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Harbouring trouble: The impact of ports on commons

By Aarthi Sridhar

Galloping capital flow into coastal infrastructure development will see a port built every 33 km along India’s coast. This has serious implications for over 3,000 fishing hamlets along our coast, and will deprive these communities of the beaches on which their lives and livelihoods depend

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“Surely the Supercyclone of 1991 highlighted to the world the vulnerability of the Orissa coastline and its communities”

“The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami is likely to inhibit investor interest in coastal lands in Tamil Nadu”

These statements on the fragility of coasts that followed India’s greatest natural disasters find absolutely no resonance in the galloping capital flow towards more coastal infrastructure development. Take a look at our port development projections. Along with thermal power plants, Special Economic Zones and the tourism sector, investments in commercial ports continue to be high on the agenda of competing coastal state governments. In the tsunami-affected district of Nagapattinam (Tamil Nadu) alone, there are five proposals for coal-based thermal power plants (each proposal bringing a captive port or jetty in its wake). Of Tamil Nadu's 20 minor ports the media reports about 16 as having attracted investor interest. Clearly, the coast is much sought after. But what is the extent of area required by each claimant to the coast? Is the development on the coast grounded in scientific planning? How are the costs and benefits of development to coastal commons and natural resources computed? The promise of the development drama lies in the strength of its script.

Karwar port in North Kanara district, Karnataka, 2010.

The development script

“How much land do these people want? How many ports are there and how many more do they want?” I recall Harekrishna Debnath, former chairperson of the National Fishworker’s Forum, agitatedly posing this question. We, members of the National Campaign for the Protection of Coasts (NCPC), had huddled for a quick discussion one evening in January 2009. No one was able to answer Harekrishna, but later I was to discover that even the Ministry of Shipping (MoS) would not be able to!

The development of both major and minor ports is the sworn resolve of the Planning Commission and the MoS. Reforms in the port sector since 1991 have driven state governments to aggressively attract private investment for minor ports under their jurisdiction, through attractive concession agreements with land, tax and other financial benefits. However, underlying this development script and its wild peppering of investment opportunities, appear to be many unknown figures and facts. No reliable answers are forthcoming about elementary questions such as the one Harekrishna posed that evening -- how many minor ports does India have and how much more of the coast is needed?

The MoS and the Indian Ports Association maintain centralised data regarding the 13 major ports; six each on the west and the east coast, one in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. With minor ports under the care of state governments, there is much contradiction and dithering among central government sources on even their total number. The MoS website lists 187 minor ports, the Economic Survey of the Planning Commission of 2009-2010 lists 200 minor ports. The MES/ICMAM (Ministry of Earth Sciences and Integrated Coastal and Marine Area Management) study of 2009, which studied the impacts of ports structures on shorelines, reports 186 minor ports. An independent enquiry into simple facts in the port sector was undertaken by Dakshin Foundation, an NGO working on environment and development issues and a member of the NCPC. This study of the environmental and social implications of port development, Harbouring Trouble, lists a total of 213 notified minor ports along the mainland coast. The study contains a list of minor ports in each state, procured from various state governments, and through Right to Information applications. This translates to roughly one port every 33 kms on the Indian coast (including the islands).

How many of these ports are functional ports? This question too has multiple choice answers, ranging from 45 to 66 according to different government sources, as reported in the Dakshin study. An analysis of media reports (not government information) of investor interest shows that of the total number of minor ports, at least 69 ports are proposed for development and expansion. In essence, what the Dakshin study emphasises is that if you wanted reliable information on the total area of each minor port in the country, the trends in the cargo passing through it, proposals for growth, likely investors and so on, you needed to hire a small band of itinerant researchers and set them off on a treasure hunt!

Planning with unknowns

Highlighting the ambiguity of such information does more than just satisfy nit-picking urges. These figures inform the obligated port planning procedures of our country, whose standards themselves seem ethereal. Sudarshan Rodriguez, one of the authors of this Dakshin study states: “It is not clear what makes governments decide on sites to be notified as minor ports either. And invariably, environmental and social issues are nowhere in such an assessment.” Orissa’s long list of minor port notifications is illustrative. The Ocean Engineering Centre of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Chennai undertook a study in 1996 which recommended that two minor and two major ports (mostly referring to scale and size and not the legal definition) be developed in the state, and assessed seven other sites as potential port sites. The Orissa government went ahead and notified these and three other sites as potential port development sites and has applied no real limit to investment scales. Five of the IIT-selected sites -- Astarang /Nuagaon, Dhamra, Gopalpur, Jatadhar Muhan, and Palur -- are close to three world-renowned mass nesting beaches of a unique and endangered population of Olive Ridley sea turtles (declared a Schedule I animal under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972). Therefore the entire spectacle of Orissa's current minor port development drama is at best based on an outdated study, where the various development protagonists didn't even need to mouth environmental or social pleasantries.

