India’s Tata is running into trouble with Greenpeace and other environmental groups. Environmentalists accuse Tata – which has recently made world headlines with reports about its takeover of Jaguar and Land-Rover cars, and the creation of its tiny Nano car – of causing harm to rare sea turtles off India’s east coast.
The groups claim that Tata began construction of a new port at Dhamra in the state of Orissa without obtaining proper environmental clearances and without honoring commitments made by Ratan Tata, the company’s chairman, to take care of the environmental problems before the project was started.
After weeks of silence, Dhamra Port Company Ltd (DPCL), a 50-50 joint venture between Tata Steel and Larsen & Toubro (L&T), an Indian construction company, rebutted the accusations at a press conference earlier this week. But this does not seem to have stemmed the tide of criticism and it looks as if Tata’s generally good international image as one of India’s most caring and responsible business houses will suffer.
Dhamra is a small ancient port, which the government wants to develop with a $600 million project so that it can handle large deep-draft ships that are needed to serve mineral-rich areas of Orissa and two other nearby states, Jharkhand and West Bengal.
The environmental dispute has been building up for several years because the site is less than five kilometers from India’s second largest mangrove forest. More importantly, it is less than 15 kms north of one of the world’s largest mass nesting grounds used by literally thousands of endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles every year. At night, the turtles crawl out of the sea up sandy beaches where they dig holes to hide their eggs before disappearing back into the sea.
Environmentalists agree with the company that the port is not located in a nesting area, but claim that the turtles forage and mate in waters near the port site and the Dhamra river mouth, and thatthey will be killed by dredging and shipping. This has been supported by various international experts and by a specialist committee appointed by India’s supreme court which said four years ago that the project would “seriously impact” the nesting.
Santosh Mohapatra, DPCL’s CEO, told me earlier this week that some turtles might go close to the port site, but that all the turtles come from the south and that the vast majority will not go anywhere near the port and its ships. The environmentalists have also claimed that the turtles will be scared away by the port’s bright lights. On that, Mohapatra says his company is testing non-glare lighting and will, if necessary, turn the lights off in the nesting season for ten to 15 days a year.
But the environmentalists are not satisfied. Greenpeace says that more than 70,000 people have signed internet-generated letters of protest to Ratan Tata. Last week volunteers lit thousands of candles in a vigil outside his Mumbai home.
It looks like an impasse because DPCL says 20% of the construction work has been done. It is clear that there is no chance of it abandoning the site. The environmentalists seem however to have some of their facts wrong, now that Greenpeace has moved in on a subject that was being handled by Indian wildlife groups, led by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) and the Wildlife Society of Orissa (WSO). They claimed that BNP Paribas bank cancelled a planned loan (which I gather was for about $125 million) because of the row, whereas Mohapatra says the loan has been suspended because it would exceed limits allowed by India’s foreign currency regulations.
Tata has been caught up in other development and environmental controversies, and not all, it has to be said, of its own making. Tribal people have clashed with police at a site in Orissa where it is building a steel plant and there has been continuing and sometimes violent unrest since last year at Singur in West Bengal where it wants to build a factory to make its Nano car. It has also been accused of causing poisoning from chromate mines at Sukhinda, also in Orissa, and a pesticides plant in Andhra Pradesh was criticized four years ago for dumping toxic waste.
It is probably inevitable that a group as big and diversified as Tata will have some such difficulties, but the problem for it now is that they are likely to be highlighted if it does not break the Dhamra deadlock and work out a solution that will allow the port to be built while protecting the turtles.
India has an extremely rich wildlife heritage ranging from tigers to turtles, and both government and industry need to find ways of working with those who want to protect the best of that heritage, preferably before professional international protestors such as Greenpeace move in.