The approval for the submarine base had been awaited since 2010. Now, Phase II of Project Varsha gets 676 hectares of forest land while Phase I work is in full swing

by Anubhuti Vishnoi and Manu Pubby

New Delhi: India’s secret nuclear submarine base coming up on the east coast has got a shot in the arm with the Central government approving the diversion of forest land needed to house a strategic technical area and a command and control centre.

The in principle forest clearance for the acquisition of 670 hectares of forest land in Rambilli off Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh had been pending since 2010, and was needed for the second phase of Project Varsha, the code name for a naval base that will house nuclear-armed submarines.

The project had come up for discussion several times – including in April 2013 and January 2016 – only to be delayed due to concerns of its impact on the environment. However, the Modi government took a call to go ahead with it in a meeting last month.

The Need For Forest Land

The clearance for the second phase of the Naval Alternate Operating Base (NAOB) will now pave the way for work to start on expanding facilities to safely house recharge stations and technical support areas for future nuclear-powered vessels of the Indian Navy.

As per the proposal, which was given the green nod on 20 December, the total construction area will not be more than 1.94 hectares of the forest land. This will include a strategic technical area, a command and control area, as well as a strategic institutional area.

While the hill areas of South Rayavaram, Dimili, Mamidivada, Sitapalem and Z Chintuva were also surveyed, it was found that only the land under the reserved forest at Rambili and Kalavalapalli was “technically and strategically suitable for the very important defence project under DRDO”.

In its proposal, DRDO had said that the forest area was desirable as it would help “act as camouflage for defence needs”. The area is located at the Sarada river and the naval base is coming up at the place where it opens up into the Bay of Bengal.

Series of Projects Cleared

This is the latest in a series of clearances by the government to strategic defence and nuclear projects in the past three years that had been pending, in some cases for decades. The clearances include a new missile testing range in the Andaman Islands and at least two strategic facilities in Madhya Pradesh.

The DRDO, which is tasked with creating infrastructure for strategic forces, had in the past found great difficulty in acquiring land for critical projects needed to store, service and manufacture equipment for nuclear assets like missiles and warheads.

Minimal Disruption

The area which has been given for phase II of Project Varsha is mostly degraded forest area with shrubby growth of vegetation. The in-principle approval was given on the condition that construction and non-forestry activities will be restricted to a minimum.

The DRDO has been cautioned against any activity that may adversely affect the area’s ground water and any other mining or construction related activities.

The Larger Project

The Rambilli Naval base, located 60 km south of Visakhapatnam, will be spread across 1,590 hectares where the rivers Varahat and Sarada flow into the sea.

The base will be an “exclusive enclave by deepening at natural channel to have easy access to sea”, and will have extensive underground storage facilities. Open source satellite images show that a lot of work has been completed in the first phase of the project, with more than a dozen tunnels being dug to create the underground facility.

Also, just 20 km away at Atchutapuram, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) is constructing a research and development complex that will support the submarine base. About 845 hectares have already been handed to BARC for the new facility.

India’s Nuclear Submarines

India is planning to construct at least five nuclear-armed submarines under the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project that will eventually be capable of launching missiles to a target range of over 5,000 km.

These are the Arihant class of submarines that are critical for the second strike option in case India is hit with a nuclear attack. The first of its class, the INS Arihant, is now operational, while its successor, the Arighat, is being outfitted at Visakhapatnam.

Besides, India also plans to build at least six nuclear-powered but conventionally-armed submarines to operate as stealthy escorts for major battle formations and strategic assets.