Natural allies

Published: Friday 15 May 2009

Mindless industrialization threatens tribals and biodiversity. Therein lies a possible collaboration

conservation groups and promoters of the Dhamra port in Orissa are at loggerheads. While conservationists say the port will adversely affect Gahirmatha, which has the world's largest turtle nesting beaches, promoter Tata steel says the concerns are unfounded.

The Dhamra Port Company Ltd had the requisite clearances and is legally entitled to continue the construction. There is little scientific data to settle the matter. One document that should have dwelt on the turtles is the environmental impact assessment (eia) that the port proponents commissioned. There are fundamental flaws in the eia report and the environmental clearance. The port proponents and the regulators have not been questioned about these lacunae.

All the same, a close look shows nothing has changed in more than three decades of marine turtle conservation in Orissa. Nesting beaches were eroding even when the port was not there.

The port promoters showed willingness to accept some environmental safeguards, which is why they involved iucn (International Union for Conservation of Nature). Engaging with the company could have created an opportunity for green groups to mainstream environmental issues. But this is not easy. Each environmental group faces a dilemma: should one collaborate with the supposed offenders to make them turn around? What should be the terms of reference? How far should a green group bend for the sake of a fruitful collaboration? There are no easy answers to these questions, but the questions are critical.

Orissa has 11 ports in the pipeline. If other projects are pursued with the kind of disrespect the government-industry combine has shown for environmental regulation, the state is looking at a very contentious path to development.

As it is, Orissa is riveted with faultlines over natural resource control. The opposition to the posco project and the Niyamgiri mining project has shown the Orissa industrialization story will not be an easy one to script. In fact, the popular protests have tested those pushing industrialization without careful thought. Perhaps the conservation groups can find common ground with these popular protests.

It is increasingly becoming clear the demands of tribals and farmers are not too different from the needs of conservation. There is an opportunity there.

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