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My colleague and I were hardly overjoyed to board the Alihazrat Express from Old Delhi station to Gandhidham on December 10, 2010. It was one of those cold days when the sun was behind thick slate coloured clouds. Though we were about to travel to the western edge of the country and escape the biting cold winds blowing into Delhi city for the past few days, we were gloomy. Our II AC coach was dilapidated, dimly lit and poorly serviced by a pantry. Even the omnipresent cup of chai and bread omelette, available to most passengers of the Indian Railways, was missing. The phone charging points were duds until a fellow traveller randomly turned around the largest knob in the main electric box of the coach.
The conversations we heard in the train were interesting. A bunch of middle aged government officials probably attached to subsidiary railway services lamented the poor state of train services in this part of the country. They reminisced the good old times when resources were scarce but life was much fuller with experience. The proof of this was the good health and spirit of their elders, they all seemed to agree on.
We got off at the Gandhidham station a little after the scheduled time of arrival. These are strange happenings one never knows how to explain… the train was slower than a bullock cart whenever we looked out of the window and that can only be described as painfully frequent. Denied of food throughout the journey, we stared at the little kiosk on platform no 2 selling masala vada pav when we caught Rakesh’s grinning face approaching us. He works at SETU, a local organisation who’s significance you will know when you have finished reading this piece. Like any local group that gathers well-wishers much better than it can collect funds, SETU had struck a friendship with Manish, the owner of a taxi cab. Manish drove Rakesh and us from the station to Bhadreshwar, further southwest. We were headed to the far end of the largest district of India, Kutch. We were headed to Mundra, located at the edge of the Gulf of Kutch. This was Vibrant Gujarat, Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s creation. We were headed to a place where too many things were going awry.
Our first destination after a delicious and modest meal tastefully laid out in the courtyard of SETU’s little office and training centre, was the Randh bandar. This is a large natural port, known to be over 200 years old, that has been used by the Waghers, a Sunni Muslim community.
Dressed up in the brightest scarves and dupattas, they practice a unique form of fishing called the Pagadiya.
The intertidal zone of several kilometres allows them to walk chest deep into the sea and catch fish in little nets hand woven with nylon threads. Men, women and children of the community migrate to this port from five villages, build their camps from gunny sacks, plastic sheets and wooden poles for their fishing calender that lasts upto eight months of the year. They live here with their cats, roosters, horses and ponies and catch a variety of fish including the prized Bombay Duck or the lizardfish. The beach is strewn with their fishing paraphernalia- bright blue nets, orange rusty boats and anchors, wash basins and water buckets and rickety wooden frames with long lines to dry fish. Other than these, their belongings are few- string cots, a few aluminium pots and pans, colourful gaadis (handsewn patchwork quilts) left out to soak the warm sun. There are pools of wash water everywhere offering flocks of coastal birds a million living organisms to merrily feed on, an infestation of flies, and many stray dogs looking doped by the strong smell of fish and crab carcasses.
Like the Randh bandar, there are 19 such others where fishing communities from about 68 villages of Kutch earn their livelihood. Though this migrant community has been practicing this craft for over two centuries, they have no legal rights over their fishing waters or the bandar that is the cusp of land and sea. They come here when the fishing season begins, put up their temporary shelters and begin fishing, collecting, processing and storing.
Large quantities of fish are dried and salted and packed for export by a 1000 member producer’s co-operative called Machimaar Adhikaar Sangarsh Samiti (MASS). It is a registered trade union. An agency called Fishmarc, supports the Cooperative by making boats available to the fishermen, organising trainings in account keeping and marketing.
But the scenes on this coast are not idyllic as they seem from the description so far. In fact, this terrain is the site of contest between corporate industrialisation and community fishing.
All of Mundra taluka (administrative block) has been on the radar of the Adani group since the early 90s and they now own the largest slice of the Gulf’s coastline after the Tatas, Reliance and Essar Corporate groups (Manshi Asher, December 2008). Together these groups have come to acquire large areas of inter tidal, agriculture and pasture land, cleared the coast of mangroves, created bunds and walls that obstruct the passage of streams and set up ports and power plants.
