Standing waist-deep in the waters of the Arabian Sea, Parvathi Tandel (46) offers milk to the god of the sea. Parvathi and other members of the Kasarkod Tonka fishing community in the Honnavar taluk of Uttara Kannada district came together on World Oceans Day to pray for their safety and seek a good harvest of fish.
However, she is well aware that the imminent threat to her village does not come from the sea, but from “development” projects. Residents of his community have received summonses from the police and, even worse, are being punished for protesting against the emergence of a port in the area. The port, originally proposed under the Union Government’s Sagarmala Project, is currently being developed under private ownership. However, rail connectivity to the private port will be provided by the government under the Sagarmala project.
Experts fear that several projects proposed under the Sagarmala project could prove harmful to residents and the environment.
Read also: The Sagarmala project well advanced in Gujarat
First proposed by the Union government in 2003, the project was launched in 2015. In 2018, the Union government planned to support 1,537 projects by investing Rs 6.5 lakh crore over 7 500 km from the country’s coastline. But later the figures were revised to 802 projects worth Rs 5.53 lakh crore.
Therefore, the Government of Karnataka, under its Minor Ports Development Policy of 2014, sent a proposal to the Union Government, stating that the 300 km long coastline of the state has the potential to to house 12 minor ports.
The Union Government has identified 12 locations—Karwar, Belekeri, Tadadi, Pavinakurve, Honnavar, Manki, Bhatkal (Uttara Kannada district), Kundapur, Hangarkatta, Malpe (Udupi district), Padubidri and the old Mangalore Port (in Dakshina Kannada District) — either to create new small ports or to renovate existing ports under government ownership, public-private partnership or private ownership.
A total of 81 projects, including those related to port development and modernization, inland waterway transport, tourism and fisheries, have been proposed for Karnataka under the Sagarmala project at an estimated cost of Rs 7,799 crore.
The ambitious project, however, was not well received. The majority of these projects have met with opposition from residents who fear a loss of livelihoods. Complications arose with land acquisition and legal and environmental clearance.
According to VN Nayak, a retired professor of marine biology, there is no logic behind the establishment of 12 ports, each port being only 40 km from the next.
“Why do we need so many ports in environmentally sensitive areas, given current exports and imports and future estimates? There is no point in developing more ports when the current Karwar port itself is underutilized,” says Nayak.
He says the ports of Karwar and Mangaluru, if well maintained, can meet our import and export needs for the next 100 years.
A review of cargo handling data at Karwar Port shows its underutilization over the years.
Karwar Ports and River Transport Authority officials say that since 1985, Karwar Port, which currently has a handling capacity of 3 million tonnes of cargo per year, has rarely reached 50% of its handling capacity. .
“Coal, liquid fuels and iron ore constitute the bulk of the goods imported and exported from these ports and their stocks are limited. India is also a signatory to the Paris Agreement which obliges us to reduce the import and use of coal for power generation,” says Dr Nayak. He was part of an independent group that studied the ecological feasibility of projects under the Sagarmala program.
The carbon footprints left by ports are enormous. Roads, railway lines and structures created to connect ports to the hinterland will eventually weigh on the Western Ghats.
“Eroded beaches like Karwar, Honnavar and other similar places are not suitable for building ports,” says Vikas Tandel, whose public interest litigation in the Supreme Court and case in the National Green Tribunal have resulted in a postponement of the expansion of the Port of Karvar.
A 2019 report by the National Center for Coastal Research lists Karwar Beach as an Extremely Vulnerable Coastal Area (CVCA). Another Coastal Regulatory Zone report categorically classifies Karwar and Honnavar beaches as environmentally sensitive areas where ‘red category’ works like harbors and harbors should not be resumed.
People here have seen how ports lead to the degradation of coastal ecology. Sunil Ramachandra Kudalkar, a fisherman in Belekeri, tells how, while transporting iron ore from the port of Belekeri, the red soil mixed with the sea water and destroyed the breeding grounds of the blue bivalves.
When mining was at its peak, the port of Belekeri received 3,000 tippers a day, dumping iron ore into the area. But after mining illegalities surfaced, huge piles of seized iron ore remain here.
Nowhere to go
According to the fishing community, more than 4.5 lakh people depend on fishing in the five coastal taluks of Uttara Kannada. If these ports come into existence, fishermen will lose their livelihoods as fishing areas will become restricted. This could eventually lead to their displacement.
“We will resist if the government goes ahead with the Tadadi port project, just like we protested against the thermal power plant project,” says Vital Kantri Bethalkar, a fisherman from Tadadi. He adds that the administration is opaque on the projects implemented under the Sagarmala project, which worries the inhabitants.
Raju Tandel, president of the Uttara Kannada Fishermen’s Federation, said the Uttara Kannada fishing community had learned a lesson after handing over nearly 11,500 acres of beaches and fishing grounds to Sea Bird, a base naval near Karwar.
“Even today, 80% of the land acquired by the Navy remains unused. Citing safety concerns, navy officials don’t even allow local fishermen to fish in unregulated areas. We can be proud of our contribution to our country. But at the end of the day, we end up with no fishing area,” he says.
At the time of the acquisition, the administration had secured jobs for the residents of Sea Bird. However, not even 1% of the displaced people got a job at the naval base, he said.
“We are concerned that the same will also happen to the proposed port sites,” he said. DH.
Similar fears were expressed by fishermen from Belekeri, Kasarkod Tonka and Tadadi.
Captain C Swamy, Director in Charge of Karnataka Ports and River Transport Department, questions the logic behind environmentalists who only oppose minor commercial ports and not fishing ports.
“These ports also have unscientifically constructed breakwaters on environmentally sensitive beaches. So why only oppose the ports and miss out on the private investments that they
ports can attract? he asks.
According to Swamy, currently the department plans to develop Keni port near Belekeri and Pavinakurve port near Honnavar.
Asked about the ecological impact, he asked which port in India is not located in an environmentally sensitive area.
“Gujarat has 50 such minor ports in environmentally sensitive areas. But they help the state to develop. Karnataka’s minor ports can also help in the creation of industries and guide economic growth,” he says.
The department would follow all the guidelines set by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board when handling the goods and ensure minimum damage to the environment, he said.
Defending the need for more ports, Manjunath G Namadhari, Junior Executive Engineer at Karwar Port Subdivision, said they would help India market wheat, rice, food grains, minerals, oil palm oil and potassium sulphate.
Enforcement of Court Orders
While Uttara Kannada Deputy Commissioner Mullai Muhilan agreed there was opposition to some projects under the Sagarmala scheme, he declined to comment on the Karwar port expansion plan, saying the case was pending.
Muhilan says efforts to convince local people of the importance of ports are underway. The port being developed in Honnavar is not directly linked to Sagarmala and the district administration only enforces court decisions related to the port, he said. DH.
The railway lines connecting the private port will be supported with funds allocated to the Sagarmala project.
Shortly after the prayers, Parvathi joins his colleagues who are protesting against the port project.
“It is not only for us humans, but also for the survival of the flora and fauna of the region. We cannot allow the destruction of critically endangered olive ridley sea turtle breeding grounds,” she says.