As we walked along Randh Bander talking to the few fishing families who were the last ones to head towards their village for a community festival, we heard determination and distress at the same time. Smiles surrounded the sunset at the traditional fishing harbour, and conversations as easy as mending nets, anchoring boats and bringing in small fish catch for dinner. But there was also worry, and a strong will among the people to conserve their coastline and protect their fishing livelihoods.

Bhadreshwar is considered to be the second largest fish production centre on the Kutch coast in Gujarat. It is estimated that nearly 6000 fisherfolk from Bhadreshwar, Luni, Tuna and Sangad villages have been using the Bander for traditional fishing for over 200 years. Boat fishing is carried out upto 10 km from the coast and pagadiya (on foot) fishing is carried out on a 10-km stretch along the coast (5 km on each side of the Bander).

A recent National Assessment of Shoreline Change showed the Bhadreshwar coast in red - meaning that it is eroding rapidly, with rising risks of frequent and destructive flooding, compromised water supplies and smaller or fewer beaches. The assessment was carried out by Institute of Ocean Management, Anna University, Chennai, as part of a first-of-its-kind shoreline mapping initiative sponsored by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

Randh Bander

Steamrolling the regulations

I have written earlier in India Together (read this article) about procedural flaws and irreversible environmental impacts due to the construction of a thermal power plant by OPG Power Gujarat Private Limited (a Special Purposed Vehicle (SPV) promoted by the OPG Group, based in Chennai), along this fragile coast.

The company made only limited disclosures to the locals and the state environment authorities of its plans to set up a 300 (2x150) MW plant. And without waiting for approval at the state level, the company, OPG simultaneously sought approval from the MoEF to expand this original plants from 300 to 2600 MW. It was only after the local group Machimar Adhikar Sangharsh Samiti (MASS) brought this to the notice of MoEF that the ministry rejected the company's application.

Meanwhile, the environment clearance given for the first phase (300 MW) was challenged before the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA). The primary contention was that the mandatory public hearings for the project were not carried out. The company claimed it had met its obligations to informa the local people fully, but this was disputed by the locals themselves. Unfortunately, before this could be sorted out the NEAA itself was wound up, leaving the matter in limbo (see .

All of this didn't stop the company from announcing its Bhoomi Puja in November 2010. The state government's clear directions that "the project proponent shall not start any construction/project-enabling activities unless and until environmental clearance as well as all requisite prior permissions/clearances are obtained" was simply ignored.

Recent developments

In July last year, the company suffered a setback; its proposal to build an intake channel to the thermal power plant was rejected by MoEF's Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for Building Construction, Coastal Regulation Zone, Infrastructure Development and Miscellaneous projects in July 2010. The committee felt that the coastal environment would be negatively impacted by the construction of an open channel, and instead suggested that OPG could consider the construction of a pipeline instead, to provide for water requirements of the 300 MW plant.

The construction of the expanded plant itself would still need to be reviewed by the EAC; and so would the proposal for a pipeline, if that option is chosen. The company was also directed to seek recommendations for a revised proposal from the Gujarat State Coastal Zone Management Authority.

The EAC met again on 14-15 February 2011, to once again discuss the intake and outflow for the thermal power plant, as required under the rules for construction in the Coastal Regulation Zone. The agenda of the meeting does not specify what was discussed - a pipeline or an open channel - and there continues to be mixed news from anonymous sources on whether or not the EAC recommended approval of the company's proposal.

Site inspection reveals violations

Meanwhile, responding to a series of tireless submissions, memoranda and requests from the local struggle groups, fisherfolk as well as media outcry, one MoEF representative visited the Bhadreshwar coast for a site inspection in December 2010. In his site inspection report A Senthilvel, Additional Director, MOEF remarked that the site is fenced by barbed wires and also cleared of vegetation. With regards to the site for intake channel, the report observed that the intertidal area is more than 2-3 kms, which is large. Further, "the entire stretch is a mud flat, which is highly biologically protective. The coastal waters are known for Bombay duck fishery. The fish catch was also seen in abundance."

This report also highlighted the fact that the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for the project, based on which the environment clearance was granted did not cover a very crucial aspects of the poor road conditions in the area and the huge impacts of the movement of coal in the region.

To quote the report, "the imported coal is proposed to be transported from Mundra port, which is 25 km from the site and Kandla Port, which is 48 km. The indigenous coal would be brought by ship to the port or by road or by railway line. As per the information provided the coal would be transported from these ports through covered trucks. As per the information about 150 to 200 coal trucks are expected to move daily. This would be in addition to the fly ash that will be moved out from the project site." This, the report says, is not appropriate from the environmental angle and such traffic through villages is not called for.

During the site visit, if was found that OPG's machinery such as cement mixers were stashed behind bushes. Concrete pits was also covered with mud, hiding the fact that the pits were dug for laying foundation. Photographs were also submitted to the representative as evidence of such steps.

Based on this report, the MoEF issued a show-cause notice to OPG on 15 December 2010, asking why the environment clearance should not be cancelled. The Ministry also instructed that status quo be maintained on the site, implying no further construction. OPG were to file their response within 15 days. Oddly, this apparently strong step includes some mixed signals. While issuing a show-casue notice threatening to cancel the whole project, MoEF has not put any of the ongoing steps on hold. The scrutiny of the application by the company to get CRZ clearance for the intake channel or pipeline will go ahead.

The final fate of Bhadreshwar and Randh Bander depends now on decisions made in corridors of power far from where the impacts will be felt. Already I regret not being able to witness the magic of the flamingoes on the coast. "Kunj," said a fisherman, "had not come this year. Next year perhaps", he added hopefully.