in the inshore waters around sunset. "I could see some of them in the water. As darkness fell they trekked to the beach. First they came in hundreds and as the night wore on there were thousands," he said. Apart from a few curious fishers like him, the beach was deserted, he recalled as he narrated how each turtle picked a spot for itself.

The turtles levelled the area with their fore legs and dug out sand with their flippers. The pits were about one-and-a-half feet deep. They lay their eggs in the pits and covered them with sand. "If one doesn't see them laying eggs there is no way to know it's a turtle nest." After that the turtles returned to the sea, this time on a track different from the one they had used to come to the beach. The eggs would hatch in less than two months. Guided by the reflection of the sea, the baby turtles would join their kin.

While this cycle continued, from March 24-30, the Dhamra Port Company Ltd said the event vindicated their stand that the port does not pose any threat to the turtles. The company argued there were occasions earlier when the turtles did not visit the Orissa coast. Mass nesting did not happen in the early 1980s and the late 1990s. "The port construction started in late 2007," a company spokesperson said.

So, why didn't the turtles come to the beach in certain years? The answers are not known; there are only anecdotes. People in the Kendrapara district, under with the beach lies, say missile tests on the Wheeler island, close to the Gahirmatha sanctuary, and fishing ports could be responsible for the missing nesting years. But there are no scientific studies to back these conjectures. The state government, port authorities and conservationists--local and international--who claim the port disturbs the turtles have not carried out any study so far on the port's possible impact on turtles.

"Mass nesting does not occur due to weather or other disturbances," said Ashish Fernandes, ocean campaigner with Greenpeace India. "The Dhamra port construction could be an additional deterrent to mass nesting." The company had invited activists for talks to allay the impact of port on the turtles, if any, but the green groups are not ready for any kind of meeting till the company stops construction.

Down to Earth  
March 23, 2009, The International Herald Tribune
 

With talks in limbo, the port is now half complete. Violations in the clearances given to the port have not been debated publicly because of the impasse on the impact on the turtles. Take the example of the environmental impact assessment (eia) report. This leads to questions about another port project--in another place, at another time.

Environmental impact
The Dhamra Port Company Ltd claimed to have all approvals in place before starting the port's construction in 2007. A Pune-based consultant wrote the eia report for the Dhamra port in 1997, when it was to be built by Internal Sea Port Pvt Ltd (see timeline Port shrift). Then, the port was to come up on Kanika island off the coast, near the mouth of river Dhamra. (It was proposed as an expansion of a fishing jetty that had been in place since 1978.) In 2004, the state government moved the location of the port to the mainland, close to the Gahirmatha sanctuary; it maintained this was merely a refurbishment of the old plan (see map). This was all the argument needed to avoid new studies and a fresh eia.

The new proposal envisaged a bigger port than previously planned--cargo handling capacity increased to 83 million tonnes per year compared to the 25 million tonnes per year proposed earlier (see table Bigger plans). In fact the present project aims to be India's biggest port (the Visakhapatnam port is considered the biggest at present; it handled 64.5 million tonnes last year). The eia notification, under which the port was cleared, does not allow such expansion. But Orissa government officials were vague when asked why a new eia was not conducted.

"The Orissa government did not get new studies done because it found the new site most suitable for a deep sea port. Besides, Dhamra is the expansion of an old project, so the question of a new eia does not arise," said A K Panda, the state's deputy secretary of port development. "We will see how the port affects adjacent areas after it becomes operational."

There is a distinct advantage to label a project an expansion of an old one it goes for clearance to the Union surface transport ministry, which is charged with developing infrastructure like ports. A new project, however, must get the nod from the Union environment ministry, which is responsible for safeguarding the environment.

The state's environment secretary Bhagirathi Jena excused himself saying he did not know much about the issue. Pramode K Prusty, senior scientist in the environment department, said it would not be proper to split hairs over Kanika island and the mainland because "a port covers a large area of land". "Unless the project goes outside the ambit of the total area covered by the earlier port, there is no need for a fresh eia." On changes in specifications like cargo, he said he was not aware of it, but later added that it must be a "projected figure that does not entail a fresh eia unless the builders crossed the cargo limit mentioned in the eia".

If such an eventuality presents itself, there would not be the opportunity to go back in time and conduct another environmental assessment--the port would be up and running.

