Vadhavan Port project back to zero as center searches for new studies

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has imposed stricter environmental and social controls on the proposed Vadhavan Port in the Dahanu Environmentally Sensitive Zone (ESZ), bringing the project back to the starting point in environmental conservation proceedings. Several preliminary studies need to be conducted again by the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Authority (JNPA) to assess the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the project.

At the same time, a ministry committee last month allowed major changes in the project’s architectural specifications, including changes in the master plan and source of materials, to reclaim 1,473 hectares of land from the Arabian Sea.

Instead of extracting 80 million cubic meters of murrum (fragments of rock) from seven mounds in Palghar district, the JNPA has attempted to dredge 200 million cubic meters of soil from a “lending pit” off the Daman coast. The center postponed that request in January because “the overall scope and configuration of the project had changed,” and instead requested JNPA to revise its Preliminary Feasibility Report (PFR).

In addition to various technical assessments, the Department of Ports and Harbors Committee of Experts (EAC) has stated that “a detailed and additional biodiversity study for the borrow pit region for the monsoon and winter seasons (considering that the sandy desert is an active breeding area for fish and other sand-burrowing fauna) should be carried out by the Zoological Survey of India.”

This study will specifically focus on the movement of marine mammals offshore – cetaceans such as dolphins, cetaceans and porpoises – and the identification of fish aggregation sites, if any, in both Dahanu and Daman. Locals have previously stressed that the project site is a rich breeding ground for commercially viable fish, including the prized ‘ghol’ (Protonibea diacanthus), India’s most expensive fish, which is in high demand by the pharmaceutical industry to make dissolvable surgical threads.

The center also set aside an earlier study by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute on the port’s impact on local fishermen, which estimated that the livelihoods of 20,809 fishermen from 16 fishing villages within a 10km radius of the port would be affected . Now the Ministry of Environment has requested “dedicated socio-economic studies with a particular focus on the fishing community in the Dahanu and Daman region, as large-scale sand mining could impact active fishing grounds”.

“JNPA is required to conduct a revised environmental impact assessment and management plan. Corals and mangroves in the area must be classified under the CRZ-IA classification, which was not the case in the previous EIA report. They must conduct appropriate 3-D modeling studies, detailed traffic study, cumulative EIA and new public hearings in Dahanu and Daman. It is hoped that these studies will be seriously undertaken,” said Debi Goenka, Executive Trustee of the Conservation Action Trust and a guest of the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA).

DTEPA had previously criticized various preliminary reports related to the project. In February, Shyam Asolekar (Professor of Environmental Sciences at IIT-B) and former member of DTEPA criticized the poor quality data in the existing EIA report, calling it “frankly superficial”.

Asolekar also referred to a report by the National Center for Sustainable Coastal Management (NCSCM) which concluded that “the environmental and environmental impacts of the proposed offshore port facility are rather minimal” as it was based solely on secondary data. “This is an odd report, made in two months, has about 20 targets, and uses secondary data. A more in-depth discussion is needed on this report alone,” he had said.

Shortly after his comments, Asolekar was removed from the DTEPA along with Vidyadhar Deshpande (former urban planner, Maharashtra) and Kulbushan Jain (professor emeritus, CEPT University, Ahmedabad) – all of whom have been Authority members for over two decades – by a MoEFCC notice on March 10. All three had raised concerns about the project in February.

A senior JNPA official involved with the project described the EAC’s decision as “positive”, adding: “Having the changes to the ToR being postponed twice this year, this is a step forward for the port that… is a project of strategic national importance. Studies are done quickly.”

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