West Bengal: As a squat, black-hulled tanker makes its way down the Hooghly river, through the channel between Haldia and the island of Nayachar, it’s hard to imagine a grand transformation of the sand deposit into a vast industrial hub.
The West Bengal government, crippled by opposition from farmers over the forced acquisition of land for industrialization in the mainland, is now peddling Nayachar as the alternative site for a 10,000-acre chemical hub.
At stake is the state’s ambitious industrialization plan, an effort to catch up with other investment hot spots in India such as Andhra Pradesh and Maharastra and shed the image of a slow, economically slumbering state. But Nayachar itself, some seven decades old, is merely an estuarine island on the Hooghly, 3km east of Haldia and 15km from the sea.
“It first emerged in 1936 and has since grown to its present size of about 16,000 acres,” says Kalyan Rudra, member of the Calcutta high court-appointed Ganga monitoring committee, and a river-dynamics expert. “Nayachar can’t be considered stable, especially in an area where there’s an almost 100-year cycle of such features appearing and disappearing,” adds Rudra. He cites the example of Ghoramara island, south of Nayachar, which is “gradually disappearing”.
“On a geological time scale, 70 years is nothing,” says Amalesh Choudhury, founder professor of Calcutta University’s marine sciences department and head of the S.D. Marine Biological Institute at Sagar Island in the Sunderbans, the state’s mangrove forest. “The Himalayas, thousands of years old, are still considered young,” he adds.
Rudra also says that a preliminary report of the Geological Survey of India (GSI), which sent a team to Nayachar on 12 September, notes that the “eastern flank is undergoing erosion”, a phenomenonwhich is inevitable given the strong currents to the east of Nayachar.
The trouble with Nayachar, in part, is the intense tidal activity in the area, which erodes almost as fast as it builds—piling up sand into land-like formations and sinking it at equal pace. Choudhury cautions that Nayachar’s?highest point is just 1.5m above sea level, whereas the river around it goes up by almost 3.5m during spring tide, inundating the island.
While reclaiming and making man-made islands to locate industrial hubs is a practice followed worldwide, including in Singapore, the challenge with Nayachar is likely to be the time taken to transform it into a habitable industrial hub. “To raise the level of an island that has an area of 49 sq. km by about 2m, about 250 million cubic metres of earth will be required, whereas CPT (Calcutta Port Trust) dredges 20 million cubic metres in a year,” says Rudra. “Will they take 12 years to fill up Nayachar with muck from the river bottom?”
The state government, which has mooted the plan, says it’s still awaiting the Union government’s clearance for the project. It adds that it will wait for the GSI report before detailing further plans for Nayachar and commenting on the proposal.
But the relative youth of the sand deposit and its impermanence is not the only thing that makes Nayachar a hard spot to begin industrial activity. For a start, the island will have to be connected to the mainland with a bridge, which some say may have implications for shipping routes in the area.
The trouble is with the location, because a bridge constructed at the narrowest points between the mainland and the island would hamper the movement of ships.
“Any bridge constructed north of oil jetty No. 1, which is the northern-most berthage of ships in the Haldia Dock Complex, will not affect the actual physical movement of ships as they don’t go beyond that,” CPT river pilot S.K. Singh says.
However, at that point, the distance between Nayachar and the Haldia mainland is almost 4km and, says Rudra, “that would be far too much to have a suspension bridge”.
Echoing his views, Calcutta University’s Choudhury says, “to bridge that distance, a bridge with pillars or piers will have to be constructed.” According to Rudra, any pillared bridge would cause heavy deposition of silt as it would obstruct the ebb tide, that is, the water coming downstream. And that could affect shipping activity in the channel.
The Haldia channel needs intensive dredging year-long to keep an average draught of 8m for safe and unhindered movement?of ships. “Even with regular year-round dredging, draught availability is such that a Panamax tanker which has a tonnage of around 100,000 tonnes can only carry half that load to the Haldia docks,” says Singh.
Another river pilot with CPT, who did not wish to be identified because he is not authorized to speak with the media, says the passage is already so shallow that any reduction in draught caused by construction upstream could make navigation tough at Haldia port. Any move to construct a suspension bridge further south, where the distance is less, has its own set of problems. Down south, the bridge would straddle a shipping lane, where Panamax tankers with a height of about 58m pass; the suspension bridge would have to be much taller than that.
“While technically possible, a suspension bridge that high would have approach ramps of at least 2-3km,” says Larsen & Toubro Ltd’s sector project manager in Kolkata, K. Banerjee. “There won’t be any problem in the Haldia side, but Nayachar may not have the space to accommodate such a long ramp unless it’s built like a four-leaf, which will drive up costs further.”
“A bridge with a mid-section that will rise to let ships pass is also a possibility, but then, it will have to be pillared.”
Another L&T engineer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the piers on either bank anchoring the cables of a suspension bridge would have to be immensely tall and would need very firm ground to settle safely. But the soil in Nayachar is alluvial, making the construction tricky and expensive.
CPT deputy chairman in charge of the Haldia dock system, Rajeev Dube, was non-committal. “It’s a state government plan and they still haven’t approached us with the proposal for a bridge,” he says. “As and when they do, we will evaluate it.”