But the state government is not consistent in its definition of the project. A document of the state's commerce and transport department contradicts this it calls the project a greenfield project, that in common English means a project starting from scratch. A 2006 report on the scoping mission of the Dhamra port project also contradicts Panda and Prusty.

 
   
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Port shrift Three decades of decisions and indecisions

1978 Government establishes fishing jetty on Dhamra river

1997 Orissa proposes port at Dhamra

June 1997 Orissa issues letter to reduce area of Bhitarkanika National Park so that Dhamra is outside the park

July 1997 Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification amended, conferring power on the Ministry of Surface Transport (MoST) to grant environmental clearance for port expansion projects

October 1997 International Sea Ports Pvt Ltd, in which Larsen & Toubro holds stakes, gets an environmental impact assessment (EIA) done for Dhamra port. EIA by Kirloskar Consultants, Pune

September 1998 Dhamra formally outside park boundary

January 2000 MoST clears Dhamra port

March 2000 Beach Protection Council, a non-profit in Orissa, appeals to the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) saying the project site is a turtle nesting area

May 2000 NEAA dismisses the appeal saying the port site is not the nesting site of the turtles

August 2000 CRZ amendment of July 2000 revoked

October 2004 Larsen & Toubro and Tata Steel sign agreement for construction of Dhamra port, this time in the mainland, near the Gahirmatha Sanctuary

Down to Earth April 2005 Tata Steel approaches Bombay Natural History Society, BNHS, which first agrees to a study to assess turtle presence in the area

November 2005 BNHS says no to the study because of its narrow terms of reference

December 2006 Dhamra Port Corporation Ltd (DPCL) approaches IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). Acting on a Supreme Court order, the Orissa Forest Department proposes an eco-sensitive buffer zone with a 10-km radius around Bhitarkanika and Gahirmatha. The Dhamra port site falls in the buffer area

May 2007 Greenpeace releases study conducted by North Orissa University; the university in a press conference alleges Greenpeace has tampered with the original report of the university

October 2007 DPCL announces signing of a formal deal with IUCN for a mitigation plan and design environmental standards for the project

December 2007
Dredging commences at port site

December 2007-April 2008
No mass nesting of turtles at Gahirmatha; activists allege the cause is dredging

May 2008 IUCN's Indian members protest the lack of consultation and the IUCN's involvement in the project

October 2008 A coalition of conservation groups meet Tata, demands a halt to construction and the commissioning of an independent biodiversity threat assessment

February 2009
Talks fail; DPCL refuses to stop construction
 
Time and tide and erosion  
Parts of the turtles' nesting islands off the Gahirmatha coast have disappeared due to erosion, conservationists have observed. It was a 10-km beach till 1989, when a cyclone split it into two islands. Over the next eight years, one of the islands fragmented into two smaller islands with beach length of 1.1 km and 2.8 km.

Port officials say Dhamra is a natural port site, so the project cannot erode the beach. "If erosion happens, it will affect us too," said S K Mohapatra, the company's CEO. Greenpeace argues the port would impact the ecosystem, in future if not now. "Nesting may not happen next year," said Samit Aiche, its executive director in India.

But there are no studies to support either the company or the non-profit's claims. Oceanographer Sugato Hazra of Jadavpur University in Kolkata said it was unlikely that the port would cause erosion unless the company built groins--perpendicular walls extending from land into the sea. Erosion along India's eastern coast has increased over the past 20 years, he said. The reasons range from waves and tides to sea level rise and lower sediments because of dams on estuaries.

Delta regions and beaches with sandy soil are more prone to erosion than rocky beaches, Hazra said. The EIA says the soil texture at the port site is silty clay--prone to erosion.
 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (iucn) had prepared the report. It said "The new port significantly dwarfs the old port in terms of size and potential environmental impacts. In our view the port is really not an expansion of an old port, the two are not even adjacent." It also said the port would see a growth in industry in the area. "If the port becomes a net importer of raw materials, industries would want to be as close to the port as possible. While the port itself might be committed to environmental action, the secondary industries may not be so."

These concerns do not find a mention in the eia, which addresses the turtles in t wo of the 160 pages. The eia says the port site is not the nesting ground for turtles and hence won't affect them in any way. iucn disagrees "Turtle hatchlings are attracted to bright lights, and it is possible the...hatchlings will be misguided and head inland towards the port rather than offshore."

