Saturday, June 28, 2008

An environmental fig leaf?
The IUCN has ignored the fundamental precautionary principle by not looking into issues of the location of the port.
Pankaj Sekhsaria

It is one of the world's most well known and respected conservation organisations and has been at the forefront of many efforts to protect wilderness areas and threatened wildlife species. Yet, it is in danger today of becoming the fig leaf in India for a project that might cause unprecedented damage to one of the world's most threatened and enigmatic wild creatures.The organisation is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the wild creature is the Olive Ridley Turtle and the project in question is the Dhamra Port being constructed in Orissa by the Dhamra Port Company Limited (DPCL), a joint venture of Tata Steel and Larsen & Toubro.

Environmental NGOs, research organisations and individuals have opposed the port on various grounds from the very beginning. The port is located only five kms from the Bhitarkanika National Park and barely 15 kms from one of the world's most significant nesting sites for the turtles at Gahirmatha. There is also evidence that boundaries of the national park were re-drawn some years ago to ensure that there would be no impediment to the port proposal. The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) has been flawed and in a bizarre development environmental clearance was finally accorded not by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, but by the Ministry of Surface Transport. The project was bound to run into serious opposition and questioning.

It was when Indian organisations and researchers refused to associate with them that DPCL approached the IUCN in 2006 to help put into place an environment management and mitigation plan. A Scoping Mission in 2006 was followed by a series of meetings. An agreement "to develop environmental standards and design mitigation measures for the construction of (the) port in Orissa" by using IUCN's network of scientists and conservationists including India IUCN members was finally signed between DPCL and IUCN's Marine Turtle Specialist Group (MTSG) in May 2008. At about the same time, however, Indian researchers and members of the MTSG were writing to the Director General of the IUCN, protesting against the port and the fact that they had been completely sidelined in all that had happened. The signatories included reputed member organisations like the Bombay Natural History Society, the Foundation for Ecological Security and the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Nature and noted individual researchers like B C Choudhary, Dr Kartik Shanker, Dr Basudev Tripathy and Romulus Whitaker.

They pointed to various problems of the port, many of which had already been articulated in the Scoping Mission Report of 2006. Concerns of dredging and noise and sound pollution had not been addressed at all in the EIA report and the proposed port was in fact not an extension of an old one as had been claimed by the project authorities. "The quality and analysis of the information in the EIA", IUCN's scoping report explained, "also leaves much to be desired."The Indian members of the MTSG noted that the port was not a stand alone project and that the cumulative impact needed to be considered of the several industries like a steel plant and a ship building yard that were being proposed simultaneously. They also pointed out that there had been virtually no consultation with national members, many of whom had been grappling with the problem long before the IUCN became involved."This," the letter says, "squanders considerable local expertise, besides sidelining local members. Several members of the MTSG have not only signed the petition that opposes the port, some have written thoughtful letters of concern, and the Regional Chairman of the MTSG has resigned."

What has surprised, even shocked many, is the note published in the latest issue of the Marine Turtle Newsletter by Dr Nicholas Pilcher, Co – Chair of the MTSG and the key person behind the agreement with the DPCL. "Many of the potential impacts of ports can be mitigated," Dr Pilcher explains even as he dismisses the opposition and various concerns, "and it is hard to argue against development in a needy country in the face of limited impact. Given this, IUCN and the MTSG Co-Chairs felt that sitting back and watching a port built without taking into account the turtles was worse than sitting idle and waiting on the legal actions of local NGOs. Five or even ten years from now the case will likely still be in the courts, but the port will have dredged 6.5 million cubic meters of seabed, erected lighting, and secondary development will have exceeded even what the port plans on doing. It bears clarifying that IUCN was not responsible for supporting or rejecting the Dhamra proposal. Rather, IUCN was requested to assist with mitigation of potential impacts by a project already under development, and they indeed have the required expertise and mandate to do just that."It is in this approach that the MTSG appears to have missed the trees completely for the wood. The issue is much larger than just that of mitigation.

Crucially the IUCN has completely ignored the fundamental "precautionary principle" by not looking into issues of the location of the port or into the inadequacies and inappropriateness of the EIA report and the environmental clearances. IUCN's involvement is an endorsement that DPCL has repeatedly used to project the environment friendly nature of its operations The DPCL appears to have found the fig leaf it desperately needs; it might be IUCN's turn to start looking for one very soon.

(The writer is an expert on conservation issues.)

1 comment:

Norbert said...


Thanks for blogging about the plight of endangered Olive Ridleys due to the Tata's Dharma port construction. Could you please email me? We need your help again now. Will let you know whats happening, what we are planning to do, and how you can help.