Se(i)zing the coast and the countryside


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THE Mundra Port and SEZ (MPSEZL) recently became the first Special Economic Zone in India to get listed on the stock market in November 2007. Its IPO on the Bombay Stock Exchange became extremely popular among the investors with a more than doubled share price on the first day of trade. For the owners, the Adani Group, this meant capital to expand their current operations in western Gujarat, but also a move to the top ten list of India’s richest for its chairman and founder, Gautam Adani. The worth of Gautam Adani and his brother is at present about Rs 40,000 crore (10.2 billion USD), topping corporate groups like the Aditya Birla Group’s owner Kumarmangalam Birla.

The Adani Group operates almost exclusively in Gujarat where it has been estimated to be the biggest private landowner, just ahead of Reliance with more than 8,000 hectares in its possession. Much of this land is concentrated along the coast and especially so in Mundra where the earlier port has been expanded and converted into a SEZ. Today, the MPSEZL is a combined port and proposed industrial area in Kutch totalling 2,648 hectares of land.

Located on the Gulf of Kutch, Mundra is a coastal taluka in the largest district of the state of Gujarat. Mundra taluka is spread over an area of 83000 hectares. It has 63 inhabited villages. The wide inter-tidal zone in the region creates a unique marine ecosystem dominated by mangroves and natural creek formations along the coast which the Waghers, a Muslim community, depends on for fishing. The inland areas of this coastal taluka are used for agriculture, horticulture (date orchards) and animal husbandry. The poorest of communities, mostly Muslims and Dalits, depend on coal-making from the scrub forests of prosopis juliflora, mostly growing on revenue wastelands and forest department lands.

Mundra town is dominated by the business community and entrepreneurs dependent on the Old Mundra Port of the Gujarat Maritime Board. The laid-back lifestyle, characteristic of most coastal regions in India, was part of Mundra’s culture as well, till about a decade ago when the Adanis started their operations in the area.

Today the MPSEZL area, amidst patches of dying or dead and buried mangroves, is dotted with units of the Indian Oil Company, HPCL, Container Freight Stations, Wilmar Oil refinery and the Adani Port. The MPSEZL website indicates that MoUs with the Taj group and JW Marriot have been signed for constructing luxury hotels and a world-class township. It was around the mid-1990s when the company first initiated the construction of a jetty in the area.

A small-scale start was followed by consistent land purchases for the construction of warehouses, godowns and other infrastructure. The full-fledged new private port was completed by 2000. Roads, rail and finally even an airport was set up in the area. All this was to eventually form a part of the Mundra SEZ plan, which was approved at the state level in 2003-04 under the Gujarat State SEZ Policy and Act (passed in 2002). However, with the passage of the central SEZ Act in 2005 a new approval was needed by the Ministry of Commerce, which was granted in April 2006 followed by the SEZ notification in July 2007.


The total area around Mundra consists of no less than three contiguous SEZs held by the same Adani Group; Mundra Special Economic Zone (1082 hectares), Gujarat Adani Port (2648 hectares) and Adani Power Private Limited (294 hectares). These zones were initially planned as one, before being split into three in order to comply with the land area limit set by the Union Ministry of Commerce last year. Further, the Adani Group has been granted the right to use and develop 1400 hectares of land around Mundra Port for 30 years under a concession agreement with the Gujarat government. This brings the total amount of land available to approximately 6300 hectares around Mundra to be developed into SEZs according to the company’s own estimates. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on his visit to Mundra last year called Mundra the ‘Paris of India’.