There is little mention of possible impact of erosion or dredging on turtles in the eia (see box Time and tide and erosion). iucn questioned the timing of dredging and whether dredgers would stop if a turtle is sucked up. It asked for a comprehensive environmental management plan. So the company commissioned in 2008 a study to the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa to find out if dredging would affect nesting beaches. The study would complete in May 2009; initial findings suggest erosion and accretion of the beaches is a natural process and an annual cyclical phenomenon and cannot be attributed to dredging at the port site.

iucn officials clarified they are not a regulatory body. They were there to suggest safeguard measures. Nicolas J Pilcher, co-chair of iucn's Marine Turtle Specialist Group, said mitigation measures work well and the company had taken a proactive stand in this regard. He added iucn brought the world's best science to the table, which would benefit the project.

"Turtles and ports can coexist. There is no scientific evidence to show that the port will cause a catastrophe. We have ensured dredging proceeds according to the best international standards," said Pilcher, who was part of the iucn scoping mission study. But conservationists do not buy the explanation because the mitigation measures are limited only to the Dhamra port site.

"There have been no impact studies on ancillary and downstream projects--ship building yard, steel plant, fertilizer plant--as a result of port," said a report by Sudarshan Rodrigues and Aarti Shreedhar of atree. "iucn perhaps realized since it is not feasible to abandon the project, therefore mitigate adverse impact that Olive Ridley turtles and their habitats might face," said a turtle expert who did not want to be named.

Samit Aiche, executive director of Greenpeace India, said, "It is clear that the eia for the port project is flawed. We have been asking for an independent eia which should consider aspects like erosion, lighting and dredging." He added port officials were ready to conduct studies, but without stopping construction. "That is not right." He said Greenpeace had not ruled out going to court. "We are negotiating with the company and will continue with our public campaign."

In 2006, the company approached wwf India and the Bombay Natural History Society (bnhs) to study if turtles were present at the port site.

 
Bigger plans
But without an EIA
Port details 1997 2004
Location On Kanika island On mainland
Land area 486 hectares (ha) for port 2,023 ha for industrial park 1,214 ha for rail/road network 1,624 ha for port 2,023 ha for rail/ road network Ancillary industries Ship building yard, Steel plant, Fertilizer plant
Channel length 7 km 18 km
Depth 14 m 18 m
Dredging 50 million tonnes 60 million tonnes
Max vessel size 120,000 deadweight tonnes 180,000 deadweight tonnes
Cargo handling 25 million tonnes/year 83 million tonnes/year
 
Down to Earth  
Dhamra port will be ready next year
GREENPEACE

The organizations refused to study because of the "narrow terms of reference". bnhs argued since construction had started, they could not take up the study. S K Mohapatra, ceo of the Dhamra Port Company, said when bnhs refused to study, they had only acquired the land and that construction had not started.

The company then asked iucn to suggest safeguards to avoid any adverse impact the port might have on turtles during construction and operation. That is how iucn came into play. But its involvement was controversial as the Indian members of iucn's Marine Turtle Specialist Group alleged they were not consulted (see 'Conservationists divided over Dhamra port', Down To Earth, May 30, 2008). In a meeting with conservation groups on February 26, the company once again refused to halt construction work, taking recourse in iucn's mitigation measures.

"Tata's willingness to accept some environmental safeguards may have been an opportunity to mainstream some of these as regulations in port and coastal development. In the long term, this may positively impact the coast and turtles. But the process has to be consultative," said Kartik Shanker, marine turtle biologist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. Regulations and safeguards assume greater importance because the state government is planning 11 ports, including Dhamra (see box Orissa plans 11 new ports). Orissa wants to be on par with other maritime states. It has proposed a single-window agency for development of ports and inland waterways.

 
   
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Orissa plans 11 new ports

MoU signed for three projects; two-at Paradip and Gopalpur-are operational

Down to Earth Kirtania at Subarnarekha river mouth

District Balasore
Promoters Creative Port Development Private Limited, Chennai

Down to Earth Port to cater to the demands of West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand and northeasten states.

Down to Earth Cargo to comprise iron ore, coke

Down to Earth Astarang port

District Puri
Promoters Navyuga Engineering Company, Hyderabad

Down to Earth Cargo to comprise thermal coal, coking coal, steel, aluminium and iron ore

Down to Earth Jatadhari Muhan port

District Jagatsinghpur
Promoters POSCO-India.

Down to Earth Port project part of the POSCO's MoU with the government for setting up a steel plant in the district

Down to Earth MoEF has approved the port proposal
 

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