Port project in Maharashtra cleared by environment ministry despite opposition from fishing villages

  • As the controversial Vadhavan port project in Maharashtra awaits the union cabinet nod, fishing communities and marine researchers say that the project would have impacts on the biodiversity and marine life in the region.
  • The environment ministry granted environmental clearance for the project in February and the port authorities expect the construction to commence from October.
  • While the port authorities say that the port would provide employment and the fishers would be adequately compensated, a section of activists and fishing villages oppose the project.
  • The region is famous for ghol or blackspotted croaker fish called ‘sea gold’ which is prized for its medicinal value and listed as ‘near threatened’ in the IUCN Red List. Sea hare, porcelain crabs, starfish, soft corals, lobsters and more, are also found here.

In Vadhavan village, located in the Dahanu taluka of Maharashtra, the inter-tidal zone stretches over five square kilometres, interspersed with rocks and small pools dense with green marine algae or ulva and patches of soft maroon and bluish corals. Mangroves too form a border along the beach. In 2022, researchers identified 98.3 acres of mangroves in the vicinity of a proposed port area, classified as Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), which is ecologically sensitive. Just beyond the mangroves is a place of pilgrimage, marked by a few pillars where ceremonies are held and the ashes of those who are cremated, are scattered.

Mangroves near Vadhavan coast. Photo by Meena Menon.
Mangroves near Vadhavan coast. Photo by Meena Menon.

A rocky outcrop at Shankodhar point, an island off the coast of Vadhavan, also serves as a breeding ground for a variety of organisms including barnacles, molluscs, hydroids and corals. Some dolphins were also sited during a survey conducted by the National Institute of Oceanography, which documented at least 12 species of fauna. The presence of solitary cup corals (Paracyathus profundus) which are listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), was also noted.

The intertidal area supports artisanal fishing, with fisherfolk making a daily income of Rs. 300 to 400, according to Paresh Vinde from Varor, a village adjacent to Vadhavan, in Palghar district. Gold-die manufacturing, which helps in creating gold ornaments is another important occupation in the area and this income complements the income from fishing.

Bhushan Bhoir, a marine researcher, points out small treasures on the beach, such as sea hare, porcelain crabs, starfish, soft corals, as well as large expanses of ulva and broken pieces of corals. Deeper towards the sea, he finds a small ridge with a reddish outcrop of reforming coral or goniopora. These waters are also famous for ghol or blackspotted croaker fish called ‘sea gold’ which is prized for its medicinal value and other properties in East Asia.

Marine researcher Bhushan Bhoir finds reforming coral or goniporia in the intertidal region. Photo by Meena Menon.
Marine researcher Bhushan Bhoir finds reforming coral or goniporia in the intertidal region. Photo by Meena Menon.

A sea port is approved

In February this year, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) granted environmental clearance (EC) for a port project on a new offshore site of reclaimed land, 6.5 kilometres away from the seashore, beyond Shankodhar. It is expected to receive the union cabinet nod as well and the port authorities expect the construction to commence from October.

The Rs. 76,220-crore proposed port is to be built by Vadhavan Port Private Limited, a joint venture between Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) and the Maharashtra Maritime Board (MMB).

The Vadhavan port is proposed on a new offshore site of reclaimed land. Created with Datawrapper.

The total project area spreads over 17,471 hectares (ha), about a quarter of the size of Mumbai. Of which 16,900 ha form the port limits and 571 ha will be acquired for rail and road connectivity to the port. For reclamation, about 200 million cubic metres of sand (mcum) will be quarried from a marine burrow pit located 50 kilometres offshore at Daman coast. The reclamation will be carried out by filling the area with stones from quarries in Palghar taluka and sand off the coast of Daman.

While the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report for the port, states that this project is ‘proposed to [be] construct[ed] in such a way that, it will have minimal impact to the environment, fishery activities, mangroves and local’, fishing communities contest this claim, anticipating widespread impacts on land, livelihood and the environment. With the general elections having started, opposition to the port intensified in recent times with a decision to boycott polling and denial of entry to campaigning politicians. Protests have been held against the port by fishing communities and farmers in the area. In Vadhavan and Varor signs that say ‘no’ to the port can be spotted.

In a later development, the Prime Minister’s Office proposed a Hybrid Annuity Model (HAM) for the project, which has stalled the union cabinet clearance. The HAM model involves a private operator paying a substantial cost of the project of up to 60% and building the project, according to media reports.

JNPT chairman Unmesh Sharad Wagh told Mongabay India that all requisite studies were conducted, taking into account the impacts of rising sea levels and climate change. He said a port is a “non-industry and provides service to the vessels calling at port.” The cumulative impact assessment shows that the port did not increase any pollution load as it will function under ‘Green Norms and Smart Port’ with majority of operations on electric power, Wagh said. Since it is a container port, open handling of cargo will not be carried out. With respect to the impacts of climate change on the coast and the port infrastructure, Wagh shares that this has been deliberated by the MoEFCC. “The port has been designed considering the impact of global warming and allowance in the height of rising water of about 0.2 m is taken into account in designing of berth levels,” Wagh clarified. The construction of phase one of the port will commence from October 2024, while phase two is expected begin from 2030, he added.

