What really is the mandate of the environment ministry? And what is the state of India’s environmental governance?
The $12 billion Odisha project of South Korea’s steel behemoth POSCO was the darling of the liberalisation era, heralded as the largest foreign direct investment in the country. The project was formalised on June 22, 2005, with the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Odisha state government. Several hurdles – social, political, environmental, regulatory – came up that led to the downsizing of the plant: from 12 million tonnes per year to eight million tonnes, using about half of the 4,004 acres of land originally sought. Yet the project did not take off.
In 2015, POSCO put out this note: “The project could not make any substantial progress for the last 10 years due to the oppositions from some civil groups and local residents together with legal and administrative tangles. In particular, for the recent two years, the project has hardly seen any progress.” It finally threw in the towel and left in March 2017.
This project was once serenaded as a harbinger of ‘development’ to “bring prosperity and well-being” to the local people through big-ticket industrialisation and job creation. But the move faced strong resistance from a vigorous anti-POSCO movement by the people affected by it: forest dwellers, fishers, farmers, peasants, all apprehensive of losing their land and livelihood, as well as severe damage to the ecosystem.
The Union Ministry of Steel promoted the project and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) went out of the way to give clearances. Meena Gupta, a former secretary of the MoEF who headed a four-member expert committee to iron things out, even resorted to manipulation. But the other three members – V. Suresh, a civil liberties lawyer; Devender Pande and Urmila Pingle, experts on forests and tribals – stood their ground. The project had also violated the Forest Rights Act, 2006, since no forest land can be allotted to anyone until all the rights of the people are protected and their consent obtained. In the event, the environmental clearance given by the MoEF was challenged in the National Green Tribunal, where the project faced a roller-coaster ride.
From the beginning, POSCO had resorted to deceit to obtain environmental and coastal regulation cone (CRZ) clearances. For this purpose, the massive project was deliberately unbundled into smaller parts and applications moved to secure their clearances, as though they were independent projects (e.g., four MTPA steel complexes, 400 MW power plants and a captive “minor” port). Even if they constituted one project and were situated within one complex, POSCO had clear intentions of ramping up production to the full capacity of 12 million metric tonnes per annum (MTPA) by 2011. These clearances were given on the strength of a single-season rapid environmental impact assessment instead of the mandatory full-year comprehensive variant.
The township project, requiring considerable additional land, as well as the huge water requirement for the project, were suppressed. Claiming the port to be a “minor” one was a major fraud. The port was designed for Capesize ships: 170,000 DTW capacity, each approximately 280 metres in length, indeed too huge to come into the ecologically sensitive Jatadhar creek!
This would require 12-km channels and tranquil berthing facilities and for which there would be massive sea walls built: one two-km and another 1.6-km long. The devastation that such massive infrastructure facilities might have caused is unimaginable, considering that the Jatadhar creek is an important nesting site for the critically endangered Olive Ridley turtles. This is also the region of the paan kethis (betel vine farms), where sand dunes provide sweet soil and water – and also protection during cyclones.
POSCO also did not come clean on the fact that it would raise the entire base of the 4,004-acre plant area by five metres by dumping millions of tonnes of sand dredged from the sea to protect the plant from a super-cyclone – like the one that slammed Odisha in 1999 (with wind speeds of 260 km/hr, waves 5.6 m high and 100 km wide). It had killed 15,000 people. The Odisha government had also suppressed critical concerns over the project’s environmental and social impacts. The expert committee had exposed all these and more.
The Enayam project
The main purpose of the project was to plunder the country’s natural resources and deprive the people of livelihood. The plant would have drawn massive quantities of water from the Mahanadi, posing a serious threat to drinking water supply to Bhubaneswar and Cuttack. The government was to allocate captive mines to exploit 600 million tonnes of iron ore for a pittance as royalty, which alone would have given POSCO a net profit of Rs 96,000 crore. The corresponding benefit to the local people was never properly defined.
Now that it is a closed chapter, the POSCO episode raises a critical question: What is the mandate of the MoEF and what is the state of environmental governance in India? Even now, similar ‘development projects’ are being pursued fervently by the Government of India, which in the process has resorted to misinformation and falsehoods. A case in point: the proposed Rs-27,750-crore ultra-mega port project called the Enayam International Container Transhipment Terminal, on the short but pristine sea coast of Kanyakumari at the mainland’s southernmost tip. The project is proposed to be implemented in three phases in the period 2017-2030 (with a total capacity of 127.05 MTPA).
Kanyakumari is among the smallest districts in the country, with an area of 1,684 km2. Of this, 30.2% is reserved forest. It is also a congested district, with a population density of 1,111 persons per km2. Its western coastline, along the Arabian Sea, is just about 60 kilometres long and has most of the 11 features of CRZ 1 outlined in the CRZ-2011 notification, issued under the Environmental Protection Act, 1986. More prominent among these are:
- Corals, coral reefs and associated biodiversity
- Sand dunes
- Salt marshes
- Turtle nesting grounds
- Nesting grounds of birds
- Areas or structures of archaeological importance and heritage sites
Thirty-six km out of the 60 km of this coast come under the Enayam Project Affected Area, which has numerous villages with several lakh people each. By area, half of the 980 km2-big port falls on land and the other half in the sea. The included length of coast is prone to high sea erosion and accretion, also having borne the brunt of the deadly 2004 tsunami. And as it happens, in CRZ 1 area, even minor construction activities are forbidden.
