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Gujarat reefs: Healing a self-inflicted wound


By Gaurav Sharma

The longest coastline of India, the Gujarat sea coast, is home to one of the richest and finest flora and fauna. Multifarious water birds, endangered marsh crocodiles roam the dense mangrove forests along with the last remaining population of endemic Wild Ass.

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An exclusive habitation for the Asiatic  lions (Gir Forest National Park), Gujarat accounts for the largest grassland area in India (Banni), and the largest water bird sanctuary in the country (Nalsarovar).

The Gujarat coral reef is known for “branching corals” in keeping with the characteristic  bifurcation of corals into secondary branches. Owing to indiscriminate and  widespread human activity, the reefs, particularly the genera Acropora and Montipora, were undergoing a diminution in both their diversity and reach.

The extensive coral bleaching recorded in 1997-1998 further took a toll on the fragile coral population of Gujarat. (It is estimated that about 30-40 per cent coral bleaching was reported in the Gulf of Kutch in northern Gujarat)

Finding itself in a quagmire, the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) embarked on what is perhaps the largest coral reef restoration project in the world. After almost two years of persistent work, the exploration and research organization has been able to successfully restore the corals back to their original status.

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“The corals transplanted from Gulf of Mannar are growing well on different islands in Kutch. Corals in the inter-tidal area are bleached due to heavy sedimentation and high temperature. Those transplanted in the sub-tidal area are fine and the regeneration is good”, Shyamal Tikadar, Kutch National Park director told TOI.

Along with the proactive steps taken by ZSI, plans have been afoot to establish the country’s first “Coral garden” at Mithapur coastal region of Dwarka in Gujarat. The project has been jump-started by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) in collaboration with Tata Chemicals Limited, while the funding has been made available by the Gujarat forest department.

The extensive restoration missions have been apparently started with an eye to ‘regenerate corals’ drowning in the highly sedimented area of Kutch.

Though the mainstream media is all gung-ho about the success of the transformational undertaking of ZSI, this only paints the complete picture with half truths. The reality is that the coral reef development has widespread ramifications.

First of all, it can be easily contended that the increased conservation activism is more attributable to increasing the state tourism revenue rather than an imminent need for conserving coral reefs.

The need for conservation projects itself arose from the crude and rapid scale of industrial activities being conducted by corporate honchos. Tata Chemicals Limited which has taken itself on board to preserve the coral biodiversity, in fact, runs a soda-and-ash at Mithapur in Jamnagar district of Gujarat while the Dalmiya group operates Gujarat Heavy Chemicals Limited (GHCL) unit in Junagadh district’s, Sutrapada taluka.

Both the companies have faced serious allegations of polluting the ecology of the region, with GHCL violating sea lease conditions for almost 20 years. The High Court has however turned a blind eye to the transgressions.

In 2001, more than one lakh mangrove trees died due to release of brine water from the pipeline of Tata Chemicals Limited, the first case to be recorded for the epic scale of the catastrophe.

Then in 2003, the Marine National Park was shut down for a week after the pipelines broke, leaking chemicals into the park and affected about 1500 mangrove trees. Strangely, the company was let off the hooks by the forest department, for some inexplicable reason.

In the chemical and fertiliser sector, companies transfer and transport phosphoric acid and liquid ammonia from ships to production units via pipelines. Both the substances are toxic and therefore, a potential threat to marine life.

Ditto for the cement industry in Gujarat. Dredging and mining activity lead to settlement of suspended particles on coral reefs, particles which increase the mortality rate of the coral reef system

Sewage discharge, ship-breaking, mangrove cutting, thermal power plants, increased port development and maritime activity are other factors which have further exacerbated the rapacious exploitation and degradation of Gujarat coral reefs.

Oil spilling incidents are also not unheard of in the region. In 2004, a Panama-registered oil tanker crashed into a cargo ship in the Gulf of Kutch, causing a major oil spill which threatened to alter marine life.

Furthermore, owing to its close proximity to oil exporting Middle East countries, the Gulf of Kutch region has been vigorously developed as an import hub. Corporate giants such as Reliance and Essay have established vast network pipelines, releasing harmful effluents into the sea shore.

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Gujarat is renowned for mass production of salt (almost 70 percent of the salt obtained in India). During salt production, a highly concentrated form of sea water is obtained called Bittern. As the mushrooming industrial units such as Tata Chemicals Limited (TCL) discharge the bittern into seawater, the combination of the release along with the negative water balance of the Gulf escalated the soil salinity.

Apart from causing a threat to the marine life, human settlements in and around the region also face a livelihood threat. In 2005, farmers of Junagarh district made their salinity woes felt by registering a case with the Gujarat High Court.

“Saline water from the salt pans seeps out…and percolates to groundwater causing salination….this has adversely affected agricultural productivity…earlier, sugarcane, groundnut, wheat and even coconut groves were grown, now farmers have shifted to low-profit but salinity-tolerant rajko (a fodder crop) and bajra,” the three bench committee assigned by the High Court had noted.

While some farmers have shifted from large harvesting crops such to more salt resistant ones, other have chosen to vacate their land in light of the declining productivity. Meanwhile, the fishermen allege shortage of catch in the region.

“Earlier, we used to get fish 15 km from the coastline, now it has expanded to 45 kms. This is because of the virtual obliteration of Sea plant near the shores”, Suresh Bhai of the local fisher’s union told NewsGram.

All this is not to undermine the efforts of the ZSI in restoring coral reef growth in the region, but to merely point out that the need for such initiatives would have been obviated had such extensive human activity in the region not been allowed to assume epic proportions.

ZSI’s achievements are indeed laudable, but the whole state of play in the Gujarat coastline has been that of inflicting damage and then taking counter-measures to stem their abhorrent toxicity. In its chronic anxiety for fast tracking development, the concomitant counterpart of vigilance was ignored by the government.

