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How Mundra became India's Rotterdam

By Manshi Asher

An account of how the Mundra multi-product SEZ has steamrolled ahead over the last few years, clearing forests and environmental hurdles along the way

filling up the creeks

The Gulf of Kutch, on the western coast of India in the state of Gujarat, once referred to by scientists as an ecological miracle for its shallow waters, intertidal zones, stretch of mangrove forests and corals, is now the Gulf of Riches, but of a different kind. It is a concretised hub of ports, refineries and multi-product SEZs, which in environmental terms would translate to an ecological disaster, already occurring in parts and waiting to happen in others. Media reports have highlighted that the four top business houses -- Reliance Industries, Essar Group, Tatas and the Adanis -- have invested about $34 billion along the Gulf of Kutch's 700-km-long coastline. While the Tatas may have bagged a Rs 10,000 crore loan at .01% interest, and the elder Ambani may be the richest Indian in the world, it is the Adani group which has the biggest slice of the Gulf. The largest-capacity ultra mega power plant in the country and a massive multi-product port-based SEZ in Mundra region of Kutch district are changing the face of the northern coast of the Gulf of Kutch. Mundra is 'the Paris of India', Chief Minster Narendra Modi had remarked two years ago and now, according to the director of the Mundra Port and SEZ Limited, also an ex-IAS officer, Rajeev Sinha, "Mundra is India's Rotterdam in the making".

Unfortunately, little attention is being paid to the unprecedented environmental and social fall-outs of this makeover. Worse, no one seems to be talking about the consistent violation of environmental laws with abetment from the State authorities in transforming Mundra to Rotterdam.

Engulfing Kutch

The significance of mangroves in coastal ecosystems is undebatable. The Government of India and the Ministry of Environment and Forests recognise that mangrove forests are ecologically sensitive areas and need to be protected and conserved. Mangroves are critical to marine coastal soil conservation, breeding and nursery grounds for fish, crustaceans and other sea life, as well as vital habitat for birds and other wildlife. Kutch district has been declared the most important mangrove areas in the state of Gujarat.

"Mundra was the region which housed more than 20% of mangroves of the Gulf of Kutch up until eight years ago when the Adani group of industries made a small start by developing a private jetty in the area. The process of deforestation and clearing started in 1998 by the company. Direct felling, bunding and staving off sea water (leading to drying up of the mangroves), excavation and filling the area with sand dredged from the creeks and channels close by were the methods used," says Ashwin Zinzuwadia, a journalist and avid nature lover based in Mundra.

"The Adanis systematically went about expanding, appropriating and acquiring as much of this land around Mundra as possible once they set up their base," he adds. This included forest lands, revenue wastelands, grazing pastures and agricultural lands for construction of warehouses, container terminals and other infrastructure like roads, rail and finally even an airport.

All this was eventually to form part of the grand Mundra SEZ plan to be spread over 10,000 hectares over 14 villages, with an investment of Rs 73,000 crores, which was approved at the state level in 2003-04 and in April 2006 by the Ministry of Commerce at the Centre. The 2004 state approvals were followed by the second phase of intensive destruction of mangroves in the Bocha, Abhanvadi and Gujarat Maritime Board areas (near the old port) started in 2005.

A Gujarat Forest Department report by H S Singh, Chief Conservator of Forests, published in early-2007 talks about "drastic losses of mangrove forest stem" mainly from industrial activities, specifically in the Gulf of Kutch. "In certain areas like Mundra and Hazira, they disappeared overnight," states Dr Singh. Quoted in this report, the Mundra SEZ area had 3,000 hectares of mangroves and much of these had already been cleared.

Pipeline crossing Mangroves

Forest clearance bungles

Records state that Mundra had about 50 sq km of mangroves under the forest department. However, a large area of mangroves were not notified or under un-surveyed lands (under the category of 'seashore' land under the revenue department). Thus far, 1,654 hectares of revenue wasteland and government land have been transferred to the company by the revenue department. And it is these areas that have been cleared of mangroves. The legal status of the land as unsurveyed seashore land has been repeatedly cited as the reason for inaction by the local forest department.

