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?