Turtles lose to coastal projects in Gujarat and Odisha

  • Expert panels of India’s environment ministry have recommended green clearance to two industrial projects near turtle nesting sites.
  • Of the two projects, one is in the Kutch area of Gujarat for the development of a multipurpose Special Economic Zone and a Free Trade Warehousing Zone (FTWZ) while the other one is in Ganjam (Odisha) for mining of heavy minerals. The panels have stipulated conditions for the welfare and conservation of turtles.
  • Olive ridley turtles are a vulnerable species found inhabiting warm waters around the world. They are most well known for their unique mass nesting behaviour where hundreds female turtles return to the beaches that they were hatched in, to lay their eggs at the same time.
  • India is observing Wildlife Week from October 2-8. Through the week, Mongabay-India will feature stories on India’s diverse species, why we celebrate them and what ails them.

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

The expert panels of the Indian government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) have recently recommended green clearances for two separate projects that involve nesting grounds for olive ridley turtles. The nod for green clearances may not spell happiness for the turtles even though the expert committees have tried to ensure the highest safety for the marine creatures.  

One of the projects that has sought environmental and CRZ clearance is the development of a multi-product Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and a Free Trade Warehousing Zone (FTWZ) in Kutch district of Gujarat, estimated to cost Rs. 392.43 billion (Rs. 39,243 crore).

The SEZ industrial project covers 3147.7 acres and includes a thermal power plant, a gas-based power plant and other units.

The recommendation for environmental and coastal regulation zone (CRZ) clearance was given in the August 30-31, 2018 meeting of the MoEFCC’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for infrastructure projects. The project had first come up for clearance in 2016 and was considered in EAC’s meeting in August 2016, September 2016, October 2017 and then March 2018.

In its March 2018 meeting, the EAC noted a series of environmental concerns related to the project. It observed that that “SEZ area is being utilised for agriculture purpose due to good groundwater resources with water level 2.84 m to 7.19 m and it needs to be protected from overexploitation or its contamination by the effluents.”

EAC also noted that “it needs to be ensured that there should not be any discharge of chemical constituents and heavy metals” in the sea water and recommended industry categories that can be considered in the SEZ.

“Considering the sea coast adjoining proposed project site is known for breeding ground of olive ridley and green sea turtle and 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. As such these chemical industries categories cannot be considered to ensure that no chemical constituents find a way even through a stormwater drain during the rainy season,” the committee had noted.

It had also said that it “is to be ensured that shipbuilding activity should not result in any deterioration of sea water quality and suitable measures to devised, as olive ridley and green sea turtle are noticed in this area.” The expert panel had also noted that two percent project cost should be earmarked for sea turtle and other marine biodiversity conservation in the region and that illumination at all installations must be sea turtle friendly.

Environment ministry’s expert panels tried to ensure maximum safety to turtles while clearing the two proposals. Photo by Anirnoy/Wikimedia Commons.

The committee had noted that the “utility corridor will pass through stabilized sand dunes which is proposed to be utilized 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.”

The project proponent assures full protection for turtles

The clearance to the project was initially deferred. Subsequently, in second week of August 2018, the project proponent replied on all the EAC’s concerns.

As per the documents reviewed by Mongabay-India, the project proponent in response to the EAC’s observations, informed that groundwater will not be used in any stage of project, sand dunes will not be disturbed and flattened, pharma (135 acres) and chemical (45 acres) sector proposed in an area of 185 acres will not be developed (as desired by EAC) and in lieu of that the project proponent will allocate 185 acres for various industries permitted by the MoEFCC including herbal medicines, allied plastics and for installing solar panels.

“Effluents generated in shipbuilding activity will be treated in ETP (ZLD system) and treated wastewater will be reused within the system, there will be no discharge into the harbour area,” the project proponent told EAC.

On the EAC requirement of marine biodiversity conservation in the region, the project proponents responded that a detailed study for the existence of sea turtle nesting ground at the proposed location was carried out by the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI).

“The project proponent is committed for protection of sea turtles and proposed conservation measures for turtle nesting around the project site,” said the project proponent while informing that Rs. 157.5 million (Rs. 15.75 crores) are earmarked for sea turtle and other marine biodiversity conservation works. The company also promised that the “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 EAC, in its August 2018 meeting, considered the project.

“The EAC, after detailed deliberations recommended the project for grant of environmental clearance,” said the minutes of the meeting. EAC recommends or rejects clearance to a project which is then finalised by the MoEFCC but it is only in rare cases that the ministry overturns the expert committee’s recommendation.

EAC while clearing the project 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.”

The expert committee also recommended that an amount of Rs. 357 million (Rs. 35.70 crores) “shall be earmarked for fishermen welfare activities to compensate the loss due to the temporary closure of fishing activities.’

All five species of turtles are protected under India’s wildlife laws. Photo by Pawar Pooja/Wikimedia Commons.

All the five species of sea turtles found in India, including the olive ridley turtles, are protected under India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Their population is also considered ‘vulnerable’ under IUCN’s Red List.

India is a signatory to the Indian Ocean Sea Turtle Agreement (IOSEA) of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and follows the conservation and management action plan that is jointly developed by the 28 signatory states of the IOSEA agreement.

Another project in Odisha given clearance

Meanwhile, another project that sought clearance from the forest advisory committee was regarding the diversion of 157.702 hectares of forest land within total mining lease area of 2464.054 hectare in Ganjam area (Odisha) in favour of Orissa Sands Complex (OSCOM) of the Indian Rare Earths Limited for mining and separation of heavy minerals like ilmenite, rutile, zircon, sillimanite, garnet and monazite from beach sand.

The project area sought for diversion involves nesting site of the olive ridley turtles. Odisha is one of the main states in India where turtle nesting occurs.

OSCOM is one of the four production units of IREL, a fully owned Indian government undertaking. In 1973, IREL was given mining lease over 7,400 acres (2994.7 hectares) by Odisha government for mining of dune sand material for heavy minerals, in Ganjam district, for a period of 20 years. Following that, the mining lease was renewed till March 2019.

As per the minutes of the MoEFCC’s Forest Advisory Committee’s (FAC) July 2018 meeting, the forest panel “recommended the proposal under FCA 1980” with series of general and specific conditions.

It stipulated that the approval “for the diversion of forest land shall be subject to CRZ 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.”

It added: “The 52-kilometre length of seashore is the location of nesting … Out of this five 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, the area involving five km distance (2.5 km on both sides of Rushikuylya river mouth) to 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. 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,” FAC noted in the minutes of its July 2018 meeting.

A newborn olive ridley turtle. Photo by Thangaraj Kumaravel/Wikimedia Commons.

Olive ridley turtles has a history of extensive protection and conservation in the country. In Odisha, they come on the coast every year between November and December and stay on until April and May for nesting. But off-late, nesting has even 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 due to poaching (which is done for their meat, shell and leather) but most 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 governments have also been taking several measures for their protection. For instance, to reduce the accidental entrapment and death of turtles, the Odisha Government has made it mandatory for the mechanized fishing trawlers to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs), which is a specially designed net with an exit cover that retains the catch while allowing the turtles to escape.

The Indian Coast Guard also undertakes an “olive ridley Turtle protection program under the code name Operation Olivia every year during which fishing boats found close to marine reserve area are regularly checked by ship’s boarding party to confirm the use of TEDs. Its cumulative operation efforts over the past 15 years have resulted in a “gradual drop in numbers of violating boats” over the time.

Banner Image: A young olive ridley turtle. Photo by Pawar Pooja/Wikimedia Commons.

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