Fishing villages from Cuffe Parade to Zai in Palghar observed a bandh on Tuesday to protest the construction of the Vadhavan port in Dahanu. Being developed by the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) and the Maharashtra Maritime Board, it will be India’s 13th major port. While the Trust has assured that the port will be ecologically sustainable, JNPT Chairman Sanjay Sethi tells The Indian Express that more people need to be made aware of the Rs 65,544.54-crore project and its benefits. He also discusses the challenges faced due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Why haven’t local residents and communities opposing the project been taken into confidence?
First, let’s clarify what is this process to get environmental clearance (EC). The MoEF (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) has to give an EC. While a detailed project report (DPR) was made three years ago, the MoEF has a committee that sets the terms of reference for all studies you have to conduct to apply for the EC. In July, the committee had said that usually, around 40 studies have to be conducted but for this region (Dahanu), 10 more studies were added. All those studies are being carried out now.
As far as this whole thing about communication is concerned, for a project as big as this, we definitely need more communication but we have been a little restricted because of Covid-19. Till now, there are very clear instructions in place not to hold bigger meetings and maintain social distancing. But it is not as if there is no communication. This is soft communication. The discussion needs to have a deeper penetration among the people. We need to tell them the benefits of this project. We also need to take care of concerns. For example, they have been saying that a religious place (Shankhodar in Vadhavan) is going to be destroyed but at our end, the way the DPR has been made, it is not even touched. We need a multi-pronged strategy, we need to take as many people into confidence as possible. It may not always be possible to get everybody on your side but we still need to address genuine concerns.
Have the necessary studies for the project been carried out?
Multiple studies are going on. Some need data from one place, some need analysis of data. It is a work in progress.
How would you respond to protesters’ claim that the port’s proximity to the Tarapur Atomic Power Station could be a security hazard and will damage the environment?
There is a full-fledged procedure to deal with the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board clearance, which talks about the Tarapur plant, and we have received the permission. We need to spend about Rs 200 crore extra for the abundant precautionary measures to be taken up. Those are being taken and will be part of the DPR.
About the flora and fauna, until studies are conducted, how will I reach any conclusion? Let’s say there is some potential damage, the studies will tell us whether we can take care of that in some way… and only on that basis, the EC will be provided. Sometimes, the EC can require me to change my whole project report, so it is too premature to say that this (port) is going to cause something. It is our full commitment to the environment that we are undertaking extra studies. Once these are done, the results will be out and discussed at all levels… Over the years, the ministry (of shipping) has set up many committees comprising all kinds of experts and environmentalists. They will finally tell us what to do and we will fully comply with that.
What were the other challenges that Covid-19 put before the JNPT?
The truck drivers went back (to their villages). There were a lot of players in the supply chain who could not perform their roles because of the lockdown. So, basically, the challenge was to keep the project running. During April and May, we had to somehow run it as an essential service, giving all kinds of passes to everybody to ferry products, including agri and pharma.
We went to the extent of getting drivers back from the hinterland, sent special buses, put them up at the port at our expense, provided them food. Some gram panchayats would not allow these drivers to go back to their villages; those were our challenges.
One challenge was also the imbalance between imports coming down and exports increasing. Typically, this leads to a shortage of (shipping) containers. This requires re-positioning, some of which requires some extra effort but considering last month, things are getting back to normal.
How much was JNPT affected by Covid-19?
I got tested about seven to eight times because someone you came in close contact with had been infected. In the first few months, the fear was very high. Once when an infected person came in, they said we will stop operations at the terminal. It was that bad in the first couple of months. The unions and everybody involved had to be convinced. Then the other challenge was that villagers in Uran taluka started saying that they will get infected because JNPT was still running. But it had to be run as an essential service. All these have been challenges. But we’ve managed to address those.
The overall container traffic handled at JNPT during November grew 9.04 per cent to 5.70 million as compared to last November. What factors led to this increase?
In India, the relaxation to operate manufacturing units was given as early as May-June. This meant we started producing more and more and this has now led to a growth over the last two months. Our centralised parking plaza has started, which helps in direct port entry. It saves almost $30 per TEU (twenty foot equivalent unit). Customs has started its full-fledged offices, it has also helped in consolidating. These things have led to competitiveness among ports. Savings of about Rs 2,100 per TEU is big. Going by the current trend, we are very hopeful of a good recovery.
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