But even as far as land clearly under the forest department's jurisdiction is concerned, the state and local forest authorities have not moved much. The company in 1998 first applied to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) for a forest clearance (as required under the Forest Conservation Act 1980) for over 2,400 hectares in the name of Adani Chemicals for a saltworks plant near the port site. This was rejected because of the presence of 19,00,000 mangrove trees. A revised proposal was submitted by the Adanis for the same project minus an area of 530 hectares (where dense mangroves existed). Interestingly, the Forest Advisory Committee of the MoEF, which looks into Forest Land Diversion Clearances, sat on the proposal of 1,850 ha up until 2004 on the grounds that the proposed project area fell under the Coastal Regulation Zone 1 area, considered ecologically sensitive for such construction activity.

In 2002, the CRZ notification of the MoEF was revised to allow SEZ development activities on the coast and in 2004 the Forest Advisory Committee granted the company an in-principle approval for diversion of 1,850 hectares of forest land. But this clearance was for the saltworks project. By this time the Adani group had applied for and received the approval for the Mundra SEZ proposal from the state government. The in-principle forest diversion clearance granted by the FAC clearly laid down the condition that change in the user name to Mundra SEZ from Adani Chemicals would be permissible, but for any change in land use a fresh application would have to be made to the MoEF under the Forest Conservation Act 1980.

Why then did the company, which did not operate any saltworks project, sit with the forest clearance which was clearly only for saltworks? Local sources report that the company had started related SEZ development work by 2005 in the area. It was only in September 2007 that the company yet again made an application to the FAC, MoEF, this time for a change in land use from saltworks to other SEZ-related activities. The FAC in March 2008 raised questions in this regard, stating that the earlier impact assessment studies were no longer valid and that a fresh proposal for the SEZ would have to be made. But in a volte face the same committee (FAC) granted an in-principle approval to the change in land use application in April 2008. This subsequently came under the scanner of the Central Empowered Committee looking into matters of forest conservation at the Supreme Court level. THE CEC in its report of July 2008 clearly questioned the reversal in the FAC's decision and recommended that the application of the company and in-principle clearance be rejected. The Supreme Court looked at the recommendations of the CEC and in October 2008 ordered that the state government make a fresh proposal to the FAC on the matter.

Interestingly, apart from all this mess over its earlier proposal, the company has applied for a forest clearance for an additional area of 1,576 hectares or more. "As per information provided under RTI by the local forest department this land consists of more than 579,000 trees of more than 12 to 13 species and is home to more than 23 species of migratory birds like herons, eagrets and painted storks," says Bharat Joshi, an advocate based in Mundra.

Environment clearances and the public hearing drama

Barring the Forest Conservation Act, the other major environmental legislation that is applicable here is the Coastal Regulation Zone notification under the Environment Protection Act.

All the impact assessment studies, which are mandatory for clearances under the CRZ notification, were initially done for the Adani's Mundra projects by the National Institute of Oceanography. The concluding statements in all the reports that are quoted in the state government's recommendations are more or less the same. They all speak of the biodiversity and marine ecology of the area being critical. They all refer to the localised impacts of the developments, whether port expansion or bulk terminal construction, on the benthic flora and fauna of the region. But all of them end with the statement that the "overall impact would be insignificant".

Based on these recommendations and EIA studies, four separate environment clearances have been obtained by the company from the MoEF since. The first in 1995 followed by three more in 2000, 2004 and 2007 for its expansion activities. Most of the other expansions were based on only Consents from the state government and no timely Environment Impact Assessments were done. "The point that the airstrip built by the Adani group in the area did not have an environmental clearance from the union ministry was raised in a High Court case filed by local fishermen in 2006," points out Mahesh Pandya, an environmental activist in Ahmedabad.