The question worth pondering in this regard is – is it not utter foolishness to first create a problem and then shower praises on organizations hired to correct the fault lines? Why allow misery to breed, percolate and inhabit in the first instance?

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Come April, government will be more comfortable in Rajya Sabha

Of the 100 BJP-allies MPs, 24 are retiring. Which means, the government will be left with 76 MPs

Parliament of India is a source of interest for many people because of various reasons. Wikimedia Commons
Parliament of India is a source of interest for many people because of various reasons. Wikimedia Commons
  • In April, the opposition may lose its edge over BJP in Rajya Sabha
  • NDA led by Modi has faced many embarrassments in Rajya Sabha in past few years
  • This is expected to change soon

Come April, the opposition in the Rajya Sabha may lose its edge in the numbers game and the power to stall any government bill, as the ruling BJP-led NDA coalition is set to catch up with its rivals, though a clear majority will elude them for a while more.

BJP to soon get more comfortable in  Rajya Sabha. Wikimedia commons
BJP to soon get more comfortable in Rajya Sabha. Wikimedia Commons

As 58 MPs, including three Nominated and one Independent, are set to retire in April, the Rajya Sabha math is going to change. It is set to favour the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and the trend may continue in the elections to the Upper House later too with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) having solid majorities in a number of state assemblies, especially the ones it won after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

With this, while the Congress-led opposition’s numbers will come down to around 115 from the present 123, the numbers of the BJP, its allies and sympathisers together would climb to around 109 from the present 100-odd members.

And the gap, once wide enough to let the opposition invariably have its say, will keep narrowing further in the coming months.

Of the 55 retiring members (excluding those Nominated), 30 belong to the opposition camp while 24 belong to the BJP and allies. Of them, a large number of NDA candidates are set to return while the opposition will lose a chunk of its members.

As things stand now, the Congress-led opposition has 123 MPs (including 54 of the Congress) in a house of 233 elected members (apart from 12 Nominated), while the NDA has 83 members (including 58 of BJP) plus four Independents who support the BJP (these include MPs Rajeev Chandrashekhar, Subhash Chandra, Sanjay Dattatraya Kakade and Amar Singh).

Rajya Sabha or the Upper House can often be a game changer while passing of the bills is in process.
Rajya Sabha or the Upper House can often be a game changer while passing of the bills is in process.

Also, for all practical purposes, the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), that has 13 members in the Rajya Sabha, is also with the NDA. This means the NDA’s effective strength in the upper house of Parliament is 100.

The gap was wider till just a few months ago. This meant that during any battle between the government and the opposition in the Upper House over bills and major issues, it was the opposition that invariably had its way. The recent example was the triple talaq legislation that the opposition stalled in the upper house, demanding that it be referred to a Select Committee.

For over less than four years, the Narendra Modi government had faced quite a few embarrassments in the Rajya Sabha thanks to the majority of the opposition, forcing it often to take the money bill route to avoid a clash in the house. Under the Constitution, a money bill needs to be passed only in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha cannot stall it.

Also Read: For Modi, Road To 2019 Will Be Steeper

However, after April, the NDA will be in a far better position.

Of the 100 BJP-allies MPs, 24 are retiring. Which means, the government will be left with 76 MPs (including AIADMK). But at least 30 from the NDA are set to get re-elected. So the number will rise to 106. Add three members that the government would nominate to the upper house and the final NDA tally will roughly be 109 MPs.

Further, there are fence-sitters such as the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and the YSR Congress, which are not virulently against the BJP and would not oppose the government unless for very compelling reasons.

Now, for the Congress and the rest of the opposition, they are set to lose 30 MPs (including one Independent, A.V. Swamy) through retirement and would be left with around 93 members. The Opposition may win roughly 22 seats, which means that its final tally after April is likely to be around 115 members.

Government can now expect some smooth sailing in the Rajya Sabha, coming this April.
Government can now expect some smooth sailing in the Rajya Sabha, coming this April.

The gap has clearly narrowed and the government may not be at the mercy of the opposition during crucial votes and can have its way in the Rajya Sabha if it musters its numbers by deftly wooing “floater” MPs.

The three newly-elected Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) members may remain equidistant from both the BJP and the Congress, though the party is friendly with some of the major opposition parties like the Trinamool Congress.

Also Read: BJP MP Seeks Amendment to the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill

In an interesting development recently, the AAP actively participated in the opposition’s walkout and the day-long boycott of the Rajya Sabha over long intra-day adjournments of the Upper House by Chairman M. Venkaiah Naidu.

The AAP, which was not welcome at any opposition meetings earlier, particularly those held in Parliament House, was invited to speak at a joint opposition media interaction on the day. But nobody can be sure as to how long this bonding would last.

Partywise tally of those retiring in April-May from the opposition’s side include 13 from the Congress, six from the Samajwadi Party, three of the Trinamool Congress, two each of the Nationalist Congress Party and Biju Janata Dal and one each of the CPI-M, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.

NDA has to face many embarrassments in past few years in Rajya Sabha. Wikimedia Commons
NDA has to face many embarrassments in past few years in Rajya Sabha. Wikimedia Commons

From the ruling side, 17 MPs of the BJP, three of the Janata Dal United, one of the Shiv Sena and two of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) are retiring.

In terms of state-wise vacancies to be created in April, the highest number is from Uttar Prdaesh (9), followed by Maharashtra (6), Madhya Pradesh (5), Bihar (5), Gujarat (4), Karnataka (4), West Bengal (4), Rajasthan (3), Odisha (3), Andhra Pradesh (3), Telangana (2), Uttarakhand (1), Himachal Pradesh (1) and Chhattisgarh (1). IANS