Thursday, November 15, 2007

Tata in troubled waters

India – Tata in troubled waters

Tata’s good name is threatened by the plight of a rare species of turtle

Tata, the Indian conglomerate with annual revenue of $22 billion, has for three years been locked in a dispute with environmentalists over the damage a seaport project could have on endangered turtles.

The Dharma port project, on the Orissa coast, would create India’s largest all-weather deepwater seaport. Its 13 berths could handle 80 million tonnes of cargo a year, mainly importing coking coal for Tata’s steel plants.

The project is being run by the Dharma Port Company, a joint venture between Tata Steel and Indian engineering giant Larsen & Tubro. Tata Steel sees the port as central to its expansion plans, as it will streamline its supply chain. The Orissa government backs the project, which it says will improve the state’s infrastructure and boost local economic growth.

The project should have been completed this year. But construction work is yet to start. Court cases, campaigners and financing troubles have all stalled the project.

Greenpeace has recently stepped up its campaign against the project. It points out that the port’s proposed site is just 15 kilometres from Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary, the world’s largest mass nesting site for the rare species of migratory Olive Ridley turtles. Every year in the six months from November to May, about 500,000 turtles congregate in Gahirmatha to mate and feed.

Artificial lights from the giant port and populated areas would disorient the turtles and their hatchlings and eventually force them to abandon the Gahirmatha beaches, campaigners say. They also fear pollution from the port would contaminate the turtles’ offshore habitat.

An expert committee appointed in 2004 by the supreme court to assess the port’s likely environmental impacts recommended that the project site be shifted, as the proposed location would seriously affect nesting turtles. The case is still pending in the court. Another lawsuit filed by the Wildlife Protection Society of India in the Orissa high court is also pending.

Greenpeace India’s lead campaigner, Ashish Fernandes, says the group is not against the port, but its location. “By pursuing the project, the Tatas would have no moral right to claim to be a responsible company.”

Tata continues to reject the activists’ claims. Tata Steel’s managing director, B Muthuraman, stuck to the company’s line in September in Singapore, saying: “Allegations against the project are not based on any scientific evidence. We will not cow down to any pressure.” The company would “make sure that turtles are not harmed,” he added.

Firm government support means Tata’s project ultimately looks set to go ahead, despite environmentalists’ concerns. The company’s real test will come in finding a way to manage growing activist scrutiny in a way that does not threaten its reputation as a responsible company.

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13-14 November, London
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12-13th February, London
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3-4 March 2008, Berlin
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13-14 May 2008, London

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