Two high-profile functions in Gujarat involving Prime Minister Narendra Modi in mid September, one to lay the foundation for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project in Ahmedabad and the other to inaugurate the controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam over the Narmada river at Kevadia in Narmada district, were held under intense media glare. But a significant announcement he made on September 17 at Amreli did not catch as much public attention.
Addressing a public rally after the inauguration of a new market yard for the Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) in Amreli, which is considered a bastion of farmers belonging to the Patel community and fishers from the Koli community, Modi announced that it was time for a “sweet revolution” and a “blue revolution”. By sweet revolution he meant the adoption of apiculture (beekeeping) by farmers to supplement their incomes and blue revolution is a catch-all phrase for the transformation of the economic fortunes of those dependent on marine life for a livelihood, in this case the fishermen of coastal Gujarat.
Modi explained the terms thus: “I want to draw your attention to two things. Today is the inauguration day of the sweet revolution and second, Gujarat’s 1,600-kilometre-long coastline can lead to a blue revolution. Our brothers and sisters who are involved in fishing can set an example of a revolution based on marine wealth. These two initiatives can open a new dimension to rural and coastal Gujarat through the [Central government’s] schemes.”
Modi cited some specific methods that farmers could use to supplement their income through apiculture. Elaborating on the blue revolution, he said: “India’s coastline is vast. But Gujarat’s coast contributes towards blue revolution in a big way. We are progressing towards [the creation of] waterways; towards [starting] Ghogha-Dahej ferry service. We are working for the development of ports. We are working towards port-led development. If we want to send goods through the coastal route to Andhra Pradesh at Visakhapatnam port, then we can do it. Our tiles from Morbi can be transported to Kolkata [port] by incurring minimum expenses. That means through blue revolution, the government is working towards utilising coastal power because of which people living on the coasts of Gujarat will see a big transformation in their livelihoods.”
On October 23, more than a month after Modi’s exalted promise of a revolution in the coastal economy through “port-led development”, the Supreme Court passed an order in connection with Gujarat’s best-known private port project in Mundra taluk of Kutch district developed by Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone (APSEZ) Limited. The project has been embroiled in controversy for some years now for alleged violations of environmental norms.
In response to an application filed by Pravinsingh Bhurabha Chauhan, a resident of Mundra, the court asked a committee set up in 2012 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to probe alleged violations of environmental norms and to “look into the matter once again”, specifically into the allegation of large sand dune levelling. In their two-page order, Justice Madan B. Lokur and Justice Deepak Gupta said that one of the terms of reference of the five-member committee headed by Sunita Narain was “to report on the levelling of sand dunes” by the company in violation of environmental norms. But the court observed that “it appears there is no mention of levelling of sand dunes, particularly “Mor Dhuva” in the report submitted by the committee in April 2013.
So, the court requested the committee “to look into the matter once again and report to us at the earliest, preferably within six weeks, with regard to the levelling of sand dunes specially [sic] with regard to the Port facilities in Mundra, district Kutch, Gujarat.”
Kutch is one of the biggest coastal districts of Gujarat, with vast stretches of mangroves. Port developers have been interested in the region for sometime now. APSEZ Ltd’s Mundra project had been mired in controversy for several years, but it was in 2012-13 that it grabbed national headlines.
The Sunita Narain Committee report had described in substantial detail the “incontrovertible evidence of violation of environmental clearance condition and non-compliance” by the company. Most of these violations and “massive ecological changes with adverse impacts” related to mangroves and creeks. In order to compensate for this damage, the committee had recommended the imposition of a Rs.200-crore fine on the company to set up an Environment Restoration Fund.
In July 2016, a controversy arose over the project when a business newspaper claimed in a report that the Ministry had cancelled the fine. The Ministry, in a rejoinder, denied this was the case, arguing instead that more stringent conditions had been imposed on the company and that a financial commitment from the company for ecological restoration had been kept open-ended.
Meanwhile, Chauhan began pursuing his legal battle against the project. He filed his first public interest litigation petition in the Gujarat High Court in 2014.