The Enayam port has the potential to severely damage, if not destroy, nature’s rich endowments in Kanyakumari. On the coast, these include the CRZ 1 features mentioned earlier as well as atomic minerals and other resources. The district’s plains host several water bodies, ponds, rivers and streams, fine paddy fields, flower gardens, coconut plantations, banana grooves, livestock and many others. The mountains (tail-end of the Western Ghats) have dense forests and the high-quality rubber plantation crops. The district also grows many kinds of spices and herbal crops.
But there is something bizarre and unreal about how this massive project ‘cropped up’ soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government assumed power at the Centre in May 2014. Strangely, the Union Ministry of Shipping, which is pushing the project, likes to call it the “Colachel Port at Enayam.” Colachel is a historical minor natural port on the Arabian Sea with a draft of 20 metres close to the coastline. Many feasibility reports were prepared in 1998, 2000 and 2010 to convert it into a major port, since it is barely four nautical miles from the international east-west shipping route. However, at some point in 2013, the then-Union Shipping Minister G.K. Vasan had stated in Parliament that the Rs-2000-crore proposal had been dropped because it would be infeasible.
At that time, negotiations had been underway for the Rs-7,600-crore Vizhinjam International Container Transhipment Terminal (backed by the Kerala government).It was slated to come up about 45 km northwest of Colachel and to be developed by the landlord-port model. Since the Adani Port Group was the sole bidder, the Kerala government was reluctant to close the deal. However, what did eventually clinch it for Adani was an open threat by Union shipping minister Nitin Gadkari: that the project would be moved to Colachel in Tamil Nadu if the contract for the port’s operation wasn’t given to Adani. And this, for a period of 60 years while other ports in the country tie up with private operators only for 30 years. Kerala buckled, and thus was born the Adani Vizhinjam International Transhipment Terminal.
Through misinformation and manipulation
And as soon as Adani won out, things moved at breakneck speeds to revive the defunct Colachel port, convert it into an ultra-mega transhipment terminal and locate it at Enayam which is just 30 km from Vizhinjam. For this purpose, Pon Radhakrishnan, the lone BJP MP from Tamil Nadu and representing Nagercoil constituency (where the project site falls)m was shifted from the industries ministry to shipping. He was made Minister of State with the mandate to get the Enayam Port going at any cost.
Radhakrishnan in turn moved fast and appointed V.O. Chidambaranar Port Trust at Tuticorin as the project proponent. V.O. Chidambaranar then sourced a ‘Techno-Economic Feasibility Report’ for the Enayam project from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), US, and TYPSA Consulting Engineers and Architects, Spain. This again was in quick time (by August 2015).
A massive infrastructure project like this should actually satisfy five sets of feasibilities: technical, economic, financial, social and environmental. However, a plain reading of the BCG-TYPSA report shows only technical feasibility (that structures can be built given what the shore depth is). The other feasibilities are subject to stringent and/or non-practical conditions: heavy cargo underwriting for economic viability; a huge viability-gap funding for financial feasibility; and a massive displacement and loss of livelihood for social viability. Environmental feasibility is almost impossible.
Yet, in December 2015, the same consultants were given the task of preparing the detailed project report. On July 5, 2016, the Union Cabinet gave an ‘in principle’ approval for this project but without provisioning even a single rupee in the budget column. This was mainly meant to deceive the public and pressurise a reluctant Tamil Nadu government.
At the same time, a disinformation blitz has been unleashed. Several falsehoods – big-ticket industries in a pocket-sized agrarian district, creation of lakhs of jobs, no damage to the coast, no impact on fishers or fishing villages, total amount of Rs 27,750 crore already sanctioned, public support etc. – are being freely flaunted. Media advertisements are taken out for crores of rupees. The people who are going to be affected by the project are being bribed through seedy NGOs. So as the viability of the Vizhinjam port itself remains suspect (and requiring many years to settle), why this mad rush for a port four-times larger just kilometres away? Is there a hidden agenda?
The people in the area have aggressively protested against the project, rallying in large numbers (including on boats in the sea and on motorbikes) and undertaking day-long fasts, anticipating the dislocation of more than a lakh people – fishers and farmers – from their houses, a widespread loss of livelihood and near-destruction of the coast.
At the same time, the V.O. Chidambaranar Port moved MoEF on October 10, 2016, seeking a prior environmental clearance, requesting for a single-season rapid EIA instead of the mandatory full-year comprehensive EIA. In the form (no. 1) filed for this purpose, the project’s proponents masked almost all the salient features of the Kanyakumari coastal ecosystem. Several critical concerns over the economic, environmental and social impacts of the project have also been suppressed. MoEF then referred this to the expert appraisal committee (EAC), commenced the project appraisal process on November 24 – sans any preliminary checks.
These actions of MoEF and the EAC are illegal because the basic legal requirement for such an appraisal – Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP) for Kanyakumari district – does not exist. The CZMP, notified in September 1996 under the original CRZ notification in 1991, expired on January 31, 2016. A fresh CZMP under the CRZ-2011 notification is being prepared according to the requisite procedures. But though MoEF and the EAC were aware of this, they have commenced the ad hoc, standalone appraisal process, evidently under duress. This is untenable.
Effectively, the common denominator between POSCO and Enayam is ‘development by destruction’. The Enayam shenanigans also raise the same critical question: What is the mandate of the MoEF and what is the state of India’s environmental governance?
Will they ever learn?
M.G. Devasahayam is a former IAS officer hailing from Kanyakumari district.