Opinion

A strange proposal to build Karnataka's largest port raises serious (and awkward) questions

Comments have been invited from the public on the environmental impact even though it isn't clear what the scope of the project will actually be.

On Monday, residents of coastal Karnataka have been invited to present their views on the government’s proposal to build the state's largest port at Tadri village. The project proponent, the Karnataka State Industrial and Infrastructural Development Corporation, has put out the Environment Impact Assessment report so that the people likely to be affected by the project can discuss suggestions and objections at the public hearing, held as per the Environment Protection Act.

However, something is amiss. The KSIIDC has not identified the private contractor who will build the project, operate it and, after it has recovered its costs, hand it over to the government so that it becomes part of the inventory of public infrastructure. No document carries the name of a contractor – who is known in official jargon as the concessionaire.

Crucial questions

This presents an awkward regulatory situation. It is the concessionaire who will give a full design to the broad outline of the proposed project. The contractor will determine the building parameters, the kinds of material, the technology, the impacts of their actions and the costs. This means that the project's owner, the KSIIDC, has invited comments from the public on the environmental impact even though it isn't clear what the scope of the project will actually be.

In the absence of the builder of the project, there is no one who can address crucial questions related to ground water usage, employment for local youth from affected families, dredging impacts on fisheries, obstruction of drainage patterns, loss of mangroves and increase in transport vehicles in the region.

The  port proposed to come up on the river Aghanashini, a beautiful natural harbour and a fertile estuary, is estimated to cost Rs 38,000 crores. The facility, which is projected to handle 62 million metric tonnes per annum of cargo, will be executed through a public-private participation model. Typically, such a model requires the "owner" or the government to identify a private contractor to build the project, operate it for a certain number of years agreed upon in advance and then hand it over to the government so that it becomes part of the inventory of public infrastructure. In the case of the Tadri port, the builder will transfer the project to the state government after 50 years, though in many other cases where the contractor does not arrange for finance, the concession period is between 30 and 35 years.

Technical clearances

Experts in contract drafting for PPP projects say that while the major regulatory permissions related to land and natural resources are the responsibility of the owner, technical clearances are the burden of the concessionaire. As a result, the KSIIDC must obtain the necessary environmental and forest related clearances for the project in addition to making land available for it. The latter was easy. The land for the proposed project was acquired by the Karnataka Industrial Areas Development Board in the 1970s from rice farmers. Monday's public hearing is necessary for the KSIIDC to obtain the necessary environmental clearance.

Usually, every project proponent prepares a Detailed Project Report that includes the engineering, construction and other technical aspects of the project. The report together with the Environmental Impact Assessment report helps to reviewers understand the possible effects that the project will have on a landscape and its inhabitants. In this case, as the design is yet to be prepared by an identified concessionaire, there is no DPR for the port project. Without the design and layout of the various constituents of the proposed port complex, the Environmental Impact Assessment report at best makes guesses about the impacts.

The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change does not seem perturbed by the lack of a detailed project report. Until 2006 amendment, every project seeking environment clearance had to submit a DPR that described all the facets of a proposed project. But now, the Ministry can process environment clearance applications with just a feasibility report and the Environmental Impact Assessment report.  Further, if the clearance for this project is granted, it will be given to the KSIIDC, a party that is neither going to build nor operate the project.

Best mangrove forests

The fertile intertidal area of 1,854 acres was first acquired by the Karnataka government in the 1970s in the name of development and public interest.  Farmers grew a special salt-resistant variety of rice called "kagga" and their lands had the highest value in the district. These lands was taken away for as little as Rs. 45 a gunta (1/40th of an acre). Some of the original landowners fought for better compensation and lost.  The land has remained unused all these years and a study by Karnataka Forest Department and the Centre for Ecological Sciences, IISC Bangalore, states that the area has turned into the best mangrove forests of the district, by size and diversity of species.

A whole range of other impacts may be caused by the proposed project.  It is estimated that the construction of the port and the operation phase will require 1.5 lakh litres of water a day from the river Gangavali. Little by way of environment impact mitigation  has been planned so far. Even if commitments are made, they will be made by a party that has little to do with managing the day-to-day affairs of the project.

The authors are with the Centre for Policy Research- Namati Environment Justice Programme.

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