Alleged inaccuracies in the claimed scope of the project

Activists had planned to challenge the EC in court on April 1. However, Devendra Tandel, president of the Akhil Maharashtra Machchimar Kruti Samiti, demanded the cancellation of the EC on the grounds of suppression of information. The Samiti represents fishers of Maharashtra and contended that the EC stated that there were no corals in the proposed port limit area, which was contrary to observations by the local fishermen and the documentation by Bhoir. Moreover, the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) contends there are no species listed under the IUCN red list, when in reality, the ghol is classified as ‘near threatened’.

Ghol or black spotted croaker. Photo by Hamid Badar Osmany/Wikimedia Commons.
Ghol or black spotted croaker, is prized for its medicinal value and other properties in East Asia. Photo by Hamid Badar Osmany/Wikimedia Commons.

In addition, Tandel points out that the scope of the project was different than what was mentioned in the terms of reference. While the JNPT contended there was no land acquisition, it proposes to quarry 1,176 ha of forest land in Palghar. Tandel also quoted from a 2019 report by the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) on the impact of oil spillages and threats at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS) located 12 kilometres from the proposed site of the port. It stated that “the spilled oil from the Hypothetical Spill Location (HSL) should be contained within 18 to 36 hours, so that the (sea water) intake and outfall zones of TAPS will not get affected.”

Despite this caution, the port received a ‘No Objection Certificate’ from the Department of Atomic Energy in July 2019 and was declared as a major port under the Indian Ports Act on February 19, 2020.

Wagh said that some aspects of the INCOIS report were taken out of context and that concerns of disaster mitigation were part of the Disaster Management Plan and the port will provide a dedicated berth and equipment for the Coast Guard [which handles oil spills].

In March 2024, the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Authority (JNPA) submitted an application to the MoEFCC to quarry 73 million tonnes of stones at seven locations, mostly hillocks, on forest land in Palghar taluka for breakwater, road and rail works, spread over 1,176 ha. While the EIA estimates that 8,000 trucks would ferry stones to the port site for construction every day for two years, it describes quarrying as “socially acceptable, environmentally benign and technically feasible”. Wagh shared that the area required for quarrying stones is only 60 ha and that mining will be planned accordingly after geophysical survey of the area.

Apart from this, 571 ha, 30 percent of which was forest land, would be needed for road and rail connectivity. According to the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) conducted for the Vadhavan port, largely agricultural land of 201.15 ha will be acquired from 10 villages from Dahanu taluka and 11 villages in Palghar taluka. Additionally, about 10,179 trees will be cut.

Tandel also counters JNPT’s justification for the port (the availability of a deep draft of 20 m.), pointing out that the Nhava Sheva port near Mumbai, already has a terminal with a deep draft of 16.5 m. enough for the world’s largest container ships. He anticipates that the Vadhavan port and breakwater would increase flooding during the monsoon and sea water ingress.

JNPT port. Photo by Ccmarathe/Wikimedia Commons.
Nhava Sheva port near Mumbai, is the second largest container port in India. Photo by Ccmarathe/Wikimedia Commons.

Dilution of laws

Palghar district has four major projects – the bullet train, the Vadodara-Mumbai Expressway, Western Dedicated Freight Corridor and the Vadhavan port – for which nearly 3,000 hectares have been acquired so far from more than 150 villages. Demands for a cumulative impact assessment by activists have been in vain. Debi Goenka, executive trustee of Conservation Trust in his critique of the EIA, states that the proposed port was in violation of the approved Master Plan/Regional Plan of Dahanu Taluka, as well as the Supreme Court order, dated October 31, 1996, which prohibits any change in land use.

Read more: Future tense for ecologically sensitive Dahanu

Importantly, Goenka pointed out that the Shoreline Change Atlas of India, Volume 2 Maharashtra and Goa 2014, prepared by the Space Applications Centre (ISRO) and Coastal Erosion Directorate shows that this coastal area is eroding. Therefore, as per the CRZ, the proposed port cannot be constructed at this location.

A series of government decisions have dismantled the protection accorded to Dahanu taluka as an ecologically fragile area, including a declaration that a port was not an industry under the ‘red’ category of polluting industries. In response to a query from the Ministry of Shipping to clarify whether a port falls in a category detrimental to the environment, the MoEFCC on June 8, 2020, stated that as per directions of the Central Pollution Control Board, a port was no longer a red category industry. Though worldwide, ports are held to be a ‘significant source of global air pollution’, in India, ports, harbours, jetties and dredging operations are now listed as non-industrial operations and excluded from the red category.

The Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA), was also stripped of its three long-standing independent experts who dissented against the Vadhavan port and criticised the EIA and other reports for their shoddiness in 2023. Subsequently, the DTEPA in a lengthy order on July 31, 2023, approved the port, departing from an earlier order of September 1998, opposing a port proposal at Vadhavan by P and O, an Australian company. The 2023 DTEPA approval for the port has been challenged in the Bombay High Court by the Conservation Action Trust as well as other organisations. On April 18, the court upheld the DTEPA order and agreed that the Authority had taken “all relevant aspects into consideration”.

On January 19, 2024, residents of fishing villages and those nearby the port thronged a public hearing conducted by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB). Amid demands to cancel the hearing as the project related documents were not made available in Marathi, there were 51,991 objections and suggestions, according to the minutes of the hearing uploaded on the MPCB site. Wagh contended that most of the local people supported the project as was evident from the responses submitted for the public hearing and all relevant documents and reports were submitted to the affected gram panchayats.

Brian Lobo of Kashtakari Sanghatana pointed out that all the studies under the environmental terms of reference were not conducted. He said that studies related to the site of sand sourcing i.e. Daman and the port reclamation area were incomplete as were studies of mammals and their movements and fish aggregation. While the EIA report was made available to gram panchayats, it was not sent to the 56 fishermen’s societies and associations from Mumbai to Palghar. There were concerns that this large amount of landfilling would cause the sea water to rise and flood the villages.

Impacts on biodiversity, livelihoods and climate change  

Tandel said that the natural harbour off Vadhavan was a place for the ghol fish and several species of lobsters and fish, oysters, and coral, whose breeding would be impacted. There are 3,000 fishing vessels registered from Palghar to Vasai, he said, employing so many people. There are 5,333 families depending on fishing in the six villages of Dhakti Dahanu, Dahanu, Chinchani, Ghivali, Gungwada and Dhumket while the remaining ten villages have 7,525 fishers. However, while about 3,537 were involved in fishing there were 7,580 allied workers and nearly 6,500 fisherwomen who were involved in the post-harvest management who sold and sorted the catch.

A fisherwoman collects shellfish and molluscs off Vadhavan coast. Photo by Meena Menon.
A fisherwoman collects shellfish and molluscs off Vadhavan coast. Photo by Meena Menon.

The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) which conducted the fishery survey, reported 126 species of fish, including 86 species of teleost, four sharks, 20 crustaceans and 13 molluscs. In the area where sand is to be dredged off Daman, 16 fish species were recorded apart from spade nose sharks and a variety of lobster, shrimp and shellfish. Bhoir contended that secondary data was used by the Zoological Survey of India for the study at Daman, and the site where sand was going to be dredged for landfill off the coast of Daman was a breeding site for famous bombil or Bombay duck fish. Strangely, he said there was no mention of ghol, or dhara, and only common fish were Bombay duck, prawns, anchovies, pomfrets, seer and lobsters.

Suggesting mitigation measures, the CSIR-NIO report concludes that reclamation and dredging could have serious impacts which might alter the coastal hydrology, affecting larval dispersal, availability of food resources, and migration of marine mammals. In the case of dredging, there would be increased turbidity and sedimentation affecting the fish present in the area, with impacts including behavioural changes, reduced growth, temporary or permanent loss of hearing, reduced foraging behaviour and physiological changes.

Green marine algae called ulva and star fish near Vadhavan. Photo by Meena Menon.
Green marine algae called ulva and star fish near Vadhavan. Photo by Meena Menon.

However, the EIA concludes that the proposed port would have a minimal impact on the environment, and that one metre of sand dredging was not expected to “create a significant physical impact”. In contrast, other studies point out that marine habitats are permanently lost where land is reclaimed from the sea and nearly 51% of coastal wetlands in China have been lost due to land reclamation.

A fisher, Ramdas Vinde said, “The government wants to develop this area with the port but we are already developed. We have a thriving gold-die and fishing business. We employ so many people. Instead of developing us the government is destroying us.” Even if the port developers assure the community that villages won’t be displaced, Vinde said they would have to leave as living next to such large port would deprive them of a livelihood and they fear that they would be displaced. The government has also underestimated the number of affected people as there were more than 50,000 living in the seven villages in the vicinity of the proposed port, Vijay Vinde said. Last year, 39 gram panchayats passed resolutions against the port and the general elections in 2019 were boycotted by many in the area.

Despite documented sea level rise, reclamation continues unabated even in Mumbai’s coastal road of 111 ha in the Arabian Sea. Critics have described the reclamation as ‘ocean grabbing’ and pointed out underestimations of the impact of the coastal road in the EIA for that project. In addition, the Arabian Sea has witnessed an increasing number of cyclones since 1998.

Declaring a port a non-hazardous or non-red category industry calls for a rethink, say the project opponents. However, the JNPT contends that all the required reports and studies were carried out and the affected fishers and other residents would be adequately compensated. In addition, the port would provide employment and develop the area, it says.


Banner image: Artisanal fishermen from Varor village with their day’s catch. Photo by Meena Menon.

Exit mobile version