The following account is drawn from a perusal of the documents filed in the High Court and subsequently in the Supreme Court by all parties concerned with the case. Chauhan’s basic contention was that there were five large sand dunes, each with a height of 15-21 metres, in and around Tunda and Vandh villages in Mundra taluk near the actual site of the APSEZ project. They are known by the following names: Mor dhuva, Bharadi Mata dhuva, Vekari dhuva, Bet dhuva and Anay dhuva. These sand dunes act as natural walls against any calamities that may arise from the sea, including tsunamis, high tides and cyclones. None of these sand dunes has been allotted to the company, yet its activities have been impacting the sand dunes. The dunes, especially Mor dhuva, have been flattened without permission from the agencies concerned, thereby causing tremendous irreversible damage to the region’s ecology. An independent committee to examine the damage was sought to be set up.
On its part, APSEZ Ltd refuted the allegations in the High Court, claiming that there were no sand dunes in the region and so the question of flattening them did not arise. In response to Chauhan’s petition, the court sought reports from the State’s Forest Department, the District Collector and the Environment Ministry’s regional office in Bhopal. It appeared satisfied with their reports, although the petitioner contested the methodology used to arrive at the findings in some reports.
The court also looked at the report prepared by the Sunita Narain Committee and, in early 2015, dismissed the petition stating that “the committee appointed by the Central government has taken care of the grievance voiced by the petitioner”. Chauhan appealed against this decision in 2016 in the Supreme Court, claiming that the lower court had not adequately examined the report, and he pointed out that the committee had not looked at the issue of destruction of sand dunes. The company argued against permitting the appeal by claiming yet again that there were no sand dunes and said that all allegations made by the applicant against the project were wrong. The apex court allowed the petition and sought a report from the same committee on the alleged destruction of sand dunes within six weeks. The apex court, however, did not stay the High Court’s order.
While a final verdict in the case is yet to be delivered, it is clear that the Prime Minister’s assertions of an ongoing blue revolution do not hold water in a State where the government is actively promoting “port-led development”.
In fact, the latest evidence about the status of fish workers in Gujarat runs contrary to some of the pronouncements made by the Prime Minister in his speech at Amreli. For instance, a report released by The Research Collective in November about the impact of industrial development, which includes port development, paints a grim picture of fish workers’ condition. Titled “Where have the fish gone?”, the report, which was released at the prestigious Seventh Assembly of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples, describes how small fish workers were losing out to large-scale mechanised fishing, which had its impact on sustainable fishing. It describes the larger trend thus: “The analysis of marine fish landing data shows that the rate of marine catch decelerated by almost 70 per cent from 1995 till now, indicating a drastic change in fish catch across the years. At the same time, export of fish catch increased drastically and has remained stable. Both these changes have corresponded with the expansion of mechanised fishing. From the late 1980s and the early 1990s on, fishers started moving away from specific local fishing grounds, criss-crossing across the State to find catch for export. From daily fishing, fish workers now spend up to 15-20 days at sea. This shift took place because of the needs of the market, facilitated through State schemes and policies that required a complete exploitation of fisheries resources. This made the fisheries industry and the livelihood of the fishing communities unsustainable.”
Pollution caused by large-scale projects on the coast affected fishing, too. The report describes the process thus: “Pollution and the resulting degradation of coastal areas have severely impacted the economic viability of fishing. Estuarine areas are ecologically critical and act as breeding grounds for fish. Their destruction has led to fish stock disappearing and ensuing livelihood collapse. Traditional fishing communities, using motorised crafts, with gill-nets or doll-nets, are travelling up to 15-30 nautical miles to be able to find enough catch to meet expenses. Mechanised boats are travelling 60-70 nautical miles. Fishworkers from Kutch are also reporting disappearance of fish species from areas where coastal industries have come up since early 2000.”
Apart from this study, the government’s own Census studies in the recent past have pointed to individual fish workers increasingly finding their traditional profession unviable. Thus, the studies reflect a rise in the number of part-time fish workers and a decline in the number of full-time fish workers. Not all of them have found alternative sources of livelihood. Clearly, as promised by the Prime Minister, a “big transformation in the livelihoods” of fish workers is going on, but it appears to be exactly the opposite of the claims of a blue revolution.