In 2006, the State Pollution Control Board of Gujarat observed that in view of the expansion the Adani Port and Mundra SEZ was undertaking, it should go in for an environmental clearance from the union ministry. In September 2007, the MoEF's Expert Advisory Committee (EAC) considering the matter for environment clearance for the Mundra SEZ observed that:

"After observation of the facts provided, the Committee was of the view that at the first stage the project proponent should get the Coastal Regulation Zone area mapped by Space Application Centre, Ahmedabad, and National Institute of Oceanography to carry out ground truthing. The Committee decided that based on the above information further action would be taken in the matter. Accordingly, the Committee deferred the project."

Strangely, last year, amidst its plans for developing the area as an SEZ which seems to include development of townships, hotels, infrastructure and multi-product industries, the Mundra Port and SEZ Limited (MPSEZ) of the Adani group of companies also proposed a Waterfront Development Plan over an areas of 3,200 hectares that it has acquired for its project over the last few years. The WFDP is to be a part of the SEZ and would include development of:

  • Total waterfront length of 40 km,
  • Total quay length - approx 22,000 m,
  • Total numbers of berths - 55 (Including existing 12),
  • Cargo handling capacity - 225 MMT, likely to go up further
  • Development of port back-up area - 3200 ha.

The application for environment clearance for the SEZ, which was made earlier, was followed by yet another application for the WFDP to the EAC in April 2008.

Based on the terms of reference set by the EAC, the project came up for public hearing in Mundra on November 11, 2008. Bharat Patel, a member of a local NGO in Mundra called Setu, who managed to download a part of the Environment Impact Assessment report of the WFDP laments, "Very cleverly they put 40 MB files on the Pollution Control Board website. How would the local people who have no access to Internet get their hands on these documents? Even with the best Internet connections downloading such heavy files would be a hard task."

A glance at the EIA clearly reveals that there has been little groundwork done by the consultants. The EIA unjustifiably portrays the project area as barren land the development of which would therefore lack significant environmental impacts.

"The image from Google maps apparently reveals a vast area of natural marine ecology that would be dredged or filled under the project proposal. It is highly misleading to characterise this land as wasteland. The shallow waters and tidal mud flats that comprise this vast undisturbed area play a vital role in the overall ecology of the area even if they are not heavily vegetated," claims Mark Chernaik, a technical expert of the E-Law Network, who carried out a critical analysis of the EIA report.

But the real and hard-hitting questions were raised by the local people on the day of the hearing. While they were shocked that the EIA says that the proposed project area has no habitation and does not involve any kind of rehabilitation or resettlement issues, what really surprised them is that the government, after a decade of the company's expansion, asked for a public hearing to take place. Only one environment clearance public hearing was held during the expansion of the port before the 2000 environment clearance was granted. "What is the point of this now, after everything is almost over? They have destroyed the place and are now asking our opinion," said many of the fishermen from the affected villages. A visit to the proposed area for the West Port of the Water Front Plan reveals that construction work is in full swing - a complete violation of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification (2006) which disallows any activity till the Environment Clearance is granted by the Union Ministry.

Coastal communities bear the brunt

More than 1,000 fishing families of the area have been suffering as a result of the Adani group's activities in the region. These are fisherfolk who fish on small boats and on foot. "Besides fishing in high seas, about 229 people are involved in direct vending; 73 people are involved in net making and repairing; whereas about 1,037 people are involved in processing of fish. It is almost a Rs 100 crore economy," states a report prepared by SETU and Yusuf Meherally Centre. The port and SEZ-related construction have been blocking their traditional fishing routes apart from completely destroying their traditional fishing creeks and harbours.

The fishing communities are only one segment of the affected population. The agriculturists, the horticulturists (date orchards) and those dependent on animal husbandry have been badly hit as grazing grounds are shrinking. A total of 14 villages have already lost more than 1,400 acres of grazing land (under panchayats) to the SEZ. Maldharis (livestock rearers) came out strongly against the company in the November 11 public hearing. Says Vaaljibhai from Jharpara village, where 60% of the families depend completely on livestock rearing, "We have been protesting against the handover of 1,000 acres of our gowcher land for the SEZ. We will not let the company set foot on our grazing lands." On December 22, the village organised a rally in front of the Mundra tehsil office and warned that they will bring their 8,000-odd cattle and buffaloes into Mundra town and block all the roads if the notices to their panchayats (about the handover of gowcher lands) are not withdrawn.

