Alchemy of development

The chemical hub at the young island of Nayachar, close to the delicate eco zone of Bay of Bengal and Sunderbans, might spell a disaster

Nilanjan Dutta Kolkata

Two years ago, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya had declared following the massacre of 14 protesters at Nandigram on March 14, 2007, that the 'chemical hub' would not be set up there. The government, however, did not abandon the project that was to be a landmark in its course of 'industrialisation'. It looked for a place where there would be no such resistance against land acquisition, and landed up in a virgin estuarine island called Nayachar, close to Nandigram and the port town of Haldia.

Here, the policy makers thought, there was no question of anybody objecting, since hardly any people lived there. Only a few hundred fisher-folk used the place as their fishing base and for drying their catch. They, of course, would have to make a little sacrifice in greater public interest.

On the eve of Lok Sabha elections, the ruling Left Front has had a cause for celebration as the relocated project received central clearance. The Front is going full steam ahead in its poll campaign with its slogan of development and industrialisation, projecting the chemical hub as the best illustration of its sincere efforts to realise the dream. "My children will get employment here. Why should they go outside the state? I want industry," says the caption with the iconic face of a woman of the soil on billboards.

Trinamool Congress leaders had expressed their disapproval after the clearance came in on February 23, 2009. But the issue was submerged in the conundrum over coalitions. After all, how important could an almost barren island be in terms of electoral calculations?

So, the Nayachar issue is left for a handful of eco-conscious people's movement activists to shout over. And their voice is not audible enough to have created a tangible social impact, even though independent scientists such as geologist, Subrata Sinha, and geographer, Kalyan Rudra, have lent their support.

But why oppose an industrial project which is not going to cause large-scale human displacement?

It is the very location of the project that is alarming. Nayachar, also known as Meendwip, is an extremely delicate ecological zone. The island is situated at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal where the rivers Haldi and Hooghly meet, about 10km from the Sunderban Biosphere Reserve. At present, it covers about 49 sq km. 'At present', because the land is still young - it surfaced as late as 1936 and has gradually taken up its present shape. Geologists doubt whether it has reached a point of stability or is still in the process of formation. Many such islands have risen and sunk on the Bay of Bengal in the last 100 years, and the fate of this one, too, may be like them.

Being only 1.5 metre above mean sea level, Nayachar goes under about five metres of water when the waters rise during high tides. The 'development' plan says that the land will be elevated to a safe level. Rudra has estimated that it would require 245 million cubic metres of soil. Where will this huge amount of earth come from? The total amount of sediment dredged by the Kolkata Port Trust in a year is about 20 million cubic metre. If that is to be the source of material, it would take more than 12 years. And if the material is to be brought in by trucks, then it will be about 35 million truckloads of soil. Sheer madness, one may say.

This may not seem too absurd to those who plan to set up a gigantic, hazardous industrial complex on the fragile coast.

Aware that it would grossly violate the law of the land, they have tried to play with the law itself. While the whole of Nayachar matched perfectly with the characteristics of the most vulnerable Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) I, they have now reclassified large parts of the island as CRZ III, indicating that it is not so sensitive. The question is, will nature agree to play along?

The setting up of the chemical hub is likely to have far-reaching impact on the surrounding environment. It is feared that the mangroves of the Sunderbans would be at stake. The fish stock would be affected by the discharge of toxic chemicals, and affect the health of the millions of people who feed on them. The water of the Hooghly, which is the source of municipal water for the densely populated areas on its banks, may in course of time become unfit for human use.

There are more questions regarding the nature of the chemical hub. What exactly will it produce? All we have been told is that it will be a Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemical Investment Region (PCPIR), a kind of SEZ. Who will be the investors? Will it be just the Salem group -- friends of genocidal Indonesian dictators for whom land was being acquired at Nandigram - that will be entrusted with the charge of this veritable ecocide? Or are there more of its kind lurking around who have been banished from Europe and North America for their risky operations? In whose interest is the billboard mother being made to believe that a highly capital-intensive and hazardous chemical industry can make her children's - and their children's - future secure?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: April 2009