Serene, pristine. These words can no longer describe the Terekhol river, which flows along the Goa-Maharashtra border. Today, the river is a whirlpool of controversy over the building of
a mini-port without environment clearance.
The mini-port is being built, at Aronda jetty, by a Mumbai-based company, White Orchid Estate Private Limited. The intention is to enable loading of iron ore on to barges. The villagers fear that deepening and widening of the river to facilitate barge movement might increase the volume of water in the river, endangering villages on the banks.
Says Avinash Shirodkar, a retired teacher who has formed a resistance group, Aronda Bachao Sangharsh Samiti: “It is bound to cause disaster for the villagers, fishermen and ecology. It is highly possible that the entire village will sink in the sea if the project is not stopped.”
Ramachandra Koragaonkar from Aronda says removing the rocks from the shoreline for the barges will pose an ecological threat. These rocks that are at least 30m tall, break the waves and keep the volume of water hitting the shore in check. The villagers also allege that acres of mangroves have been destroyed, disturbing the sensitive ecosystem that thrived in the region.
THE WEEK has accessed White Orchid's agreement with the Maharashtra Maritime Board (Konkan division) for developing a mini-port or expansion of Aronda jetty for multi-purpose import and export. The permission will facilitate the export of 20 million tonnes of iron ore, says Shirodkar.
An RTI filed by the villagers in Aronda has apparently revealed that the company does not have permission from the Union environment ministry to work on the mini-port. “This area [Aronda] falls in the Coastal Regulatory Zone 1 category, and cutting down mangroves and dredging clearly violate the rules,” says Shirodkar. Villagers of Aronda allege that the Sindhudurg district administration ignored their complaints to favour the company.
As per the records of the registrar of companies, White Orchid was formed in May 2009, and its registered office is at Gurudev SRA Society, Chembur, Mumbai. When THE WEEK visited the office, the door was locked and there was no board or name plate. The watchman of the building said the door remained closed most of the time and there was hardly any activity. The company director is Prathamesh Teli, a college student and son of Rajan Teli, Congress leader from Sindhudurg who is a close associate of Minister Narayan Rane. Its managing directors are Rajesh Upadhyay of Walope village in Chiplun and Siddharth Bhalla of Vashi in Navi Mumbai. Co-owners are ICI Coal and Mines Private Limited and Supreme Construction and Developers Private Limited. Both these companies have their offices in Basant Park, Chembur, Mumbai. Lalit Tekchandani, Kajol Tekchandani and Rajeev Khatri are common shareholders for these two companies.
“The administration is under pressure as powerful politicians are involved,” says Koragaonkar. “The village is on the official tourist map of the state and the forests department wants to declare this area a forest zone, but they are not going ahead.”
The state environment department has apparently issued a show-cause notice to the company stating it had completed construction of three jetties without obtaining consent from the Pollution Control Board. It also said that the company had not obtained Environment Impact Assessment, Environment Management Plan reports and CRZ and environmental clearances for the jetty.
“This shows that the work going on at Aronda is completely illegal,” alleges Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Parashuram Uparkar. “Moreover, the villagers had twice passed resolutions opposing the jetty with overwhelming majority. Even Parliament has to abide by the resolution of the village panchayat, but here the state government is under immense political pressure for allowing the illegal work to proceed.”
But White Orchid's executives claim they have documents to prove the allegations are baseless. Says Rajan Teli: “We have a copy of a letter written to the Maritime Board, which says that CRZ and environmental clearances are not needed for ports which existed before 1996. Hence, these clearances are not needed for the mini-port or jetty at Aronda. We are not doing any dredging; it's the Maritime Board which is doing dredging in the Terekhol creek at Aronda. We did not destroy any mangroves; in fact, there were no mangroves at Aronda. The port has been there for over 100 years and it's just the repairing of the old jetty that's going on. All the allegations are purely motivated by political interests and are baseless.”
THE WEEK has copies of inspection reports by the directorate of geology and mining which say illegal mining of millions of tonnes of iron ore beyond the lease area has been done in Sindhudurg. “This is especially shocking when the average rate of export is around $120 per metric tonne,” says Uparkar. “Having seen the example of illegal mining, under-invoicing and evading customs by the mining companies in Goa, I fear that all these illegally mined iron ore from Konkan will be exported from these mini-ports like Aronda. Mining companies like Samruddha Resources have even applied for captive mini-port terminals for the export of minerals mined by their company.”
THE WEEK has the techno-economic feasibility study report by Samruddha Resources Ltd for its proposal of a captive mini-port terminal. The proposed terminal is near Kavathani, which is 5km away from Aronda and 18km away from Redi port. “I don't know any other place in the world where they have three ports within a stretch of 18km,” says Uparkar. Minerals & Metals, a company involved in mining at Kalane, and Samruddha Resources are both controlled by Vinay Patil, son of Congress leader Rohidas Patil.
Samruddha's feasibility report shows a total investment of ∃50 million and a profit of Rs.352.02 million, with an export of 12 million tonnes of iron ore from the proposed mini-port terminal at Kavathani. The company entered into a lease deed with Maharashtra Maritime Board in May 2012, and is yet to obtain clearances from the environment ministry. Samruddha's feasibility report mentions that the speed of the current is around 1.5 nautical miles. This will be higher at Aronda as Kavathani is 5km deeper in the creek and Aronda is at the opening of the creek.
While environment concerns lie on one side, it is the export of iron ore to China at a cheaper price that appalls Pramod Jathar, BJP MLA from Sindhudurg district. “The sale of our natural resources and precious metals to China at a cheap price is shocking,” he says. “The government should have done everything to preserve these resources. This is causing huge damage to public health and the guardian minister Narayan Rane should behave like a guardian. But he is favouring mining and not doing anything to stop these activities.” Jathar pointed out that a recent survey by an NGO in Redi had found that respiratory problems among infants and elderly had increased by over 300 per cent and that pregnant women were the worst victims of respiratory problems. But the government has taken no action.
But it seems even the villagers in Redi do not want the companies to leave now. Uparkar says: “The villagers have been made financially dependent on mining by offering them loans to buy dumpers and contract dumpers at mines to carry the iron ore. As many as 450 dumpers were financed by the district co-operative bank in one year.” Despite the health problems and environmental damage, it seems they cannot afford to oppose mining now.