The other major issues raised at the hearing were of the water crisis which is affecting irrigation and drinking water needs. The company is not only extracting groundwater but is also getting water from the Narmada Canal. In Kutch, 47.5 million litres per day of water from the Narmada has already been allotted to various industries including the Adani group.

The company has been speaking of desalination plants since its first Environment Impact Assessment and not one has been constructed. Instead it has opted for cheaper options to externalise the costs considering that it has to pay almost Rs 10/ 1,000 litres for the Narmada water. In addition to that, the company and its subcontractors are taking large quantities of water from tanker suppliers for construction and other domestic use. All this has already started showing significant negative impact on the area's groundwater and increase in salinity. Not that the desalination plants of large capacities would not be harmful. "The salt extracted would be dumped into the nearby seas and creeks making it impossible for marine fauna to survive," adds Michael Mazgaonkar of Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, an environment action group in Gujarat.

When revenue land in the area was purchased by the company, all the letters issued by the Collector had some conditions which included allowing the natural drainage patterns to remain unaffected, the traditional paths and roads not to be blocked etc. The Adanis have just not cared about these conditions. Bunds 15-20-km long have been constructed for filling the land which have totally blocked the natural drainage systems as a result of which Mundra town was virtually flooded in the last monsoon with rivers draining into the Gulf of Kutch being completely blocked.

For those who have no assets in many of the villages in Mundra, charcoal-making with Prosopis Juliflora (grown on common and wastelands) is the only source of income. Earlier the forest department had been placing restrictions on chopping of trees for fuelwood but now most of the lands have been bought off by the Adanis and the locals are considered trespassers if they go into their area for wood. One example of such a village is Sukhapar, located adjacent to the SEZ and port. Of the 450 households that live here almost all depend on charcoal-making for a livelihood. They are now severely deprived of any livelihood opportunity.

From 1998 onwards, NGOs, community organisations, village panchayats and fishing communities have raised these issues consistently with the district revenue and forest departments, state government, State Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The two big agitations happened in Jharpara in 2000 when the Navinal creeks were occupied and in Shekhadiya when the airstrip was being built. Apart from this the matter has been reported in several newspapers and magazines on a regular basis. But there has been virtually no response from the authorities. Each time a demand has been made asking for an immediate halt to any further clearances and expansion of the MPSEZL project and an independent inquiry to investigate the destruction of the marine ecosystem of the Gulf of Kutch, it has been followed by announcements of expansions spelling doom for the local communities of Mundra, now clamped in the grip of several SEZs and megaprojects along their coasts.

The forest and environment department, on every occasion they have been questioned, have spoken of the "re-plantation of mangroves initiative by the forest department to compensate the losses", knowing very well that no amount of re-plantation can replace the existing ecosystems and absorb people's dependence. Early this year a PIL on the issue of creeks and paths to harbours being blocked, was filed in the apex court by Imran Salim Jath, belonging to the Wagher fishing community. The Supreme Court dismissed the petition asking for the petitioners to approach the High Court first. The High Court asked departments like the Gujarat Maritime Board to investigate the matter. Unfortunately the GMB gave a clean chit to the company. In December 2008, the petitioners, disappointed with the High Court's verdict, went back to the apex court with a Special Leave Petition. After the first hearing the Supreme Court has issued notices to the state government and other authorities. It remains to be seen if the judicial process will expose the inaction and mess-ups in the Mundra case and provide relief to the people at the receiving end. The fact that Adani's Mundra projects have an SEZ status will make the legal battle even tougher with the central SEZ Act 2005 and Gujarat's own SEZ legislation providing a reprieve to developers from stringent environmental legislations.

(Manshi Asher is a researcher-activist. This article is based on recent research conducted by her in the area)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2008