Ports, regarded as key to growth and prosperity, have potential to endanger environment

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Environmental disaster near Mundra coast,  Kutch

By Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon*

Sagarmala is a flagship programme of the Government of India. Its contours were laid out in the April 2016 perspective plan of the Ministry of Shipping. The plan involves a four-pronged approach that includes port modernisation, port connectivity and port-led industrialisation. The plan views ports as a metaphor for development; just like erstwhile governments had done with dams, nuclear power or high-yielding crops.

The Sagarmala perspective plan is clearly worked out and looks neat on paper. It identifies Coastal Economic Zones (CEZ) and industrial clusters to be developed around port facilities. They are to mirror the Chinese or European port infrastructure. Rail and road connectivity for inland transportation to states like Odisha and Chhattisgarh are also on the anvil. The ambitious programmes spread across 14 ports is aimed to make domestic manufacturing and EXIM sector more competitive.

The fourth aspect of this plan is coastal community development. By “improving and matching the skills” of coastal communities, the plan seeks to ensure “sustainable development”. The plan seeks to improve the lives of coastal communities, implying that there is no contradiction between these objectives of port-led development and that of enhancing the lives of coastal residents. This seemingly win-win agenda is also endorsed by NITI Aayog’s mapping of schemes that are to help India achieve its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sagarmala is one of the ways Goal 14 will be met by 2030. Goal 14 is to conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas and marine resources.

The Kutch coast of Gujarat tops the list of potential coastal economic zones in the 2016 perspective plan. The region is not unaccustomed to the consequences of this vision of port-centred development. Beginning in the Nineties and pushed forward after the Bhuj earthquake, industrialisation of this region has been officially justified both as overcoming backwardness as well as post-disaster rehabilitation. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) for a large port development project in Mundra, Kutch, described the lands on which the SEZ was to be set up as “non-agricultural, waste, barren or weed infested land.”

But that was far from the truth. These statements have been contested by local residents through endless administrative complaints and court cases. The litigation challenging projects in coastal Gujarat have brought up elaborate arguments regarding the complex web of valuable land uses that were blotted out to make this transformation possible.

Notwithstanding the contestations over such plans for coastal land use transformation in several regions like in Kutch, the Sagarmala plan document lays out its goals as if the coast has been an empty or unproductive space, and is now poised to be a “gateway” to growth. India’s coastline currently has about 3200 marine fishing villages. Nearly half of this population (over 1.6 million people) is engaged in active fishing and fishery-related activities. While such statistics may be quoted in the plan, the official proposal views these as mere numbers or as a population that will simply toe the line and play the role assigned to them in the plan.

Port expansions involve massive dredging into the sea that destroys large stretches of fertile fishing grounds and destabilises jetties. Fishing associations bring out a range of concerns. Over the years there is reduced parking space for small artisanal boats, curtailed access to fishing harbours, and unpredictable fish catch. These changes keep them in a state of permanent anxiety or turn them into cheap industrial and cargo handling labour. These families also suffer the impacts of living next to mineral handling facilities and groundwater exhaustion. India has had laws to regulate environmental impacts, but these have been mostly on paper. So Minister Nitin Gadkari’s assurances that all air and water pollution norms will be met in the implementation of the Sagarmala plan may not cut any ice with coastal dwellers. Can India afford such an imagination of ‘frictionless development’? After all, we don’t yet have a Chinese model of governance.

*With the Centre for Policy Research-Namati Environmental Justice Program. This article was also published in Daily News and Analysis (DNA)

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