The legal status of land which now belongs to the Adani Group, can essentially be divided into four parts; government revenue and forest land under mangrove or scrub forests; government land being used and managed by panchayats under the category of gauchhar or grazing land; government revenue wasteland that lay waste or was being used for grazing; and patches of private land that was under agriculture or was uncultivable. Most of the land purchased by the Adani Group for its SEZs has been in phases and falls under the first three categories and hence has met with little direct opposition in the area. It is nevertheless pertinent to look at the land-use of the revenue wastelands that have been sold to the Mundra SEZ and its implications for the local communities and environment


A Gujarat Forest Department report by H.S. Singh, Chief Conservator of Forest, in early 2007 claims that 340 square km (34000 hectares) of mangroves along the state coastline have either disappeared completely or are on the verge of disappearing. These drastic losses of mangrove forest stem mainly from industrial activities, specifically in the Gulf of Kutch. ‘The mangroves are safe in areas where industrial development is not possible, like Kori Creek in Kutch. In certain areas like Mundra and Hazira, they disappeared overnight,’ states Dr Singh. (http://www.indianexpress. com/printerFriendly/26752.html). Quoted in this report, the Mundra SEZ had 3000 hectares of mangroves out of a total of 13000 hectares and much of these had already been cleared.

Ashwin Zinzuwadia, senior reporter of Kutch Mitra, a local daily based in Mundra, has been tracking the company’s activities since it first came to the area. ‘My estimate is that more than a crore of mangrove trees have been lost.’ He has reported, photographed and seen with his own eyes the process by which the face of the Mundra coastline changed. ‘They have run their excavators non-stop for the past few years, chopping, digging and even burying the unique species which acts as a protective barrier for the coast.’ Another technique being used to let the mangroves die a natural death is to close the patches with sand bunds and deprive the mangroves of salt water. In addition, the mangroves will indirectly suffer from port and industrial activity with threat from oil spills and pollution.


Local NGOs, national and regional media have repeatedly carried news of the consistent destruction of forests and the fact that it is a clear violation of all forest conservation laws and yet it has not drawn adequate response from the state or central governments. In 2005 Tehelka published a report on mangrove destruction in Mundra, and last year Down to Earth reported that 570 ha of mangroves had been cleared. Similarly it was reported in The Hindu in August 2007 that since 1998, more than half of the 600 hectares of mangroves in the area had been destroyed. The statistics of the actual area remains unclear but local sources are witness that the destruction has been consistent and large-scale. The response of the Adani Group and the Government of Gujarat has been to claim that replanting is being carried out on 760 ha elsewhere.


With most of the mangrove land not notified as forest lands or on lands under the jurisdiction of the revenue department instead of the forest department, there has been unwillingness from either department to accept responsibility and take action against the company. A recent memorandum submitted by local communities and NGOs to the Ministry of Environment and Forests states that many of the areas used for the SEZ and port fall in Coastal Regulation Zone-I, which vide a 1991 notification, disallows construction and development activity along the coast. This point was raised in the first Environment Clearance Public Hearing conducted for the jetty in 1998. Despite this the port was granted an environment clearance by the MoEF. While the extended SEZ is yet to get an environmental clearance, bunding and land-clearing activities in the area continue in violation of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2006.

The company is now awaiting forest clearance for an area of 1576 hectares. As per information provided under RTI by the local forest department, this land consists of more than 579,000 trees of at least 12 to 13 species and is home to more than 23 species of migratory birds like herons, egrets and painted storks. A senior forest department official (in a discussion), while admitting that he was not in favour of the diversion of mangrove and forest lands for the project which he ‘personally’ considered environmentally destructive, said that he was not in a position to take any steps to stop the damage.


Apart from supporting migratory bird populations, mangroves also form the spawning grounds for many a fish species, thus supporting the local fishing communities, which form a significant population in the area. Mundra taluka has almost 500 families dependent on fishing who now live under the threat of losing their livelihoods as the port and jetties expand into their traditional fishing harbours. Since their shelters along the creek shores are transient, with no legal pattas, staking a claim on lost fishing grounds is hard for them. As mentioned earlier, most of this land has been classified as unsurveyed seashore or revenue wasteland.

