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June 19 2000

Fisherfolk in a western Indian village say a Catholic priest has revived their fight against a harbor project after their leader died in police custody.

The fisherfolk in Umergaon of Gujarat state´s Valsad district have fought a US$604 million commercial harbor that they say threatens to displace them.

However, the cause suffered a set back when its leader Colonel Pratap Save, a former Indian army officer, was allegedly beaten to death in police custody.

According to a court petition, Save was arrested on April 7 at home and "brutally beaten in the police lockup." He slipped into a coma next morning and was taken to a Mumbai hospital where he died April 20 due to brain damage.

The petition stated that "the police beating was the direct cause of the colonel´s death" and asked the culprits be arrested.

Several people in Umergaon village said the "momentum would have been lost" after Save´s death if Redemptorist Father Thomas Kocherry had not joined them.

Devji Tandel, who joined the protest after resigning his legislative assembly membership to protest the Gujarat government´s permission for the project, said the struggle gained momentum with Father Kocherry´s support.

"We have got a boost," the member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian peoples´ party), which rules the state, told UCA News.

Father Kocherry told some 5,000 people in Umergaon, 180 kilometers north of Mumbai, June 4 that the project could come only over the "bodies of some 100,000 people" in the region.

However, the priest, who has championed the cause of fisherfolk in the country for the past two decades, called on local people to lead their fight. "We can only help. The real baton is in your hands," he told Sunita, Save´s widow, who is now leading the protest.

The Gujarat government has approved the launch of a consortium of Indian and American firms to build the harbor. But the U.S. Oil Company, a firm in the consortium, withdrew from the project after it became controversial.

Father Kocherry described the withdrawal as the first sign of victory, but he criticized the Gujarat government´s determination to go ahead with the project with help from other international partners.

The government "has become crazy about industrialization, at the cost of environment, people and ecology," said Father Kocherry, coordinator of the World Forum of Fish-harvesters and Fishworkers.

"Why go ahead with the project if the people for whom the government claims to build the harbor are not interested? But who listens?" he asked.

Tandel said the local people have decided to intensify the protest and will block rail traffic if the government fails to act against those responsible for Save´s death. "We will not let them go scot-free," Rashid Talyarkhan, an activist, told UCA News.

Meanwhile, a group of senior citizens belonging to Gujarat Lok Samiti (Gujarat people´s forum) formed a fact-finding team led by a retired judge to probe Save´s death.

Local people in Bandar Hatao Sangarsh Samiti (struggle committee for port removal), say the project would help only big businesses at the cost of their lives by attracting bigger boats that would gradually oust smaller ones.

They said the project would affect some 100,000 people in 53 villages and destroy the region´s ecological equilibrium, render homeless those fishing there for centuries and deplete fish resources.