The Tuticorin port seen from Ratchanyapuram village, Tuticorin district, Tamil Nadu, 2010.

Vulnerable commons

The entire Indian coastline measures about 8,000 km and is home to more than 3.5 million marine fisherfolk and several thousand more coastal residents. Wedged between the 213 minor ports are several fishing hamlets. The latest Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute census conducted in 2005 reveals that there are approximately 3,202 fishing hamlets dotting the mainland coast. With one fishing hamlet located along every 2 km of the coast and a port proposed every 33 km, the port development trend in India has serious implications and impacts on fishing communities and the environment. The disappearance of beaches has grave implications for a community whose entire life and livelihood is dependent on their presence. Where else can numerous boats and nets be stored and of what use is a 'Beach Landing Craft' like the traditional kattamaram or teppa, or the newer outboard motor boats, without a beach? The beach is the cheapest and most effective fish-drying yard, especially when an unexpectedly large catch of sardines measuring a few tonnes is landed. A playground, an open-sky festival area, a people's laboratory to observe their sea and study its nature, beaches are integral to the existence of the fisher. The harsh reality is that government land records have no space to recognise the ownership that fishers 'feel' over these commons, or the value of endless and unoccupied sandy stretches and naked sand dunes that they know so well. Eventually, as stories from the coastlines pouring in indicate, such lands in government control are sold off to private enterprises, small, medium and more often large. Port developers with affinity for land are fast turning into the worst adversaries of fisherfolk, directly and indirectly capturing their lands, and beaches.

Media reports on the social impacts of port construction and operation have grown, especially since people are fighting back. The Gangavaram port in Andhra Pradesh, the Adani's Mundra port and SEZ in Gujarat, and POSCO's proposed port in Orissa are examples of high-profile conflicts with a high degree of state violence marking each of these campaigns. The arguments against these projects have ranged from allegations of environmental irregularities and adverse impacts on people's livelihoods and environment, often a combination of all.

The push for ports and when ports push back...

Ports today are more than mere facilitators of seaborne traffic. Some of these ports are one of the largest real estate owners and land banks. Most 'minor' ports in the country are about 1,500 acres on an average. The competition for ports is wild. Orissa alone has about 14 ports in the reckoning with nearly every industrial house worth its salt wanting a piece of the beach action. The Tatas have the Dhamra port; Aditya Birla's Essel Mining and Industries Ltd has been eyeing the Chudamani port; Arcelor Mittal proposed a port at Barunei Muhan, lapping the banks of the Gahirmatha Marine Protected Area; and even the Adanis joined the party by zeroing in on “a site near the proposed POSCO port”. Many investors in the country are also interested in port-based SEZs and 'greenfield' sites in Kochi, Mundra, Krishnapatnam and Karaikal (Pondicherry) emerging as the most attractive.

Probir Banerjee and his comrade Aurofilio Schiviana from the non-government organisation Pondy CAN (Citizens' Action Network) are only too familiar with what such port growth can mean for beaches. The Pondy CAN members' attachment and concern for the famed Pondicherry French Quarter and beachfront led them to keep a watchful eye over their coastline and its ports. A series of photographs gathered by them, taken between the 1970s and ’90s revealed that the Pondicherry harbour built in the mid-’70s had caused the Pondicherry beach to nearly vanish and the numerous groynes that had since come up to control this erosion were actually eating away beaches abutting fishing villages further north.

Jetty construction on beaches in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu, 2010.

Coastal erosion is one of the most serious problems caused by ports and it starkly affects the most vulnerable community on the coast – fisherfolk. Not just ports themselves, but structures that they build have the capacity to cause damage to villages located some distance away. Breakwaters and groynes typically arrest the natural movement of sand along the coast (the littoral drift). Along the east coast of the country, an estimated 0.5 million cubic metres of sand move annually from the south to the north along the coast. It is this movement of sand that allows beaches to grow and maintain their character. Constructions that stop this natural flow of sand on the east coast cause beaches located to their north to start eroding.

