By Bibhuti Pati
Nobody really knows whether any environmental impact assessment has been done before mooting for such types of proposals like Coastal High Ways or Water Airway. But it is a different issue that the environment concerns are given a go bye when the government wishes to go ahead with the project.
One fisherman says, “Coastal Roads and Water Airport (CRAWA) is only a corporate colludes in Chilika. Through this so called development project of CRAWA, Chilika will be a consortiums carouse and colonize of the corporate people. It is only corporate cryptic development caress for Chilika, which will bring careworn and cynicism in Chilika’s periphery but at the same time it will create corporate cacophony on Chilika. This CRAWA is not Chilika’s crony, it is a big crick on Chilika. By the help of some political leaders, corporate people are trying to do a covert development on Chilika through their crayons and crap. If the Govt of Odisha approved to CRAWA’s crayon crap then it is a big cataclysmic for Chilika. Like the cobwebby “Prawn Gheries” now Chilika is suffering in chronic croup and is in coma. Chilika’s croon has already stopped. In this critical time of Chilika, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik should clearly clarify to the people of Odisha that his Govt. will cumber to Chilika’s CRAWA project or prepare a catafalque for Chilika. Nature lover and keen environmentalist Naveen Patnaik will save Chilika’s own canoe, creel, creek, curlew, cockle, coot and coo; this is also a big question in front of every Odia. Therefore the people of Odisha should decide at this juncture, are they allowing and supporting this politicians-corporate churlish coup in Chilika? But it is very clear that this corporate-politicians’ CRAWA conceit and craftiness in very much cragginess on Chilika. If we the people of Odisha will allow and support them then very soon our comely Chilika will be a cistern for our future generations!”
Threat to the pristine Chilika lake in the Odisha coast seems be a never ending saga. As if all the so called development interventions in the lake were not enough to nail the coffin for the ecology of the lake, now the Union Civil Aviation ministry has come out with a new proposal – an aerodrome for the sea planes right inside the lake. The two local BJD MLA Maheswar Mohanty and Sanjay Dasburma have opposed the move of the Modi and Nitin Gadkari’s Ministry on the ground that the sensitive ecosystem for the lake will be threatened due the sea aerodrome. Chilika is home to the dolphins, those are very sensitive to environment and it also is the temporary home for the migratory birds that throng the lake for nesting.
Nobody really knows whether any environmental impact assessment has been done before mooting for such types of proposals like Coastal High Ways or Water Airway. But it is a different issue that the environment concerns are given a go bye when the government wishes to go ahead with the project. But Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan is batting in favour of the aerodrome as it will bring tourists to this part of the state and that will give a boost to the local livelihoods. But the critiques have a different note. “How many tourists it will bring and how many fishermen will lose their livelihood for the sea planes? The tourists who will come by sea planes, will they contribute to the local’s income? They certainly will be catered by the high end hotels, not the local people” says a local activist.
On the other hand one local person said, “Just for 2019 election campaign and vote bank this is BJP’s day dream declaration project. When the project will start and when it will finish no confirmation. Like the Coastal High Ways project it is another ‘Haawa Baaji’ for public. And it is clear this kind of so-called development project will not really bring the development or growth of Chilika or for locals. No environmental impact assessments have been complete although several years passed for coastal high ways project. If the politician or political parties are really concern for Chilika, then they should work first to preserve Chilika’s environment and biodiversity. Otherwise everything will fail.”
Chilika, the largest brackish water in lagoon in Asia, already faced with myriad issues threatening its very existence, is in for yet another onslaught. This time it is a 500 kms Coastal Highway connecting Gopalpur in Ganjam district of Odisha to Digha in West Bengal that will pass along the sensitive coastal plains including the Chilika Lake, a Ramsar site. As per the information from the Surface transport and Highways ministry the survey works for the preparation of the DPR for this Coastal Highway has already started. Rs 5000 crores will be spent for this 500 km stretch of road. What has left the environmentalist in the state worried is the impact that a four kms long bridge, touted to be the longest in the state to be constructed right inside the Chilika lake and the impact that the long stretch of the road passing too close to the coast will have on the water drainage in the coast that is frequently devastated by flood.
The idea of a coastal high way is nothing new in Odisha. Immediately after the super cyclone, 1999 that posed major logistics challenge for the rescue and relief operations in the coastal areas, a costal highways was mooted. Some even added an added advantage to the road, it will work as an embankment that will obstruct the saline ingression in the eventuality of a cyclonic storm. But the environmentalists were opposed to the coastal highway as it will have serious impact on the coastal environment. Any way the idea of the coastal highway was not pursued for long. But, during April 2015 Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik proposed a coastal highway to ensure efficient rescue and relief operation during cyclones and the Surface Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari agreed. In the month of July Gadkari declared the Coastal High at the cost of Rs 5000 crore and that the detailed project report will be ready very soon.
The proposed coastal highway will connect the upcoming ports in the state like Gopalpur, Astaranga, Paradeep, Kirtania and Chandipur. This highway will improve the connectivity between the eastern India and Southern India, improve trade and will be a boost for the economy of the state as well as the country. Apart from being a national highway it also will double up as a marine drive, the beach tourism in Odisha will get a shot in the arm. The votaries of coastal highway also argue that such a highway will be of immense utility during the floods and cyclones. Other than this this also can work as a barrier against the sea surge.
