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July 28 1999

Redemptorist Father Thomas Kocherry is leading some 35,000 Gujarat fisherfolk in a fight against a proposed commercial harbor in the western Indian coastal state that threatens to displace them.

The Gujarat government has sanctioned a consortium of Indian and American firms to build a US$604 million harbor in Umergaon in Valsad district.

"Umergaon fishing is very sustainable and traditional. It should not be touched," said Father Kocherry, coordinator of the World Forum of Fish-harvesters and Fishworkers (WFF).

Not only would the project displace people and deplete fish resources, but the port´s improved facilities would attract bigger boats that would gradually oust smaller ones, he warned.

Local people have formed the Bandar Hatao Sangarsh Samiti (BHSS, struggle committee for port removal), saying that the government project would help only big business at the cost of their lives.

Committee convener Pratap Save said the project would affect some 100,000 people in 53 villages, adding that "equally important will be the ecological disaster the port would bring."

Situated 180 kilometers north of Mumbai, the port would render homeless those who have been fishing there for centuries, he said, adding that the government has no fishing policy.

Save accused the government of keeping the proposal from the people, and he cited an official survey that reported cultivated and fertile land as barren. "If the plan was really for development, why should the state keep the plan under cover?" he asked.

Father Kocherry said such a project would destroy fertile and sustainable natural fishing harbors and the ecology. "Once the sea is depleted, the government will look for aquaculture, which would pollute drinking water and destroy all paddy fields and mangroves," he warned.

BHSS president Harishbhai Machi admitted that fighting the state is "not an easy task" and said that he was skeptical about the chance of success. He also said government officials and others had made threats so the people would give up their struggle, but he said they "were determined to fight to the finish."

Machi accused authorities of "fooling the poor people with false promises," and he said, "History reminds us that the displaced never get their due."

Activist Jayesh Karbhari questioned the need for another port when, he said, the ports of Mumbai and Kandla on either side of Umergaon are "underutilized."

Father Kocherry supported Karbhari´s argument, urging the government not to invest in building new ports but to "use the existing ones to the maximum."

Gujarat fisheries minister Babubhai Bokhiriya lamented that vested interests had spread "misconceptions and false propaganda" about the project, which he claimed "will bring in revenue and improve the locals´ economic condition."

"The project will begin only after taking the locals into confidence," he told UCA News, adding that a fishing harbor would be built simultaneously with the commercial port. "We are contemplating port-based development," he said.