The Dhamra Port Controversy

Dhamra Port is located on the eastern Indian coast of Orissa, north of the River Dhamra and is about 13 km away from the Nasi group of islands, the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary and the Bhitarkanika National Park. Ever since the project was proposed, it has been the hub of controversies, resulting from contradicting views of proponents and conversationalists and lacunae in litigation processes.

Legal loopholes

Dhamra Port is a minor port, which means it comes under the jurisdiction of the state government and not the central government. However, the proponents still have to perform an Environment Impact Assessment, under the Coast Regulation Zone Notification (CRZ). The hitch in this is that the CRZ requires no public hearings as part of the clearance process. Therefore, the opinions of the fishermen and other people dwelling in the locality, who will be directly affected by the project, are not taken into consideration.

The second setback occurred on July 9, 1997.  An amendment made to the CRZ Notification transferred environment clearance procedures from the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) to the Ministry of Surface Transport (MoST). As the name suggests, MoST is more concerned with improved transportation facilities rather than environmental issues. They perceived development of shipping facilities at the Dhamra Port as beneficial. This difference in viewpoint resulted in conflict of interest. MoST granted clearance to the project in January 2000.

Since then there have been several protests from NGOs and Wildlife Societies at the centre and the state. The cases are still pending in the courts.  A petition filed by the Orissa Beach Protection Council states that the region is a massive turtle nesting area and should technically fall under the CRZ-I (i) category. The CRZ-I (i) comprises of those regions which are ecologically sensitive and are therefore declared as a “no-development” zone by the Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP). But sadly most of the CZMPs are inaccurate and are not updated. This petition was overlooked on the grounds of inadequate research data provided by the petitioners.

Need for a new EIA

The original project proponent was International Seaports Private Limited (ISPL). When Larson and Turbo became the sole stakeholders of ISPL, they transferred all rights to Dhamra Port Company Ltd. (DPCL), in a 50:50 venture with Tata Steel. According to environmental norms, once a project is approved, the site should not be changed. The new project partners changed the site from Kanika sand bank island to mainland port. Strictly speaking this is illegal. A new EIA has to be performed. But the construction is in progress.

The issue is location. The port is too close to Bhittarkanika national park (less than 5 km) and Gahirmatha marine sanctuary (less than 15 km), whose beaches are one of the largest nesting sites for Olive Ridley turtles in the world. It could also pose a threat to the mangrove forests, fishes and crocodiles in the area. However, in response to concerns raised by some shareholders of Tata Steel group, Mr. Ratan Tata said that, “this year we had a normal nesting of turtles where the turtle breeding ground is always meant to be, which is quite some distance away from Dharma” and added further that “we do not believe that this port is actually the cause of any nesting problems to turtles.”

The first phase of the port is almost built. The project will bring many ancillary industries along with it. This may hamper the entire marine ecosystem and the livelihoods of the fishermen in the area. The recommendation given by the Central Empowered Committee, stating the need for an alternative site for the port should immediately be acted upon. Proper research and information in this regard has to be furnished before the port is expanded further.

Deepashri Varadarajan

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