Pondy CAN's diligent observations of the impacts on Pondicherry habour, the subsequent 'ameliorative' efforts like sea wall and groyne construction along the Pondicherry coast, are most illustrative of the impact of port development for coastal villages and fishing hamlets. In a tragic instruction for the rest of the country, these villages showcase this impact through the destruction of their homes, their property and the disappearance of their common lands.

Meanwhile, further south, driven by different considerations, real estate giants and multiple SEZ promoters MARG, have planned the expansion of the little-known MARG Karaikal private port. Beaches may be lost, but surely the promise of (real) estate is growing.

The humorous side of regulation

Ports and shipping are a man-made hazard to natural resources. Port development creates a wide range of impacts on local environments through dredging, construction work, landfills, discharges from ships and waterfront industries, cargo operations, and other port-related activities. The potential adverse effects of port development include water pollution, contamination of bottom sediments, loss of bottom habitat, damage to marine ecology and fisheries, beach erosion, current pattern changes, waste disposal, oil leakage and spillage, hazardous material emissions, air pollution, noise, vibration, light and visual pollution.

Even the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) committee reviewing coastal regulation reform, authored a report titled 'Final Frontier', which pointed out that the Indian coastline was undergoing a major change due to port development, with unknown cumulative impacts.

Based on this report, on August 21, 2009 the MoEF issued an office memorandum
imposing a three-month moratorium on proposals it had received for new ports or harbours, besides expansion of existing projects. The note promised that the MoEF would evolve a policy on coastal projects, especially activities relating to ports, harbours, jetties and their expansion. For the past five years, there has been a long-drawn engagement, bordering on battle proportions, between the MoEF and the citizens of the country, over the shape of coastal regulation reforms. About 30 consultations were held across the country by the MoEF which saw the active participation of people. Nearly one whole year after its promissory note on ports, the MoEF introduced its final version of the Draft Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2010. Several public protests by fisherfolk marked the interim -- burning of effigies, official reports, public rejection of poorly worded official draft notifications which neither guaranteed their rights nor protected their environments. How is the problem of coastal erosion and unplanned port development addressed in this law which the MoEF claims as a fantastic and scientific improvement over the earlier one?

The three-month moratorium on clearances to port projects itself was promptly reversed by an MoEF office memo in November 2009. The new CRZ 2010 rules state that areas along coasts will be identified as high, medium and low-erosion areas and that new ports would be located in areas that are low-erosion areas! Several groups across the country have questioned this rationale. They fail to see the science or logic behind permitting port construction in areas which will inevitably convert such low-erosion areas into high-erosion areas. Aside from this, all the other social and economic arguments against ports and poor planning seem to have washed away from official records.

In the absence of a clear and publicly shared methodology for the identification of high-, low- and medium-erosion areas, some rumours and jokes on this subject are flourishing. The rumour is that if the identification authority detects a sea wall across a coastal stretch, then such an area is automatically removed from its natural 'high-erosion' tag and adopts a new 'low-erosion' status – an area suitable for port constructions. This is likely to create some unbelievable contortions in the categorisation of a dynamic coastline. This port located in such a sea wall-sheltered 'low erosion' area will by its very nature create areas with high erosion adjacent to it. It will then have to build a sea wall across the new high-erosion area, thereby re-creating new 'low-erosion' areas. More ports will lead to more sea walls, and more sea walls will lead to more ports. The ports will eventually create many low-erosion areas!

November 2010 saw another ominous forecast. A preliminary (and pioneering) study on the replacement value of major infrastructure on the Tamil Nadu coast on account of the impacts of sea level rise was conducted by the Institute for Financial Management and Research, Chennai.
Dr Sujata Byravan, the lead author of this study, announced at the launch of the study, “Our study estimates the total replacement value of infrastructure (ports, power plants and major roads) impacted by sea level rise to be between Rs 47,418 and Rs 53,554 crores (in 2010 terms).”

Will India Inc please sit up now?

The cyclone, the tsunami, sea level rise predictions, all expose varying vulnerabilities of coastal inhabitants. But the present-day loopholes in law and the investment dreams encased in official MoUs represent ongoing tragedies – the silent spiriting away of commons, property and natural resources.

(Aarthi Sridhar is a trained social worker and environmental researcher-activist. She heads the Dakshin Foundation. This is the final part of her series on coastal commons, researched as part of the FES-Infochange Media Fellowships 2010)

Infochange News & Features, January 2011