Ratan Tata to talk turtles with Greenpeace

Feature story - August 27, 2009
Ratan Tata, Chairman of India’s largest business chain, the Tata Group, has agreed to meet Greenpeace representatives for talks on the Orissa Dhamra port-Olive Ridley Sea Turtle controversy. Both sides would fix a date for the meeting.

Gahirmatha's seas are one of the world's largest breeding areas for the Olive Ridley Turtle. The Dhamra port could signal the end of this habitat forever.

Tata's surprise offer came after Greenpeace International Chairwoman Lalita Ramdas questioned the Tata Group's environment policy on the Dhamra port. Ramdas raised the issue during Tata Steel's 102nd Annual General Meeting in Mumbai on August 27, 2009.

"I am glad that Mr. Tata has, for the first time, said he will take a personal interest in the issue and meet us to arrive at a solution to the impasse," Ramdas said.

The shareholders included former Chief of Naval Staff and Magsaysay award winner Admiral Ramdas, who is also Lalita Ramdas' husband. This was the third consecutive year that Greenpeace India had raised the issue at a Tata AGM. Last year, Greenpeace India campaigners had taken part in several protests to ask Ratan Tata to stop the construction of the port, even blockading the group's Bombay House headquarters.

Proceedings turned midway through the AGM when Admiral Ramdas rose to speak. "I asked him (Ratan Tata) why he is building the Dhamra port and a power plant at Alibag (in Maharashtra). I am happy he has agreed to discuss the port. This is a good point forward to clear all our doubts. The safety of turtles is important," Admiral Ramdas said after the AGM.

The questions from Admiral Ramdas changed the tone of the AGM. When her turn came to speak, Lalita Ramdas told Ratan Tata: "I should tell you that I am also Board Chair of Greenpeace International. You have done a good thing in Africa by putting on hold a TATA Chemicals caustic soda factory in Tanzania because of potential impact on flamingos.

At this point, Tata rose to intervene and say: "It is because of my intervention that the project was put on hold in Africa."

Later, Lalita Ramdas said: "We had a constructive exchange today. This is also an opportunity to show that we (at Greenpeace) are not eco terrorists. We are a watchdog. But, we also work with businesses on solutions."

She added that talks were the best option. "At this point, this is the best step that one could hope for, that he is showing personal interest and meeting with us and anybody else we could bring (to Dhamra)."

The Dhamra port in Orissa is being constructed by the Dhamra Port Company Limited (DPCL), a 50:50 joint venture between Tata Steel and L&T. The project has generated a storm of criticism for potential impact on the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle at the Gahirmatha and Bhitarkanika sanctuaries.

The port's location has been of concern for years to conservationists, scientists, turtle experts, and local and national fisher groups, all of who have opposed it. They say an environment impact assessment (EIA) for the project has not been satisfactorily conducted.

A four-month dialogue between the promoters of Dhamra and NGOs including Greenpeace India stalled in February this year after Tata Steel refused to suspend construction and commission an independent assessment of impact.

One of the things Lalita Ramdas asked at the AGM was how the Tatas could justify refusal to suspend dredging, when a comprehensive impact assessment of the Dhamra port project was yet to be done.

"Over one lakh Indians are waiting to see what Mr. Tata will do. The Tatas have thus far missed an opportunity with Dhamra to set high environmental standards for corporate India. A responsible corporate entity must have an environment policy that, among other things, keeps it away from ecologically critical areas," she said.

Greenpeace India has been campaigning for years for an independent environment assessment, the results of which would determine the future of the project.

The protests have largely been ignored, and DPCL had said construction could be completed by April 2010. Since 2008, an online Greenpeace India campaign has resulted in over a lakh letters to Ratan Tata asking him to stop the Dhamra project.

Since inception, the project clashed with the habitat of the Olive Ridley Sea turtle, an endangered species and accorded Schedule I status in India, on par with the tiger.

The nesting beaches at Gahirmatha are among the world's largest and last mass-nesting grounds for the species.

Save the turtles

Join the campaign to save the Olive Ridley turtle habitat.