"I have always been an environmentalist"

Russi Mody, chairman of Tata Steel, defends his organisation's involvement in the controversial Chilika Aquatic Farms Ltd project in Orissa.

By Uday Shankar
Published: Thursday 31 December 1992

SO FAR it was the Orissa government, or rather its ebullient chief minister, Biju Patnaik, who has been fighting all the verbal battles in defence of the controversial Chilika Aquatic Farms Ltd (CAFL). Tata Steel, one of the two major owners of CAFL, chose to remain silent, even though the agitation against the project assumed serious proportions.

But that strategy seems to have changed and Tata Steel chairperson Russi Mody has gone on the offensive over the issue. Incidentally, Tata Steel, along with the Tata Oil Mills Company, holds 48 per cent of CAFL shares. Mody began by addressing a series of press conferences throughout the country. In mid-November, Mody and a large contingent of Tata officials descended on Delhi hoping to persuade the Capital's press corps that the Tata shrimp farming project in Chilika will not adversely affect the environment. During the press conference, Mody vowed to fight opponents of the project "till the cows come home", unless experts at the Union environment ministry ruled against it.

Mody seemed he would welcome other industrialists setting up prawn farms in Chilika, provided the ecological safety of the Chilika lake is ensured. Mody asserted the patch of land on which CAFL is being set up is not being used by local villagers "even as a grazing ground". But when a journalist pointed out that the environmental impact report of the Water and Power Consultancy Services (WAPCOS), commissioned by Tata itself, refers to the area as a grazing ground, Mody replied, "Well, it is only an interim report. Let's wait for the final WAPCOS report."

Mody's customary wit and repartee was evident throughout, as for example when asked to explain how he could claim that the shrimp farm would not destabilise the water quality of Chilika lake, he answered facetiously: "This is like suggesting that the sea will be polluted if someone takes a leak in it."

Russi Mody was interviewed by Down To Earth while he was in Delhi. Excerpts:

Why have you decided to come out openly in defence of the CAFL project now?
I was always for the project. But when so-called environmentalists started opposing the project, I did not come out in its defence because I wanted to be convinced that the project would not lead to any environmental degradation. That is why we commissioned WAPCOS, a government outfit, to do an environmental impact assessment of the project. Now that the WAPCOS report has clearly stated that our project will not pollute the lake, I have decided to come out in support of it. I have always been an environmentalist myself. Let me assure you I will not be party to anything that pollutes the environment.

At that time I did not know environmentalists would object to it. So the question of an EIA did not arise until the agitation started.

But work on the project did not cease even after people began protesting against it and the Union environment ministry asked for work to be stopped. It stopped only when the monsoon made construction work on the site impossible.
Look, if you are trying to read something machiavellian in it, you are wrong. We did not do anything to oppose anybody or anything. We did just what any normal business house would do. You invest money, you step into the project. The government told us the land would be given to us and that was good enough for us to commence work. Now if there was an agitation of this kind, its severity was certainly not apparent to me. So when we realised that almost everybody in the country was saying something or the other on the project, we thought the best way to fight it would be to get competent technical opinion on it. Now, after reading the WAPCOS report, we are clear that opposition to the project is not because of environmental reasons.

But the WAPCOS report has been rejected by those opposed to the project on the ground it does not have the technical competence to conduct an EIA. Environment minister Kamal Nath also wanted another EIA...
No, no. I'm not aware that Kamal Nath was not satisfied with the WAPCOS report. All I know is he told me he would send a team of two experts from his office to Chilika and if they were satisfied, CAFL would be cleared within a fortnight. Besides this, I am not prepared for another EIA. What is the guarantee a second EIA will satisfy the so-called environmentalists? If it doesn't, what do I do? It has to stop somewhere. This is not the way to run a project. A project must have a time limit.

I cannot wait indefinitely to satisfy everyone after experts have cleared it. We settled for WAPCOS after considering several agencies because we thought it would be the most acceptable. We did not opt for the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), for instance, because they are doing a lot of work for Tata Steel. Now I am not going to go through the whole process all over again. If the MEF team stops it, then that is the end of it. But if the experts clear it and then there are obstacles, let me tell you, I am going to fight for the project till the cows come home.

Now that the Tatas are in Chilika, do you think the government should allow other industrial houses also?
Why not? Why not? Let others also come in.

What will happen to the lake then?
It is up to the government to decide who and how many should be allowed in the lake. But if it comes to a stage that the lake is threatened, then, of course, the government should not give the permission. But if two or three more industrialists come in, I do not see any harm in it.

The CAFL is certainly going to be a trail-blazer and many more may move in...
Well, let me tell you that with all this agitation going on, I do not think there will be many people interested in setting up shrimp farms in Chilika.

But if more business houses move in, what will happen to the people and the lake?
I do not know. I can't really answer that. These are all hypothetical questions you are asking.

You have said you have the expertise to enhance prawn yields in the area. You also say middlemen in Chilika are exploiting the fisherfolk and that your presence will enable the fisherfolk to get more remunerative returns on their catch. So, why don't you offer the technology to the fisherfolk and limit yourself to processing and marketing the shrimps? Such an arrangement would also eliminate the middlemen.
No, they do not have the marketability. We have a worldwide market organisation.

So you can limit yourself to marketing the product. This way both you and the local people grow.
Oh, oh -- you are asking me questions of all kinds. Hypothetical questions that are not at all relevant. I told you the sequence of events was different. The government invited us to start the project. We accepted the offer, we were given the land and we put in money. Now at this stage you ask me all this. All kinds of things could have been possible. But not right now. I had to engage worldwide experts on the subject and things like that. I didn't think in terms of bringing them over here to hand them over to the local fishermen. But the produce of that expertise I will certainly hand over to the local fisherfolk.

But is it necessary for the Tatas to be physically involved with cultivating prawns in Chilika?
Yes. I intend to be present everywhere where I can help my country without hurting it environmentally. I would like my country to earn foreign exchange because I think that is absolutely essential.

But even if the Tatas did not go into production themselves, they can help the country, save the environment and help the people of Orissa. Besides, all suspicions would be allayed...
So then who would produce it?

The fisherfolk...
So, what is the great difference? They are not growing it now because most of them cannot afford to grow it. There are some people who are growing it but they are also getting very low yields. They get half a tonne while I will grow six tonnes.

But isn't that why you should offer your technology to the fisherfolk to improve their yields?
I will, I will. Once I establish myself, I will do that also.

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