The race was between slow-moving turtles and industrial projects for India’s fast developing economy. And the latter won.

Expert panels of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change have recommended green clearances for two projects that involve nesting grounds for olive ridley turtles. This may not spell happiness for the turtles even though the committees have tried to ensure the highest safety for the marine creatures.

One of these projects is the development of a Special Economic Zone and a Free Trade Warehousing Zone in Kutch, Gujarat, estimated to cost Rs 39,243 crore. The project is expected to be spread over 3147.7 acres of land and include a thermal power plant, a gas-based power plant, among other units.

The recommendation for granting environmental clearance to the project was made at a meeting of the ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee for infrastructure projects on August 30-31. The project first come up for clearance in 2016 and was considered at the committee’s meetings in August 2016, September 2016, October 2017 and then March 2018.

At its March 2018 meeting, the appraisal committee noted a series of environmental concerns related to the project. It observed the “Special Economic Zone area is being utilised for agricultural purpose due to good groundwater resources...and it needs to be protected from overexploitation or its contamination by the effluents”.

The committee added that “it needs to be ensured there should not be any discharge of chemical constituents and heavy metals” in sea water and recommended industry categories that can be considered in the Special Economic Zone. “Considering the sea coast adjoining the proposed project site is known for the breeding grounds of olive ridley and green sea turtles and the quality of seawater is pristine as well as used for fishing activity by locals, no effluent discharge be allowed from drugs and pharmaceuticals, polymer and basic and allied chemical industries including dyeing operation in the textile industry,” it said. “As such these chemical industry categories cannot be considered to ensure that no chemical constituents find a way even through a stormwater drain during the rainy season.”

The panel asked that “shipbuilding activity should not result in any deterioration of sea water quality and suitable measures should be devised as olive ridley and green sea turtle are noticed in this area”. It also suggested that 2% of the project cost should be earmarked for sea turtle and other marine biodiversity conservation in the region, and that illumination at all places must be sea turtle friendly.

The committee noted that the “utility corridor will pass through stabilised sand dunes which is proposed to be utilised for conveyor belt for coal transportation, intake and outfall pipelines to sea as well as LNG pipeline, and road, all of which will pass above sand dunes” and “hence, the sand dunes should not be disturbed with structures and corridor should be built on stilts with minimum structural intervention”.

Five species of sea turtles are found in India, including the olive ridley, are they are all protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. They are also listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

India is one of the 28 signatories to the Indian Ocean Sea Turtle Agreement of the Convention on Migratory Species, and follows the conservation and management action plan developed jointly by the signatory states.

All five species of sea turtles found in India are protected under the country's wildlife law. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

‘Committed to protection of sea turtles’

Clearance to the project was initially deferred. But in the second week of August, the project proponent replied to all of the appraisal committee’s concerns. According to documents reviewed by Mongabay India, the company claimed groundwater will not be used in any stage of project, sand dunes will not be disturbed, pharma and chemical units proposed to be developed over 185 acres will be scrapped. The company will instead allocate these 185 acres for other units permitted by the environment ministry such as for making herbal medicines, allied plastics and solar panels.

“Effluents generated in shipbuilding activity will be treated and treated wastewater will be reused within the system, there will be no discharge into the harbour area,” the company added.

On the appraisal committee’s requirement of marine biodiversity conservation, the company said the Zoological Survey of India has conducted a detailed study on sea turtle nesting grounds at the location. “The project proponent is committed for protection of sea turtles and proposed conservation measures for turtle nesting around the project site,” the company said, adding that it has earmarked Rs 15.75 crore for conversing sea turtle and other marine animals. It also promised that “illumination near sea coast areas in shipyard cum captive jetties will be developed as sea turtle friendly”. Unsuitable lighting near nesting grounds can disorient turtle hatchlings and deter female turtles from nesting.

Following this, the appraisal committee, at its August 2018 meeting, considered the project. “The EAC, after detailed deliberations recommended the project for grant of environmental clearance,” read the minutes of the meeting. The panel is empowered to recommend or reject clearance to a project which is then finalised by the ministry. It is only rarely that the ministry overturns the expert committee’s recommendation.

While clearing the project, the appraisal panel stipulated specific conditions that “no groundwater shall be used at any stage of project, no pharma and chemical units will be housed within the SEZ, there shall be no discharge into the sea from shipbuilding activities, sand dunes will not be disturbed and flattened, turtle friendly illumination policy shall be adopted”.

It also recommended that Rs 35.70 crore “shall be earmarked for fishermen welfare activities to compensate the loss due to the temporary closure of fishing activities”.

A newborn olive ridley turtle. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Protecting the olive ridley

The environment ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee, meanwhile, has suggested granting clearance for the diversion of 157.70 hectares of forest land to expand the mining lease area of the Orissa Sands Complex in Odisha’s Ganjam. This forest land harbours an olive ridley nesting site. Odisha is one of the main Indian states where turtle nesting occurs.

The Orissa Sands Complex is one of the four production units of the Indian Rare Earths Limited, or IREL, an Indian government undertaking. In 1973, IREL was given a lease over 2994 hectares by the Odisha government to mine dune sand material for heavy minerals for a period of 20 years. The lease was later renewed till March 2019.

As per the minutes of the Forest Advisory Committee’s July 2018 meeting, it “recommended the proposal” with a series of general and specific conditions.

It stipulated that the approval “for the diversion of forest land shall be subject to Coastal Regulation Zone clearance, if applicable.”

The committee also noted that the “user agency’s work involves seashore sand mining, which is also the site for nesting of endangered olive ridley turtle”.

“The 52-km length of seashore is the location of nesting,” it added. “Out of this 5-km length of seashore with large sand beds on both sides of Rushikulya river is the mass nesting site, other areas are sporadic nesting sites”.

So, an area 2.5 km on either side of the river’s mouth should “be religiously conserved without any disturbance”. “The proposed compensatory land is found to be a natural habitat of peafowl and other shrub dwelling species, accordingly the existing thorny/shrubby vegetation ecosystem should be maintained, without any attempt to alter by undue overplanting,” the committee further said. “However, soil moisture conservation should be given prime focus with possible creation of small water bodies and planting shall also be limited and confined to local thorny, fruit-bearing species only.”

India has an extensive history of conserving olive ridley turtles. In Odisha, they come to the coast every year between November and December and stay on until April and May for nesting. But of late, nesting has been observed to start from late January to early February. They face serious threats across their migratory route, habitat and nesting beaches, due to human activities such as turtle unfriendly fishing practices, development and exploitation of nesting beaches for ports, and tourist centres.

They are also threatened by poaching, which is done for their meat, shell and leather, but most the serious threat to them is “entanglement in trawl nets and gill nets due to uncontrolled fishing around nesting beaches”.

According to the Indian Coast Guard, “over 1.3 lakh turtles are believed to have been killed after being entangled in the nets of mechanised fishing trawlers in the last 13 years”.

But central and state governments have been taking measures for their protection. For instance, to reduce the accidental entrapment and death of turtles, the Odisha government has made it mandatory for mechanised fishing trawlers to use turtle excluder devices, a specially designed net with an exit cover that retains the catch while allowing the turtles to escape.

The Indian Coast Guard undertakes an olive ridley turtle protection programme, called Operation Olivia, every year during which fishing boats found near marine reserve areas are checked for turtle excluder devices. Its efforts over the past 15 years have resulted in a “gradual drop in numbers of violating boats”.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.