Federalism or Make in India? How Modi govt is bypassing Jayalalithaa over Kamarajar port

KPL and thermal power plants in the area have already disturbed the hydrology of Ennore creek area
Federalism or Make in India? How Modi govt is bypassing Jayalalithaa over Kamarajar port
Federalism or Make in India? How Modi govt is bypassing Jayalalithaa over Kamarajar port

One wonders if Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa knows how easy it is for businesses to render her redundant when it suits them.

Federalism, it appears, is the latest victim of the Union Government's efforts to enhance the “ease of doing business.”

In a parting decision that undermines the Government of Tamil Nadu's jurisdiction, former environment minister Prakash Javadekar has conveyed to corporations that law will not be allowed to stand in the way of commercial expediency. The case in point involves Kamarajar Port Ltd (KPL) – a 100 percent Government of India-owned mini-Navratna that is set to expand by eating into the ecologically sensitive Ennore Creek.

On June 2, 2016, KPL put out an advertisement announcing a public hearing – a statutory requirement under environmental law -- for the third phase expansion of its port in North Chennai. The public hearing is scheduled to be held on August 5, 2016, inside the port premises. KPL, which is one of three ports within a 20 km stretch of Chennai coast, is already unpopular among the local fishing communities who accuse it of encroaching on wetlands and disturbing the ecology and hydrology of the Ennore creek.

The creek is a complex network of tidal wetlands that sprawl on all three sides of the port area. In the lead up to the last monsoons, KPL was caught red-handed on several occasions as it dumped sand dredged from its harbour onto the river and mangroves to create land for ancillary facilities that were part of its yet-to-be-authorised third phase expansion. As recently as in June 2016, the company was caught having dumped earth on a portion of the Buckingham Canal to build a truck parking lot by filling up the waterbody.

So resolute was the company in its bid to reclaim wetlands that even the disastrous Chennai floods of 2015 did not deter it. It was only after the fisherfolk from six creek-side villages physically stopped the dumping did the Tamil Nadu State Coastal Zone Management Authority (TNCZMA) act by setting up a three-member scientific committee to look into the matter. The committee's report dated January 22, 2016 confirmed that the dumping of dredged material by KPL in two out of three locations was “a clear violation by the Kamarajar Port, Ennore against the CRZ clearances accorded.”

Irate fisherfolk have not let up the pressure. KPL's dreams, which involve converting hundreds of acres of wetland into real estate for warehouses and free trade zones, is a nightmare for the fisherfolk who say fish catch has already dwindled due to the pollution and encroachment by power plants and the port.

In April 2016, they along with Coastal Resource Centre -- an NGO campaign advised by the author -- released the report of a public hearing conducted by retired Madras High Court judge D. Hariparanthaman that found that KPL had encroached on waterbodies and endangered lives and livelihoods by doing so.

If it had followed the law – the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 2011 -- KPL would have to first approach the TNCZMA to begin the process of securing environmental license for its third phase expansion. Perhaps, fearing that the State Government may have become more sensitive to complaints about encroachment on waterbodies after last year's lashing, KPL bypassed the state and went directly to the Union Ministry.

An Expert Appraisal Committee set up by the Ministry to ensure that due process is followed has processed KPL's application without question and granted TORs for an Environmental Impact Assessment on January 8, 2016. In the month that followed, KPL wrote three times to the Committee seeking an exemption from a public hearing. Thankfully and inexplicably, the Committee did not relent on that count.

The EIA based on which the legally questionable public hearing is to be held is fatally flawed. It fails to name the fishing villages in the vicinity of the port. Despite the fact that the masterplan for the Phase III expansion is centred on converting large portions of waterbody into land, the EIA makes no mention of it. Worse, it states that port expansion will have no impact on the Ennore Creek or surrounding areas.

KPL and thermal power plants in the area have already disturbed the hydrology of the area by filling up portions of the river and blocking ingress to the creek. In 2015, these downstream encroachments took their toll as areas as far upstream as Sadayankuppam, Manali New Town and Burma Colony were inundated for more than a week due to blocked drainage routes. But the damage done to date pales in magnitude when seen against what is planned for the area.

Until now, Ennore's fisherfolk have been approaching state-level authorities. But now they are confused about the powers of the state versus the centre in this new era of growth on steroids.

Nityanand is a Chennai-based writer and social activist, and an advisor to the Coastal Resource Centre which offers research and legal support to fisher communities in Ennore.

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