Fisherfolk of Salaya are up in arms against Essar's port project; say the conglomerate has bent all rules to usurp their fishing ground
Life has taken a miserable turn for Hussain Yunus in the past five years. The 40-year-old has his fishing boat docked on the mud-flats of Gujarat’s Salaya port. Yet, every day he travels to other ports along the southern shore of the Gulf of Kachchh in search of work on other fishing boats.
His three children, who used to study in private schools, now go to a madrasa that offers free education. The biggest change, they say, is in the diet: fish has become a rarity on their platter. The story is similar for almost 8,000 fisherfolk living in Salaya and 14 villages around the port town. And all the fisherfolk Down To Earth spoke to held Essar Bulk Terminal Ltd responsible for the plight.
The company, part of the Indian steel-to-ship conglomerate Essar Group, is constructing a captive jetty near Kalubhar tapu (island) to transport coal and other raw materials to its 1,320 MW thermal power plant in Kajura village, 7 km from Salaya. But the jetty cuts through an area that has traditionally been the fishing ground of Salaya’s fisher community. “Our catch has reduced by 80 per cent because of the jetty which cordons off the entire fishing ground for its port,” says Yunus. While Yunus has managed to make ends meet, many others have run into debt. To pay off the debt, Yunus’ friend Sumar Haji Hussain sailed to Jam Nagar port last year. Since he did not have a permit to fish in the area, the coast guards seized his licence. Without any other means of earning, he had to sell off his boat.
Nazir Jasrya, secretary of Salaya Machhimar Boat Association (SMBA), says the plight of the fisherfolk is evident from the port’s annual turnover from fishing business, which has declined by two-thirds in the past five years. SMBA has been staging protests against the jetty since Essar pro-posed the project in 2007. SMBA says the water around Kalubhar is not only a rich fishing ground, it is home to a rich marine biodiversity. Essar is constructing the jetty in the eco-sensitive region by bending all rules and violating a court order. Worse, the state government is working hand in glove with it, SMBA alleges (see ‘Cleared by error’).
Insensitive to a fragile area?
The southern coast of the Gulf of Kachchh is known to harbour several species of coral, sea-urchin, starfish, sea turtle and dugong among others. In the 1980s, 620 sq km of the area was declared the country’s first Marine National Sanctuary and Park. The Coastal Regulation Zone notification, 1991, also prohibits industrial activity in the area. In 1993, while allowing Essar to set up a refinery, Vadinar Oil Terminal Ltd, 8 km from the eco-sensitive region, the Centre had asked the Gujarat government not to consider any fresh project in the area. Yet, in 2009 the state government gave in-principle approval to the jetty and diverted 4.6 ha of mangroves at Parodiya village for it. The forest land diversion committee has denied the presence of coral in the area.
In September 2011, acting on SMBA’s public interest petition, the High Court of Gujarat ordered a stay on the construction work of the jetty. “But construction went on unabated. Work on the jetty had just started in 2011. Now it is nearing completion,” says Anwar Patel, president of religious group Salaya Muslim Jamat.
Construction work came to a halt on June 24 this year after thousands of fisher-folk from Salaya and nearby villages tried to barge into the jetty, resulting in violent skirmishes. “Many people sustained serious injuries. But the local administration did not register our complaints and asked us to compromise with the company by accepting compensation,” alleges Jasrya.
“The clashes could have been avoided had Essar adhered to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report prepared by the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) at its behest,” says Adam Bhaya, secretary of Salaya Vessels Owners Association (SVOA). He had filed the public interest petition on behalf of SMBA. To minimise environmental impact of the jetty, NIO had proposed a different route, which is 50 metres from the marine sanctuary and bypasses the fishing ground (see ‘Jetty of omissions’). It had also suggested Essar to follow trestle technique (a bridge-like structure) while setting up the jetty, says Bhaya, who has obtained the EIA report and map of the region from NIO under the Right to Information Act. “Essar built a L-shaped jetty to reduce the length by half. Only 200 metres of the existing 5.5 km jetty is a trestle, while the remaining is a bund road,” says Adam. Unlike a trestle, the bund road restricts the movement of fishing boats and tidal waters, affecting the fisher-folk’s livelihood and the region’s ecology.
The NIO map also contradicts reports of the Expert Appraisal Committee, which recommended environmental clearance for the jetty. The committee had said the jetty is “outside” the sanctuary and park area. “The NIO map suggests that a portion of the jetty passes through the Marine National Park. Essar has prepared a fake map in connivance with government officials to help its case in the court,” alleges Bhaya.
Junas Haji Gajan, president of SVOA, says the jetty has been constructed in a way to grab the entire inner areas of the port, and one can clearly see this on the Google map.
Even the public hearing for the project in 2008 was a hogwash. Advertisements for the hearing were published in two news- papers that have hardly any circulation in Salaya. This ensured that people could not take part in the hearing, alleges Gajan. The letter of approval submitted by Essar following the hearing was written by then president of Salaya municipality without consultation with other members, he adds.
Officials at Essar Bulk Terminal refused to comment on the allegations, saying the case is pending in the Supreme Court. In March 2015, the company approached the apex court against the high court ruling to transfer the case to the National Green Tribunal (NGT). It also obtained a stay order from the apex court. To prevent a deadlock, SMBA in September this year has filed a petition in NGT, saying the project can cause grave damage to the ecology. NGT has asked Essar and all those involved in the approval of the project to respond by October 20.
|Jetty of omissions
Cleared by error
The story has been taken from the October 16-31, 2016 issue of Down To Earth magazine.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.