Tata's secret project
PERHAPS no other enterprise of the staid house of Tatas has drawn as much flak from environmental and social activists as its Rs 20 crore Chilika Aquatic Farms Ltd. Many are puzzled why a business group that has steadfastly kept aloof from environmental controversies, should go to such lengths to go ahead with the project.
Aspi Kapadia, the Tata official who is in charge of the project, explained, "It is to express our sincere desire to help in the state's development." But opponents of the project, such as former state minister Banka Behary Das, alleges it is just a beginning and, "the Tatas will gradually corner a much larger part of the lake".
The Tata project envisages eight 50-ha ponds near Panaspada village for prawn culture, a hatchery with a capacity of 400 million, a feed mill with a single shift capacity of 4,000 tonnes per year and a seaside processing plant near Puri. Project officials have assured the lake will not be tapped and underground water will be pumped up instead. Also, prawn seeds (post-larval) for the project will come from the Tata hatchery.
Waste water from the project will drain into the Bhuvania channel, which is part of the lake, but only after it is cleansed of toxic substances. In fact, Tata officials maintained that because of these precautionary steps, the project will be only semi-intensive with a yield of just two to three tonnes per ha. This crop and prawns bought from small farmers through collection centres will be processed for export at the Tata plant coming up near Puri, the officials added.
The Tata project, negotiated initially in 1988 by then chief minister J B Patnaik and Russi Mody, was strongly opposed by the present chief minister, Biju Patnaik, at the onset, and he vowed if his Janata Dal came to power they would scrap the project, then known as Tata Aquatic Farms Ltd.
"When the present chief minister Biju Patnaik took over," Kapadia disclosed, "the project was off. But then there was a change of heart." The state government's equity base was hiked to 49 per cent, while Tata Steel and Tata Oil Mills took 30 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively, and 400 acres near Panaspada village were leased to the company, renamed Chilika Aquatic Farms Ltd.
Now that the company has gone ahead with the construction of the ponds, the people are left guessing as to what brought about Bijubabu's turnabout and why he will not listen to any criticism of the project or heed a plea that pond construction should be halted until an environmental impact assessment (EIA) is made.
Kapadia pointed out, however, the project is already behind schedule and there are cost overruns. "We want to take the first crop before the financial year closes," he said. As for EIA, "we are sure it will be in our favour because our own environmental assessments say there is nothing in the project to destabilise the lake system".
On the other hand, Das contends the project is being "rushed through" at the instance of the chief minister and even in opposition to a directive of Union environment minister Kamal Nath that the state government should suspend work until the EIA is completed. Work, for the moment, has stopped but environment secretary H S Sarkar contended, "It's because of the rains". He refused to reply when asked if the stoppage was in fact to comply with the Union government directive. Asked to comment on the environmental impact of the project, Sarkar said, "What is the difference between the Tatas and local traders? The Tatas, after all, are just more non-fisherfolk entering the lake".
What has aroused suspicion about the project is the secrecy shrouding it. "If everything is above board, why don't they give us a copy of the project report?" Das commented. This reporter's efforts to obtain a copy of the project report failed because Tata officials in Calcutta refused to let him see it and Sarkar described it as a secret document and said he didn't have a copy in any case, because the only copy that had come to him was one from the Union government. In such a secretive atmosphere, rumours abound. Das, for example, insists the project will pump the lake dry. "The plans are to install 100 pumps of 200 hp each. Imagine what they and the discharge of waste water will do to the lake's ecosystem", he said.
Kapadia dismisses these allegations, saying the pumps would have only 10 hp capacity and no water would be drawn from the lake. "In fact, by discharging water in the Bhuvania channel, we will protect the organisms that inhabit it and which, otherwise, die during the summer months," he said.
The most serious criticism of the project is that it will displace those who have been the lake's traditional beneficiaries. The villagers of Panaspada, for example, are concerned as the ponds are coming up in their traditional fishing grounds. Upstream villagers from Jaguleipada, for example, complain they are affected because they used the proposed project area for shelter when they went on extended fishing expeditions. "It is the only highland in the area and, now that it is inaccessible to us, we have no cover", said Ranganath Behera.
Kapadia dismissed these complaints also, saying they are engineered by the traders and dalals whose monopoly is threatened. "We have started collection centres and we have a big extension service programme in which we plan to give the local prawn farmers inputs like seeds and feed for the prawns," said Kapadia. "We will also buy their catch at higher prices than what the traders offer, and, naturally, they will be eliminated. The fisherfolk are in the grips of these middlemen now and our arrival just may help release them."
Das and those agitating against the Chilika project have no comment on the middlemen or on encroachment by non-fishing communities or on the marginalisation of traditional beneficiaries. "First let us stop the Tatas," Das said. "Then we can take care of these middlemen."