The dredging activities at the port and movement of barges and large shipping vessels also affect fish catch. ‘The big ships and vessels sail through channels where we put up our nets, destroying them totally. Each net costs us almost 20 to 25000 rupees,’ says a fisherman from Navinal, the first fishing harbour that was lost to the port. Last year, one fishing village, Shekhadiya stood up in protest as the land being acquired for the SEZ’s airstrip blocked their daily path to the creek. The matter was taken to the High Court and Shekhadiya with other fishing villages protested through a one-month-long sit-in at the Collector’s office. Says Qasem Bhai, from Shekhadiya, who was leading the movement, ‘They were pressurised enough to give us an alternative route, which is one and half kilometre longer.’

‘We went in for an out-of-court settlement because the fact is that we do not have the resources to carry on long court battles.’ Communities have no faith in the judicial and administrative systems. In 1997-98 when fishworkers of Jahrpara village (using the Navinal creek) carried on a movement after being evicted forcefully from their fishing shelters by the company, they got no response from the government. ‘As far as we understand the government and company are one, we have no faith that anyone will protect our rights,’ retorts Jena Bai, who was one of the leaders in the movement.


The fishing communities are not the only ones facing problems. A total of 14 villages have lost more than 1400 acres of grazing land (under panchayats) to the SEZ. ‘Many of these sales are a direct violation of a Gujarat government order (2002) which directs that every village has to have 40 acres of gauchhar land for 100 animals,’ says Bharat Josh, a lawyer with a local NGO. Tunda, Vandh and Siracha villages dominated by Rabaris (a traditional cattle/buffalo-rearing community relying entirely on animal husbandry) have lost 1800 acres of revenue wasteland and 311 acres of grazing land to the Adani Power SEZ and are now living in perpetual fear of losing the rest of the gauchhar to Tata company’s proposed 4000 mw ultra mega power plant coming up on the other side of the village on approximately 1250 hectares of land, two kilometres from the main Mundra SEZ. Rumour is that this would fall within the SEZ area. However, official records do not indicate so.

Many families in Tunda have been resisting the purchase of agricultural land by the Tatas as well. However, the state and companies have their own way of applying pressure. Locals say that the revenue officials have indicated that if the land is not sold, they would be forced to use the Land Acquisition Act to acquire land. Obviously the compensation offered by the state does not match up to the tempting rates offered by companies. Coercion of various kinds is used to make sure that the land is made available to the developers. ‘They dig power poles or just put up cement block on private lands and say they have the right to do so or claim that the land is theirs. We have been making rounds to the tehsildar’s office to resolve the issue but the tehsildar refuses to help. People are selling land under pressure,’ says Anwar bhai from Bhadresar. Since there is no direct or large-scale displacement involved, the question of rehabilitation does not arise.


It is no consolation that the land has been sold to the Adani Group for what is essentially peanuts. Or as Irshaad Bukhari, sarpanch of Mundra gram panchayat, says ‘Sarkare pani na bhave jameen vechi nakhi…’ (the government sold the land at the rate of water). According to newspaper reports and local sources the Adani Group purchased land from the government at a rate varying from Rs 2 to 8 per sq metre. ‘The same land in the SEZ has been leased at Rs 1000 per sq metre by the company. And container units are paying rents to the company varying from Rs 10 to 12 lakh per annum,’ claims Bukhari. Clearly the SEZ developers are in for huge gains.

Bukhari’s concern also arises from the fact that he runs a clearance agency at the Old Mundra Port close to the Adani Port. The Old Mundra Port has been a hub of small-time trading activity and the Maritime Board has an annual income of almost one crore rupees from this port. Despite this the GMB has not made any new investments in providing facilities at the port. ‘We have heard that they are planning to hand over the port to the Adanis.’


Naturally, this proposed move of the government has not been well received by the shipping agents and craft-owners at Mundra and other old ports. ‘If the privatization occurs, then everyone from the shipping agents to the ship-owners, the country craft builders to the labourers employed at the Old Port risk losing their livelihoods.’ ‘As it is, we are finding it difficult to survive with the Adani Port close by. Their dredging activities are disturbing the movement of our craft.’ Adds a worker from the Old Port, ‘I have been applying to the Adani Port for a job for the past four years but have had no luck. The fact is that they do not prefer to employ local people. Most of the labourers and workers are from outside the area.’

