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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 9, February 14, 2009

Pitfalls in the Nayachar Chemical Hub

Thursday 19 February 2009, by Subrata Sinha

A news item was published in the newspapers on February 4 that the Government of India has virtually cleared the Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray Chemical Hub at Nayachar island, just offshore of the original location at Nandigram in the Haldia zone in West Bengal. However, the final green signal awaits vetting by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA).

The proposed chemical hub envisages a public plus private sector investment of the order of Rs 100,000 crores. The news pertaining to such a massive project should have been well high-lighted, instead of receiving such a casual mention. Land acquisition for the Nandigram project with brutal force and bloodshed was aborted by an unprecedented revolt encompassing most sections of civil society, even beyond the borders of the State. It has become an iconic symbol of forced land annexation, with ripples felt in many Indian States, that has changed the paradigm! This explains this act of commission!

The alternative island site selection itself is controversial with regard to its natural and environmental ambience. These are summarised in the following paragraphs.

This very small and flat island, made up of unconsolidated alluvium that rose just three metres above the sea in the early 1930s, is located near the confluence of the Haldi river and Bay of Bengal, virtually within the coastal offshore zone. Drilling has shown that unconsolidated material exists down to thirty metres. Intensive scientific investigations undertaken by the Geological Survey of India reveal the utter unsuitability of the location. Any industrial infrastructure will necessitate substantial raising and consolidation of the land by dumping of colossal quantities of imported material. This shall be aggravated by the construction of major industrial installations and infrastructure. Implosion of the island shall inevitably occur, within a short time-span.

Enormous quantities of hazardous wastes (including carcinogenic, mutagenic, and toxic components) from the hub shall have no safe dumping ground within the island. Once dumped into the sea, these will wreak havoc on offshore marine life and planktons.

Most ominously, the seasonal offshore currents in the zone will transport the pollutants along the coast into the Sunderbans delta and tidal currents will push them inland through the massive Indo-Bangladesh deltaic river network. The island will remain susceptible to the processes of natural erosion as well. It transgresses into the vital Coastal Regulation Zone, necessitating a clearance from the Coastal Regulatory Authority. Yet the report by a “hand-picked” bunch of Jadavpur University academics was accepted by the State and forwarded to the GOI—and this formed the basis for the clearance.

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Strangely, Jurong Consultants (linked to Indonesia’s Salim Group) has endorsed the Nayachar location, citing comparable examples of islands off Singapore. Those islands, however, form part of the Himalayan arc itself, while Nayachar is an end product of eroded Himalayan material—the sediments being transported over thousands of millennia—forming one of the thickest alluvial basins on earth. Singapore has no such vulnerable alluvial basin or river network that can pollute vast tracts.

Global Warming is bound to take its toll. The Sundarbans deltaic region is already marked as one of the global regions facing imminent threat. While monitoring the zone, some Jadavpur University researchers attributed the submergence of Lohacchhara, Supari-Bhaga, Kapasgadi and Bedford islands, close to Nayachar, to this phenomenon. The melting of Himalayan glaciers, well advanced due to the ravages of Global Warming, shall hasten the doomsday for this island.

A vital question, therefore, arises as to whether the Ministry of Environment of the GOI gave its mandatory clearance, in view of the pollution and biodiversity factors. The latest Environmental Impact Assessment regulations unambiguously mandate a duly notified and properly circulated Public Hearing of the stake-holders or affected communities. The stakeholders include fisherfolk ,and fishermen commuting in boats from the Haldia mainland (including Nandi-gram) for livelihood! With the unabated interest in the area by social activists, this vital aspect of environmental clearances could not have gone unnoticed.

The State Government should better organise and support fisheries to be developed and run by local dwellers. Obviously, with moderate investment, losses will be minuscule compared to industrial development even if the island is submerged after a few decades. This would be an optimum utilisation package for such ephemeral island. Nayachar may provide an example to emulate in such an inequitable development scenario. Even the State Government admits that the State has started facing shortfalls in food production, of which fish is certainly a major component.

Instead of facing an inescapable loss of colossal investments and environmental hazards for treading the globalisation highway, West Bengal could choose the country roads of an inclusive and sustainable resurgence, without avoidable hazards. This would endow benefits on the overwhelming rural majority. It would also spare the State of the venial sin of using the name of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, a revered pioneering scientist-entrepreneur of the swadeshi era, of the same status as Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose. n

An erstwhile member of the Environmental Committees of the Government of India, the author is a former Deputy Director General, Geological Survey of India.

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