The construction operations have altered the ecological landscape and the passage of fishing boats into the sea is restricted in many places. Not only that, the damage to mangroves has affected fish yields. Raheema, who lives at Randh bandar asked us who decides the matters of what is being done to their lives. She would like the chance to convince the decision makers that their dignity lies in their fishing, in going out to the sea and bringing back what they need to survive. Pointing to the large buildings being built at a distance away, she wonders why their needs are privileged over her community’s.
The growth of Adanis
The Adani group initiated its activities in Mundra in 1994-95 when the Gujarat Maritime Board approved setting up a captive jetty at the Port of Mundra. From 1998 through to 2007, as a joint-sector company with the state government, the Gujarat Adani Port Ltd (GAPL) was established and has expanded the existing Port with multiple terminals and berths being added to it. Cargo also increased as industrialisation around the region accelerated with other Companies setting up their plants as shown by the service agreements that it has with refineries and power plants. In 2005, it received environmental clearance for salt works under Adani Chemicals. In 2008, the group under the name Adani Power Ltd. was granted permission for the setting up of a thermal plant.
Following the announcement of the SEZ policy in 2000, the Mundra Special Economic Zone was incorporated in 2003 and merged with GAPL in 2006. The combined company was renamed ‘Mundra Port and Special Economic Zone Limited’. It is considered to be India’s first multi-product port-based special economic zone (SEZ). The three different components, the SEZ, the Port and the Power project together took up approximately 6300 hectares of land. This also includes 1400 hectares around the existing Mundra Port granted for 30 years under a concession agreement by the State Government (Manshi Asher and Patrik Oskarsson, 2008.)
The operations of the Adanis in Mundra have followed a distinct pattern of working through the loopholes in the law in order to obtain clearances. The overall scheme for infrastructure development by them has been broken up into multiple projects and clearances have been sought separately for each of these units under different names and through different committees. From 2008 onwards however, the Adanis have faced some stiff challenges to their development. Their SEZ began to get too much attention. Both locally and nationally, there were protests and complaints about the impacts of their growing activities on the people of the region and the fragile marine and coastal environment. It is impossible to say if this oversight by regulators was deliberate or if the several different names under which these activities were undertaken allowed the Adanis to operate under the regulatory radar. The intention of bringing all the components of a grand industrial enterprise under the SEZ status may have been to minimise ‘regulatory snags’. There is enough motivation for project proponents to work through loopholes in regulation as the processes for grant of environment, forest and coastal zone clearances have often been described by them as time consuming. In addition, the mandatory step of holding public hearings could often lead to difficult local situations.
In 2009, the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for Infrastructure Development, Coastal Regulation Zone and Miscellaneous projects, which reviews applications for environment clearance of SEZs, granted Adanis an exemption from holding public hearings for the Development of Multi Product SEZ (MSEZ I & MSEZ II). As per the minutes of this meeting, the project involves development of multi product SEZ on a plot area of 18,000 hectares, of which 5,920 hectares is presently notified under the SEZ. The multi-product SEZ is to provide plots to various industries and also develop dwelling units, hotels, shopping malls and other related amenities and utilities.
Some time just after the application for SEZ clearance was made in 2008, the Adani group had sought CRZ and Environment Clearance for a Waterfront Development Project (WFDP). The WFDP is to be a part of the SEZ and would include development of a total waterfront length of 40 km, total quay length of about 22,000 m, 55 berths (including existing 12), and 225 MMT of cargo handling capacity likely to go up further development of port back-up area – a total of 3200 ha. This proposal was an oddity when one studies the functioning of the Adanis. Such a comprehensive proposal was made at the “insistence of the Principal Secretary, Gujarat who wrote to the Adani Group that the cumulative impact of the project cannot be assessed till a comprehensive masterplan of the project is presented before the government. Had this directive not been issued, the company had intended to seek separate clearances to develop berths in the north, south, east and west side of the port”.The project was cleared in January 2009.
