Kanchi Kohli*, who recently visited some of the critical areas of Gujarat coast, says that Kandla’s expansion plans await nod, against the backdrop of people having seen displacement thrice, fish catch having been drastically reduced, and living next to hazardous chemical facilities has become an everyday reality:
The scene was surreal. I thought it was because it was that time of the evening and long travel hours were telling on all of us. The sun was setting and the light was dim. Exhausted after the entire day, all I could think was of spending some quiet time at the fishing harbour in the company of artisanal fishing, a conversation over the day’s fish catch and flamingoes for company. But the road took a different turn.
We decided to drive around Kandla port near Gandhidham in the Kutch district of Gujarat. Kandla, located in the Gulf of Kutch, was constructed in the 1950s as a public sector port. My colleagues insisted that we get a firsthand account of what the last six decades had meant for the area. Fishing communities have been living around the cargo handling terminals, oil and petroleum facilities as well as hazardous chemical industries for generations. With pipelines running alongside these coastal villages, flooding was a consistent nuisance. Life around Kandla was not happy, they said.
Kandla is considered one of India’s largest ports. The website of the Port and Special Economic Zone proudly announces it as Asia’s first Export Processing Zone (EPZ). It is also deemed India’s largest multi-product functional SEZ encompassing 1,000 acres with 142 performing units.
For a while now the Kandla Port Trust (KPT) has been inviting bids for expanding the port’s liquid and dry cargo handling facilities, construction of new jetties and a railway line. Leading this bid is the Adani group located formidably in the adjoining Mundra block. KPT is already in an agreement with the Adani Port & Special Economic Zone Ltd to Built, Operate and Transfer (BOT) the proposed dry bulk cargo-handling terminal at Tuna, off Tekra near Kandla port. Ironically, Adani Port and SEZ Ltd is the leading private sector competitor for Kandla.
Understanding the history of issues related to displacement, legal violations, ecological destruction and livelihood loss in the area was more critical than ever before. On December 18, 2013, the district administration and the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) organised a public hearing for the construction and expansion of integrated facilities within the existing Kandla port at Tuna. With this approval, the KPT under the Adani group’s leadership will expand into the coastal ecosystem of Kutch where land use is yet to be transformed for industrial use.
Many representations were made and objections raised at the public hearing held near Nakti Bridge on the Tuna-Kandla Road. They ranged from concerns about the timing of the public hearing, which was bang in the middle of the fishing season, to the location not being conducive to ensure participation. It was highlighted that the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report had severely underplayed the fishing, pastoral and other artisanal livelihoods in the region. The existence of over 37 functional saltpans in the area did not find a mention in the EIA report.
There was a call to cancel this public hearing on all these related grounds, as it did not meet the requirements of the EIA notification, 2006. Neither the district administration nor the GPCB obliged. The 371 page document now uploaded on the GPCB’s website lists them all.
These regulatory formalities seem a sham especially when one gets a brief firsthand experience of the unresolved issues that continue to face fishing villages around Kandla since decades. People have been displaced three times. The fish catch has drastically reduced. And living next to hazardous chemical facilities has become an everyday reality.
Reading the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification (CRZ), 2011, makes the contradictions appear even more evident. The notification has declared the entire Gulf of Kutch as a ‘Critical Vulnerable Coastal Area’ due to its ecologically sensitive nature. Kandla’s expansion plans are awaiting the opinion of the Gujarat Coastal Zone Management Authority, which is also entrusted with the task of implementing the provisions of the CRZ notification in the state.
The sun was setting and the lights came on. Ships were docked not far away and the main gate of KPT was standing tall. Was I really witnessing what I was? I asked myself. Was this what will become of Tuna village where I had hopped on to a fishing boat just a year ago? Where would the mud flats where the flamingoes tapped go? How will the day’s catch of Bombay duck fish be dried and packed for export?
I felt a tap on my shoulder even as I was lost in thought. It was time to return. With Kandla’s past behind us, the present was reaching out for urgent attention. I wished that the next wave would bring in a turbulent tide and turn back the clock. Maybe we could have set things right along the way, as the past cannot be undone. The sun had set, but hopefully Kandla’s future has not.
*Kanchi Kohli is an independent researcher and writer based in Delhi. Shared with http://www.civilsocietyonline.com/