Maharashtra’s fishing community fights to protect its ‘golden belt’ coast

Fearing a fate worse than Maharashtra’s southern sea-coast, Dahanu fishing communities demand suspension of Vadhavan port project

Maharashtra’s Dahanu locals call Vadhavan’s coastline “the golden belt of fish,” says State Machhimar Kriti Samiti President Leo Colaco when asked about the land chalked out for building the thirteenth major national port.

“The Vadhavan coast provides a variety of fish in huge quantities. Fish-rearing requires the best environment that is naturally available here. Yet, the government is set on a port project which will endanger the livelihood of local fisherfolk,” he says.

Colaco voices the concern of an entire coast of villagers who have been holding huge protests for the last two weeks to oppose the development project undertaken by the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) and the Maharashtra Maritime Board.

Most recently the fishing community voiced their apprehensions through demonstrations and shutdown of fish markets in Thane, Palghar and Mumbai districts on December 15, 2020.

During the Tuesday strike, the community expressed their aversion to the new seaport that would rob off their land and livelihood and hand it over to the private companies.

“The JNPT and the government is creating a new industry. At the same time, they are scrapping the old fishing industry which has thrived here for so long,” says Colaco.

The lead partner in the project, the JNPT, received an ‘in-principle’ approval for the seaport from the central government on February 5, 2020 at an estimated cost of Rs. 65,544.54 crore. At the time, the government had said, “There is a need for a deep draft port that will accommodate the largest Container Ships in the world and also cater to the spill over traffic from JNPT port once its planned capacity of 10 million TEUs is fully utilized. The Vadhavan port has a natural draft of about 20 meters close to the shore, making it possible for it to handle bigger vessels at the port. Development of Vadhavan port will enable call of container vessels of 16,000-25,000 TEUs capacity, giving advantages of economies of scale and reducing logistical cost.”

However, nearby villages remain sceptical of the environmental precautions and rehabilitation plans included by the port trust.

According to National Association of Fishermen Convener Rajhans Tapke, “Fisher people are dependent on the sea and the rain. If the Vadhavan  is sanctioned, land reclamation will increase pulling the sea to one side. This will increase pollution and decrease the fish population. The reclamation will drown our villages.” Tapke further said that Maharashtra’s fishing community has long suffered from slow pollution. He said that the construction of a port will worsen this situation.

Above all, villagers fear to suffer the same fate as the fishing community in Uran.

Years ago, the JNPT had taken up similar projects in Maharashtra’s Uran. If you see the area now, only the villages are left standing. The surrounding ecology has been completely destroyed,” says Colaco.

On July 17, 2017 Maharashtra Times wrote about Sheva and Koliwada villages – nowadays known as Navin Sheva and Hanuman Koliwada – in Uran that were displaced for the construction of a world-class port also undertaken by the JNPT.

The revenue department rehabilitated the villages at different places. However, villagers objected to the new place that was less than what they were guaranteed under the Rehabilitation Act. They appealed to the United Nations Human Rights department for proper rehabilitation of Hanuman Koliwada village. For a hopeful moment they received the support of the state Lokayukta.

“However, even today villagers are struggling. The poverty is such that people are desperate to fill their stomachs, drinking jaggery tea instead of sugar tea,” says Tapke.

Fearing such a fate, villagers have vehemently denounced the project. On December 2 and December 3, they prevented the Trust’s biodiversity survey team from entering the area citing pending permission from the local Gram Panchayat. However, police officials imposed Section 144 claiming protesters violated social distancing guidelines.

Moreover, President of the Adivasi Ekta Parishad Kaluram Dhodade says that police closed the route connecting forest villages to the port so that Adivasi fishermen could not join the protests.

“Palghar is an Adivasi community. Of course, all fisherfolk and farmers here are adivasis as well. This land and sea belongs to us but they are forcefully carrying out surveys and taking away our source of living,” says Dhodade.

As per the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification Ministry Of Environment And Forests, “Dwelling units of traditional coastal communities including fisherfolk, tribals… are not used for any commercial activity… are not sold or transferred to non-traditional coastal communities.”

Yet, following the Union Cabinet approval in February, the Shipping Ministry said there is no restriction for constructing a port that has no manufacturing or processing activity.

“All of this is being done for the Union government as per Modi’s wishes. You are monopolising the sea and forcing us out. Where are we supposed to go once they take away the land?” says Dhodade.

He further points out how the government uses Adivasi welfare to sanction dam projects but directs the conserved water towards Vihar and Bhayander. Meanwhile, pollution in local regions has worsened to a state where people barely live beyond 40 years.

“We fisherfolk are sea-farmers. But while farmers get some recompense for their damages, we have not received anything for years. We are side-lined from the mainstream vision of farmers,” says Tapke.

Nonetheless, the fishing community continues to struggle against corporate encroachment. During recent farmers’ protests, fisherwomen had gone out on the streets to demand the withdrawal of the three anti-farmer laws as well as the Vadhavan port.


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