Chorwad fisherfolk: Gujarat govt scheme to help sea-faring community fails; will CSR under top business house succeed?

A Chorwad fisherman preparing his net before going to the sea
A Chorwad fisherman preparing his net before going to the sea

By Counterview Desk

Chorwad’s 200-odd fishermen, living in Ward No 7 of the small coastal township, are angry. Despite wide promises by the Gujarat government to provide them with all types of facilities that would enable them to eke a respectable livelihood, the Rs 11,000 crore Sagarkhedu project meant for people next to Gujarat’s 1,600 km long sea shore has been of little help to them. Despite repeated representations to the local municipality and the district collector, Junagarh, their effort to have a viable fishing port next the spot they live has fallen on deaf ears. There is a fishing port, set up in 1990s, but it does not have enough space to anchor even the small boats they own, hence they must go to other fishing ports far away to “park” them, especially during the monsoon.

One of the important demands of the fishermen has been to allow them to anchor their boats next to the Holiday Home, situated next to the Chorwad beach. Built in 1928, the Holiday Home was once a royal place of the Nawab of Junagarh, Mahabat Khan, who went to Karachi after Partition. Owned by the state-controlled Tourism Development of Gujarat Ltd (TCGL) now, the Holiday Home is in a dilapidated state. In fact, boards can be found next to the palace that it is “not safe” to go near it. Chorwad’s Ward No 7, where the fishermen and their families live, is situated just next to this former royal palace. They feel, the beach next to the Holiday Home has enough place to anchor their boats.

The fishermen particularly need to put their boats to rest on the beach during four months of monsoon, when they cannot go deeper into sea to get a catch. However, citing the reason that the area belongs to the TCGL, the only answer they get from the authorities is, they cannot allow the fishermen to park their boats next to the Holiday Home. What is particularly appalling is, the area – which once was a tourism hub – is in a shambles for nearly two decades, the the government is doing nothing to improve the situation. The royal palace is crumbling, and even the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has not cared to do anything to restore it. As for the TCGL, its plan to turn the area into a profitable tourism spot by selling it to a private party has failed.

Mainly belonging to the Kharwa community, an interaction with the fishermen revealed that little was spent under the Sagarkhedu Yojna for them. One of the “schemes” implemented was a bus service from the Holiday Camp to Chorwad Bazar, which stopped plying immediately after it began. Despite promises under the project, there is no hospital or government-owned clinic next to Ward No 7, and the nearest spot they must visit to get any treatment is 4 kilometres away. Requests to get a small clinic constructed in the area have failed to find favour with the authorities because “there is no land available for the purpose.” Even drinking water facility in Ward No 7 is poor – water is supplied every alternate day, and the supply is erratic. People must wait for long to get water.

Under the Sagarkhedu project, the fishermen complain, they were given sub-standard life-saving jackets and torches, but thereafter nothing has happened. Recently, they were promised solar lights for their boats. However, according to them, all this would be of no use without a viable port. Meanwhile, the Gujarat government recently declared that it had increased the amount for Sagarkhedu project from Rs 11,000 crore, which was to be spent during 2007-12, to Rs 21,000 crore, for 2012-17. At a time when there was complete failure to help fishermen under the Sagarkhedu project during 2007-12, they find the new rise bizarre.

Holiday Home: Government-owned, abandoned
Holiday Home: Government-owned, abandoned

A Gujarat government source, declaring the rise in the Sagarkhedu allocation, calls it a “a unique twelve point flagship programme”, meant to focus attention “in an integrated manner on the developmental issues of 60 lakh population living in 3,000 Villages of 38 coastal talukas in 13 districts” along Gujarat’s sea coast. It insists, “This programme addresses special problems to improve quality of life and human development index (HDI) in coastal areas, especially fisherman population”, adding, “It takes a holistic and integrated view that people living in the coastal area play a distinctive role not only in the economy but in the preservation of the ecosystem.”

The focus areas of the Sabarkhedu project, the source said, include “capacity building and training, upgradation of technology in traditional professions, specific and time bound action plan for improving wage and self-employment, educational facilities, health infrastructure, drinking water, housing, salinity ingress, electrification and water conservation”, and so on. Despite such lofty talk, fishermen of Chorwad have found that, ever since the programme was implemented in 2007, their plight has not changed. If anything, it has worsened.

In fact, reports suggest, at the end of the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-12), a little over two per cent of Rs 11,000 crore was spent on development projects under the Sagarkhedu Yojana. The amount, if official sources quoted by these reports suggest, is Rs 235.68 crore, or 2.13 per cent of Rs 11,000 crore.   One of the attractions offered to the fishermen was kerosene at subsidized rate. But Chorwad fishermen complain, they get just 70 to 80 litres of kerosene per month, is “not enough” for them to go deeper into the sea to get better catch. They must satisfy themselves by remaining around the beach, receiving poor catch.

Chorwad shot into prominence, even acquired some national fame, after the Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) opened a memorial-cum-museum in the memory RIL founder late Dhirubhai Ambani, who belonged to Chorwad village. The memorial was inaugurated in the second week of February 2012 by late Ambani’s wife, Kokilaben. The declared aim of the memorial was to display the life and achievements of Ambani, who spent his initial years in Chorwad. With such a big industrial house having its roots in Chorwad, there is reason to expect that it will spend some fund from its huge corporate social responsibility (CSR) budget for the Chorwad fishermen and other neglected communities. So far, there is no voice from the top industrial house on this.

Fishing boats of Chorwad fishermen
Fishing boats of Chorwad fishermen

Meanwhile, Chorwad, which was once a tourism hub, thanks mainly to the Holiday Camp, situated on the picturesque shoreline of Saurashtra, is experiencing a slow economic collapse. Till 1990, thousands of tourists used to visit and stay at the camp and economy of the coastal town was booming. Especially businesses of traditional cloths, decorative material made out of seashell, handicrafts, restaurants and other tourism-related commercial activities flourished and locals had lucrative options of livelihood. But with the palace being neglected, the tourist flow has dwindled. Porch of the palace has come down. Belgian Chandeliers, Italian furniture, fabulous showpieces and invaluable paintings and other antique items have got destroyed or stolen.

Dhirubhai Ambani, who spent his early life in the coastal village of Chorwad, was interested in buying the Holiday Home and wanted to develop the resort to promote his native place as tourist destination. Negotiations also took place between top officials of state tourism department and representatives of RIL around a decade ago. However, the deal could not come through and now the property is abandoned. A tourism blogger has said that the Holiday Home is among the many stories that form the “sad state of tourism and heritage buildings in Gujarat”. The blogger adds, “I have visited Chorwad, a few times, between 1987-89. It was then considered among the more premium of places to stay and a must on the Gujarat tourism itinerary. It was strange, almost eerie, the ruins, wind billowing in our ears, and otherwise silence. The usual dogs on the beach and some young couples (where did they come from?) strolling on the beach.”

Inputs: Johanna Lokhande, Centre for Social Justice

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