It was ironic and very obvious to the people who had gathered for the Public Hearing held for the WFDP in November 2008 that the Company would have its way, legally or otherwise. Afterall, this Public Hearing was only the second one being held for a project of the Adanis when they had been engaged in industrial expansion in the region since the mid 90s. The other was organised way back in 2000 for a port expansion project.
The Adanis have used similar strategies to obtain clearances for the use of forest land too. Large swathes of mangroves have been destroyed to show the area as being a wasteland, devoid of vegetation. Although the law clearly states that construction should not be undertaken until clearances have been granted, the Company has begun construction on forest land or has begun work on the project that falls outside the forest land. Either way, it has created a situation where withholding or denying clearance by the government would prove difficult on economic and financial grounds.
The Adanis have also weathered some legal battles in the process of establishing their empire. Cases have been filed in the local and State High Courts against the Adanis for land acquisition, restricting access to fishing boats, on the impacts of the SEZ with particular reference to the destruction to mangroves that are important fish breeding grounds. A case was also filed to seek a stay on the Public hearing that took place in 2008. All of these were either not entertained or were dismissed on petty grounds. This could even be said of the manner in which a case filed in the National Environment Appellate Authority in 2009 proceeded. The limp order of this specialised court was for the Company to continue its activities but without disallowing the fishermen access to the sea.
Those who have carefully followed the paper trail left behind by the project in the chambers of regulatory offices such as the Ministry of Environment and Forests say that the Company seems to have the blessings of the highest offices and authorities. An example of this is found in the events that led to the grant of forest clearance to the SEZ in 2008. The Forest Advisory Committee under the Ministry first sought a fresh application be made as it found discrepancies in the project documents. A month later, the same committee granted clearance without any explanation for this sudden change of decision.
Almost all the legal actions were preceded by street protests or open confrontations with the Company officials or local goons hired by them. The aggrieved families have also formed groups and associations and mobilised support from the public for their cause. The formation of MASS the trade union, and its affiliation with the National Fishworker Forum (NFF), a national level non-party coalition of trade unions, was a milestone in the trajectory of local action against the corporatisation of this coast. Organisations like the one that I am a member of (Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group), have followed much of this paperwork, undertaken field visits and assembled the much needed ‘evidence’ for petitioning the administration and legal authorities.
Two recent events related to the developments on the Mundra coast speak volumes for the anger, disappointment and frustration of the fisherfolk and local communities regarding the untrammeled destruction in this ecologically fragile area. They also demonstrate the unwillingness of people to give up, let go or accept defeat yet. In April 2011, MASS filed a complaint with the International Finance Corporation (World Bank) against the Tata Mundra Power Project. IFC, along with Asian Development Bank and other national banks has funded Tata’s project. The complaint emphasised that the studies for the project did not account for all risks and impacts and excluded fishing communities from the list of project affected people. A team of consultants visited the area and held several meetings with the communities following this. The communities have communicated in no uncertain terms to the team that efforts to develop the region through investment will have to be reviewed based on existing claims that fishworkers and other subsistence workers have on the landscape.
In August this year, nearly 5000 people from the region, mostly subsistence farmers, fishworkers, salt pan workers and pastoralists undertook a march from Bhadreshwar to Bhuj, the headquarters of Kutch, and handed a set of demands to the district administration. The march went through the villages that will be affected by the impacts of the thermal projects, port expansion and SEZ development. As it moved, the march collected more people. The lectures, speeches, songs and stories at the march narrated the struggles of the people of this coast and reiterated their demands for ecological and social justice. The people of Mundra, Kutch, seem to have decided what they do not want. It remains to be seen if this non-violent struggle will make those in power in Gandhi’s land change their minds.
This article is available in French: Histoire d’une zone économique spéciale illégale au Gujarat
Manju Menon is a researcher who has been investigating and writing on the conflicts between environment and development in India. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi. She can be contacted at: manjumenon1975(@)gmail.com
Manshi Asher and Patrik Oskarsson, Se(i)zing the Coast and the Countryside, in Seminar, February 2008.
Manshi Asher, How Mundra became India’s Rotterdam, in Infochange, December 2008
Read also PT George, Special Economic Zones and People’s Struggles in Gujarat