Kamal Nath buys time on Chilika

UNION environment minister Kamal Nath's order of July 30 -which has yet to reach the Orissa government -to stop work on the Chilika Aquatic Farms project till an independent consultant assessed its likely environmental impact may have, at best, bought some time for him. Orissa chief minister Biju Patnaik and those opposed to the project, meanwhile, are bracing themselves for a renewal of their fight over prawn fishing and lake degradation. Nath is under pressure from the Orissa chief minister to allow work to continue on the state government's joint venture with the House of Tata Steel for a 600-ha prawn culture farm. Sources here say Patnaik has approached Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao to get Nath to clear the project quickly. On the other hand, several Orissa Congress MPs, including K P Singhdeo aJ Sriballabh Panigrahi, are pressurl ing Nath not to yield on the projel which seems to have become a prE tige issue for Patnaik.

It was reportedly under pressu from both these camps that Nal held a meeting on July 30 and ask for work on the project to pending environmental clearance. The environmental impact assesment (EIA) being prepared by tb public sector Water and POWE Consultancy Services (W APCOS) was found unacceptable, as W AI COS did not have the necessar expertise to clear such a project says Banka Behary Das, one of the most vocal Opponents of the projet and a former Orissa minister, who was present at the meeting.

While opponents of the project led by Das, expressed satisfaction a Nath's decision, the chief minister has already announced that he would not willingly submit so easily to the authority of the Central ministry. He is reported to have told Nath on July 31, "Fish does not create environmental hazards. Those who do not know anything about environment are shouting unnecessarily. You should not listen to them."

Meanwhile, opponents of the project fear the combined clout of Biju Patnaik and the Tata group could eventually ensure clearance for the project and probably even influence the independent consultant's report. "Once the consultant's report says the project would not pollute the lake, it will be difficult even for Kamal Nath to stop clearance," Das commented. No wonder, then, he has called on the Orissa Krushak Mahasangh, which he heads, to prepare for a legal battle as well.

Patnaik and project officials are once again alleging opposition to the project is politically motivated. A Tata executive speaking on conditions of anonymity argued, "If. there is such intense mass resentment against the project, why did only about a dozen people turn up for the demonstration before the environment ministry? And, why is former chief minister J B Patnaik, who first called us in, now opposing the pro- ject?"

Ironically, however, work on the project came to a halt in mid-July - not by Union fiat or by orders from the local authorities, but because the onset of the rainy season prevents movement of heavy vehicles.