By Anjali Nambissan:
“Since around the year 2000, the government of Karnataka has been talking about developing a port project within the Aghanashini Estuary at Tadadi, on the northeast side just opposite the current fishing jetty. And it has failed, at least, two times before,” says Mangaldas Shetty, director of the Panchabhuta Foundation. The Foundation has developed a formal response, on behalf of the local community, expressing their opposition to the sea port development. Shetty is an entrepreneur, who has previously worked in the financial markets. He also works on setting up sustainable business ventures in organic farming, eco-tourism and renewable energy on properties he has acquired in the Western Ghats.
The Aghanashini river estuary is located in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka, 16 km from Kumta. Aghanashini, Kimani and Gudkagal are some of the fishing villages that lie on the banks of the river. The estuary forms the landward background of the beach resort of Gokarna. Shell fish collection is one of the most popular occupations here, apart from agriculture and fisheries. The estuary provides an annual income of Rs 5 crore to 2,000 families, from the surrounding villages, engaged in shell fish collection.
The Karnataka State Industrial Investment and Development Corporation announced a new proposal for the area recently. It wants to develop a sea port on 1,416 acres at Tadadi to allow for the freight of 34.25 tonnes of cargo annually. This volume will be scaled up to 62.36 tonnes by 2040-42. “The government of Karnataka acquired 1400+ acres of land in the 70s and 80s to build a caustic soda plant for Ballarpur Industries since the raw material, oyster shells and clams, were available in the estuary. But that project was dropped due to protests by residents. Then the plan was to create a barge mounted mega power plant at Tadri, which failed as well, as environmentalists aggressively defended the fragile ecosystem,” says Shetty, “Every successive government tries to ‘develop’ the land (by building a port) which was originally acquired for a completely different purpose.” The project will reportedly cost Rs 38, 000 crores.
“The total project outlay in 2009 to build a minor port was Rs 2,300 crores. But this port project is slated to cost 18 times more!” exclaims Shetty, “All iron ore mining has been banned. If anything, the cargo catchment should have been lower and port capacity built at a lower cost, rather than higher!”
The state government’s justification for the project, however, is that it is crucial to the economic development of the industrial area in Belagavi and Dharwad. The EIA report says that this port would serve as a ‘gateway of trade’ to export iron ore mined from the Bellary-Hospet region. “This may lead to an additional railway line from Ankola, road widening in many places and possibly other industrial projects, such as a thermal power plant or another industry using coal or iron or needing shipping,” speculates Shetty. There are 13,100 families living in the area, according to the Census 2001. Shetty claims that those affected by the project were kept in the dark about it. “At least 30 villages and its residents will be adversely affected if this project went ahead. Most of the villagers do not want this port project. This new port development attempt by the state government has happened behind the scenes,” he says, “Even when we attempted to get documents via RTI, it was not forthcoming. Crucial documents were not released. We suspect foul play at the administrative levels. NEERI (National Environment Engineering Research Institute), the Nagpur-based government agency which did the low quality, unprofessional environment impact assessment, is just a cheerleader for the port development.”
As is usually the case, the government has promised jobs and development for the residents whose land and livelihood will be taken away. “No specific plans are in place, but other facilities like banks, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, etc. may also develop,” claims Shetty.
But this proposed development will come at a definite ecological cost in this biodiverse, fragile region. The nutrient-rich waters of the estuary sustain plants, herbs, trees, mangroves, birds, reptiles, and marine species. “The Aghanashini river estuary is one of the few which are not dammed upstream. A study by the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, strongly recommends the estuary to be declared as a biological heritage site,” says Shetty, “The government admits that the port project alone will change the water quality up to five kilometres away from the project. The port will require major dredging of the estuary — from currently only a few meters deep down to 18 meters so that large ships can enter to load and unload cargo.”
The voice of the public
The public hearing for the port development’s EIA is scheduled for March 23 at the secondary school in Hiregutti village at 11 am. “On behalf of the local community, Panchabhuta Conservation Foundation has developed a formal response to be presented at the hearing. Based on our presentation, the Citizen’s Forum for Justice has promised to attend the public hearing,” informs Shetty, “Our intended outcome is that the project is halted. Instead, governments should assist local economies to develop on a sustainable foundation. The ideal way forward is to create an eco-tourism framework in this beautiful, biodiverse area.”
You can contact Mangaldas Shetty at [email protected]