Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had accused the Centre of conspiring to stall his state’s progress after Vedanta and Posco operations were put under the magnifier not so long ago. Now comes the news that the South Korean steel giant is facing objections, notably from the navy and environmentalists, to the construction of its planned captive port at Jatadhar.
The Indian navy, citing security reasons, has opposed the Jatadhari port project last month. Almost simultaneously, The National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW) charged Posco with using fraudulent means to get environmental clearances for its $12 billion project in Orissa. They said that the company had ‘unbundled’ the steel plant, power and port projects into smaller units even though they are located within one complex and are part of the same project. Leo F. Saldanha, coordinator, Environment Support Group, who did a study for NFFPFW, said that Posco’s claim that the Jatadhari port was minor is ‘an alarming aspect’, given that the port is designed for Cape size vessels of up to 170,000 DWT. 'The devastation the ships would cause (to the ecology) is unimaginable’, he said. The group claims that the authorities have paid no heed to the social or economic consequences of the port and that the clearances were rushed through without proper due diligence.
To add to Posco’s woes, scientists now say that the port will be very close to the nesting beaches of the endangered olive ridley sea turtles and the Gahirmatha marine sanctuary. These turtles are protected species under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act; not only that, the mouth of the Jatadhar River has been designated a protected area under the Orissa Marine Fisheries Regulation Act.
A study showed that increased illumination and escalating marine traffic would have a detrimental impact on the sanctuary, including on dolphins, turtles and other marine life. “Orissa has the largest nesting population of olive ridleys outside Central America. Also, the olive ridley turtle population in the Orissa coast is unique. Genetic studies show that olive ridley populations in the Pacific and Atlantic originated from India's east coast. Therefore, from the conservation perspective, protecting the habitat along the Orissa coastline takes on greater importance,” said ecologist Kartik Shanker, faculty at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore to the Economic Times. He is part of a group of scientists that intend to report their findings to the environmental ministry in Delhi.
The group criticises the project report initially prepared for Posco, saying that it is not a suitable document as it ‘made no mention’ of the impact the port would have on the marine environment of the area.
The Jatadhari port is just one of many similar projects planned on the sensitive Orissa coast. Security and environmental issues will probably be raised for some of the others as well. Given the stricter approach of Jairam Ramesh’s Environment Ministry in recent times, Patnaik may find that mining projects in Orissa will slow down even more.