All these benefits associated with the coastal highway sounds great. But, the fact is that this highway will be passing through a sensitive coastal pains and also Chilika lake, a pristine lagoon. Hence it is bound to have its own share of environmental impact on these ecosystems. The moot question – is the government factoring in the sensitive nature of the project before deciding on it. While the highway can work as a barrier for the saline water from the sea, it also can work as an obstruction for the drainage of water from the coastal plane, and lead to water logging in the normal years. The coastal plain being affected by flood frequently, also might have the additional problem of drainage of flood water and may aggravate the flood situation in terms of extending the period of flood submergence. The example of National Highway no 5 in Balasore district also could be taken as an example as after the reconstruction of the national highway an area not conventionally affected by flood came under the grip of regular flood from the waters of Subarnarekha river, the only reason being the flood waters of the river could not be drained as before.
Other than the threat of water logging and flood and the threat to the sensitive ecosystem, the threat to Chilika, the pristine eco-system that is also a Ramsar site could be of more serious nature.
Chilika lagoon that has brackish water – a mixture of saline sea water and fresh water – provides a unique ecosystem for very special flora and fauna. The lagoon, the biggest in Asia has a spread of 1165 square kilometres that shrinks to 740 square kilometres during summer. The lake is 64.30 kms long and the 18 kms wide. The lake is 5 kms wide at the least. The depth of the lake varies between 38 cms to 4.2 me teres. This unique ecosystem houses more than 225 species of fishes. More that 156 species of birds are found here. About 95 varieties of migratory birds come to Chilika every winter for nesting. To provide protection to the birds population in Chilika, 15.53 sq km area of Chilika near Nalabana has been declared as a Bird Sanctuary by the government since 1987. Chilika also houses the endangered Irawadi dolphins and they are the major attraction for the tourists.
More than 13,000 fisher families depend directly on Chilika lake for their livelihood through direct fishing. Apart from that there are also others who are dependent on Chilika for their livelihood like culture fishery, ferrying the tourists, in allied activities associated with the fisheries. As per the local estimates a population of more than 2 lakhs is dependent on Chilika for the livelihood as well as economic development. And all these livelihoods for humans, and the diversity of the flora and fauna are due to the unique ecosystem that Chilika offers. With the proposal that the coastal highway will pass through Chilika, with a four kms long bridge on it, has irked the environmentalists of the state. As such the lake is now struggling on many front for its very existence.
The lake was connected to the sea earlier with a long winding mouth. But gradually due to various factors the mouth got silted up and sort of got disconnected from the sea for most part of the year. As 52 rivers and rivulets drain into the lake without a proper outlet resulted in silting of the lake (it has a catchment of 3560 sq.kms) and growth of weeds. As a restoration plan a new mouth was dredged into the sea by the Chilika Development Authorities, the agency responsible for the management of the lake. No proper impact assessment studies were done prior to this. The immediate impact of this act was change in the salinity of the lake as a result of which the species composition of the brackish water lake changed and also the migratory birds which used to flock around Nalabana also dispersed the mouth of the rivers as the availability of food that is dependent on salinity also shifted location.
After the opening of the sea mouth new mouths also were opened up to the sea due to changed circumstances. By now Chilika has five mouths including the one dredged. The Bay of Bengal that is violent now days is eroding fast 120 kms of the 480 km long Odisha coast and Chilika comes under this zone. Due to the opening up of new mouth sudden entry of sea water (not moderated as the mouths are direct, not winding as the old natural mouth) has posed threat to the lake side and island villages of Chilika. The change in salinity also poses a greater threat to the ecosystem of the lake. The lessons learnt from the dredging of the mouth are that a smaller change also can lead to cascading effect on the eco-system of the lake. May be the present understanding of the lake is too limited to predict the real impact that the development interventions can have on it. So the environmentalists are apprehensive that the passing of the Coastal Highway through the lake can impact the lake to a degree that is beyond our understanding of the lake.
If the long bridge is constructed within Chilika than it might have devastating consequences on the lake. First of all the construction itself will bring in permanent changes in the physical features of the lake. Apart from the construction phase regular plying of the large number of vehicles that connects two regions of the nation will result in noise pollution, air pollution, water pollution etc that will impact the aquatic and terrestrial flora and fauna of the lake. It is an established fact that noise pollution and the environment of fear affect the reproductivety capacity of many of the sensitive species.
This is not the first time that such a threat of a development intervention has threatened the lake. In the eighties the Union government had planned to have e naval base inside Chilika. But there was resistance by the locals as well as the intellectuals of the state. The then Prime Minister Mrs. Indiara Gandi was sensitive to the resistance by the locals and the environmental aspects and scrapped this project. Instead of the naval base to house the naval ships, a naval training centre was established here. But will the government be sensitive the sensitive ecology of this Ramsar site Chilika that is home to Irawady dolphins, many rare species, more that 225 species of fish, about 800 types of species around the lake, the livelihood of a couple of lakh people, lakhs of migratory birds for whom the lake is the second home? Before any intervention is done in Chilika for the coastal highway, a sincere and honest impact assessment should be carried out at the minimum. It will be better for Chilika if the Coastal Highway keeps off the lake.
But, neither ecology nor tourism are the real concern for the two political parties – the BJD and the BJP. While BJP tries to bring in a so-called development project to impress the Odia voters with a novelty, BJD opposes it as it has to oppose such overtures before the 2019 battle. Now the ruling party of the state is taking the plea of ecology, which never had figured in its earlier interventions. Chilika already has handful of problems like opening of new mouth, the conflict between the capture fishery and culture fishery, conflict between ecology and tourism and lately the coastal highway that will tear through this pristine lake. Now it is thrown to the crucible of electoral politics, where it only will be a loser in all probability.