Tata and the turtles

| 24th April 2008
Tata is not limiting itself to dominance of the mainland. Ashish Fernandes reports on the sea turtles falling foul of the corporation in waters off the Indian subcontinent

Bombay House, Homi Mody Street, Mumbai – Tata HQ. The placid brownstone façade and the liveried guard beneath the awning at its entrance contrast starkly with the bustling noisiness of the street. The building is deceptively quiet. A casual passerby would have no way of knowing that this is in fact the headquarters of one of the fastest growing and most powerful corporate groups in the world. From here, like the proverbial octopus, the conglomerate’s tentacles are in almost every sphere of life in India, and rapidly spreading throughout much of Africa, Europe and the Americas as well.

Some 1,500km due east of Mumbai in the Indian state of Orissa, on the other side of the Indian subcontinent, the beach is alive. Puffs of sand are spouting up everywhere, as thousands of turtles clamber, crawl and dig their nest holes. It’s a cold, misty February morning and sunrise is just a few minutes away. The mass nesting, or arribada, of olive ridley sea turtles in Orissa is one of the wonders of the natural world; a sight guaranteed to leave an indelible memory on anyone fortunate enough to witness it, but one that is as threatened as it is amazing.

The beaches of the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary are one of the world’s largest mass nesting sites for olive ridleys. The turtles’ traditional enemies in these parts have been traders in turtle meat and eggs, and, over the last couple of decades, the mechanised fishing industry. But a new, more powerful threat is now, quite literally, on the horizon. Tata Steel, the fifth-largest steel producer in the world after swallowing up the Anglo-Dutch Corus group for $12.2 billion, is building a deepwater port at Dhamra, less than 15km from the turtles’ main nesting beaches. The port will also be less than 5km from the Bhitarkanika Sanctuary, India’s second largest mangrove forest and a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.

While events at Singur (see previous article) and Kalinganagar (where farmers protesting Tata’s plans to build a large steel mill were killed in 2006) catapulted its social record into the headlines, the Tata Group has been on a collision course with ecologists over the Dhamra port since 2004, when it announced its involvement in partnership with infrastructure company Larsen & Toubro. The project itself has been of concern since its inception in the 1990s.

The concerns at that time stemmed from the site’s proximity to Bhitarkanika and Gahirmatha; there was little data on the environmental value of the port site itself. Since then, however, a scientific study in February-March 2007, commissioned by Greenpeace and carried out by Dr SK Dutta of the North Orissa University, one of India’s leading herpetologists, has shed some light on the area’s intrinsic biodiversity value. The mangrove snake Fordonia leucobalia and the crab-eating frog F. cancrivora were recorded for the first time in Orissa, with F. cancrivora being the first record from the Indian mainland. The mudflats and intertidal zone are also a breeding ground for horseshoe crabs, with more than a thousand recorded on the port site itself. These ‘living fossils’ are much valued for the copper compound in their blood, which has applications in the pharmaceutical sector and is extracted nonlethally in some parts of the world.

But this is not all: more than 2,000 turtle carcasses (victims of mechanised fishing) were also recorded on and near the port site – a clear indicator of the presence of turtles in offshore waters, something long denied by Tata officials.

The study’s results created a furore at Tata HQ, but company officials remained tightlipped in public. While the notoriously proindustry Orissa state government spared no effort to malign the study’s findings, Tata made no statement, a strange position for a company that misses no opportunity to talk about its transparency and social and environmental legacy.

Today, at the port site, the mudflats are being covered over, while dredgers are deepening a shipping channel offshore, in the same waters inhabited by turtles. Rather than address the concerns raised by environmental groups, Tata Steel is hiding instead behind an agreement with IUCN, the World Conservation Union, to prepare a ‘mitigation’ plan. Given that proper baseline data on the ecology of the site does not exist, it is hard to understand how impacts could be understood, let alone mitigated.

Tata’s subsidiary, DPCL, has spared no effort to tout its deal with the IUCN as evidence of its green principles, despite a clear refusal to adopt a precautionary approach. Alternative port sites in less sensitive habitats have not been explored, though these were suggested to Tata as soon as its involvement was made public, four years ago.

The port itself, and by implication IUCN’s agreement to provide a ‘mitigation plan’ for it, are evidence that the Precautionary Principle has been consigned to the rubbish heap. Both the IUCN and Tata Steel (a signatory to the Global Compact, the world’s largest voluntary corporate responsibility initiative) are committed to the principle, at least on paper, but the port, by dint of its mere presence in an ecologically sensitive area, poses an environmental threat, meaning mitigation measures will, at best, be inadequate. How does one ‘mitigate’ against the destruction of the intertidal mudflats, the horseshoe crabs and other rare species found there?

The dredging of an estimated 60 million cubic metres of silt and sand will cause a significant alteration of the benthic habitat. Even if the port itself were miraculously to control both its light and marine pollution impacts, how would it control discharges from shipping traffic, accidental oil and chemical spills, and other pollution from ancillary developments that will spring up in the vicinity of the port?

The IUCN’s increasing closeness to big business is worrying many conservationists. As Taghi Farvar, chair of the IUCN’s Commission on Environmental Economic and Social Policy, notes: ‘Several of the IUCN’s members are disturbed by the apparent willingness to ignore the IUCN’s founding principles in order to accommodate industrial interests, be it Shell or Tata. The IUCN was set up to protect nature, not big business.’

While a coalition of local and international groups continue the battle, the port’s construction is commencing, even as the waters offshore swarm with turtles. Only time will tell how many more arribadas Gahirmatha will see, and how long the turtles can hold out against destructive and shortsighted development in their back yard.

Ashish Fernandes is a freelance journalist and Greenpeace campaigner

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2008

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