Local residents claim that at any point there are 10 to 15000 migrant and contract labourers in Mundra. ‘Most of them are adivasis and dalit or Backward Castes from Bihar, UP, MP, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Andhra and even Kerala,’ says Salim, who has rented out his land for worker hutments to a contractor. A drive through the smooth roads in the proposed SEZ area and the kucha ones outside, jammed with incessant movement of trucks, reveals the conditions of the migrant labourers living in hutments and shanties along the roadside, without basic facilities like water and sanitation. ‘Water-borne diseases are very common. In the rains the entire area gets logged. This is the Paris of India,’ retorts Salim. There does not seem one aspect of life of local residents that has remained untouched by the development of the Mundra Port and SEZ. Albeit the changes are causing more anxiety than cheer.

Zoom out to the region surrounding MPSEZL and we find the Kandla and Jamnagar Petrochemical SEZs and other mammoth projects where similar environmental, cultural and socio-economic fallouts are being borne out. Yet there is no cumulative independent environment or social impact assessment nor a cost-benefit analysis to evaluate how much these projects are actually contributing to the real economy in comparison to the damage they are causing. While MPSEZL is in the process of being developed, the Adani Group is preparing to set up yet another massive project in the 1000 hectare multi-product SEZ and port in Dholera on the border of Bhavnagar and Ahmedabad districts.


Dholera is located along the coast of the Gulf of Khambhat region, a tidal flat area, with the sea waters inundating large areas of land during high tide and rain waters in the monsoon. This region is referred to as the ‘bhal’ region in Gujarati. While the first impression is that the land is waste or saline, a closer interaction reveals the function of the area for those who inhabit it. The inundation of land, for a stretch of several kilometres, creates a diverse ecosystem of grassland and tidal flats serving as home to many a migratory bird species like storks, lapwings and herons. The area is also inhabited by the famous black buck deer and is a few kilometres from the Velavadar National Park.

The plan to develop Dholera Port was part of the Gujarat government’s policy to develop minor ports in the private sector in the late 1990s. To be developed jointly with the JK Group, the project was taken over by the Adani Group. News reports indicate that the port project was awaiting environmental clearance for almost five years. Consistent pressure was put on the MoEF by questions raised in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha on why the clearance was not being accorded to the project. The answers of the ministry revealed that the project was being delayed due to provisions of the Coastal Regulation Zones, which would be violated if it was allowed to come up. After much questioning, the port was however cleared in 2006. In the same year Adani Group also received an in-principle clearance for its proposed 1000 hectare Special Economic Zone from the MoC.

‘About 25 villages in three talukas – Dhanduka, Dhodka and Bhavnagar – are expected to be affected by the port and SEZ,’ says Devuben Pandya, of a small NGO, called Mahiti, based at Dholera. Villages are located on the periphery of the tidal flats. These are hostile living conditions for humans but people continue to live and practice agriculture wherever possible. Over the years, as more and more lands are being rendered infertile due to saline ingress, these communities, especially households with smaller land holdings, have become dependent on daily wages in nearby towns and cities for their day-to-day survival.


While little has been done to address the problem of salinity affecting agriculture, the Government of Gujarat has over the past few years seen the area as a potential industrial hub, a plan which will actually increase the problem of salinity. For instance, Nirma set up its factory at Kala Talav (about eight kms from the Dholera port site) village some years ago. In order to avoid inundation of the factory premises, the company built up about 10 to 15 km-long embankment – only to cause formation of artificial creeks as drainage patterns got disturbed. These creeks have brought in salt water into the agricultural fields, causing further damage to the productivity of the land. While drinking water scarcity has been an issue here during times of cyclones and drought alike, with the coming up of the Nirma factory fresh water ponds in the nearby villages have also turned brackish. ‘If more industrial development takes place there will be large-scale migration, as problems of salinity and drinking water scarcity will further rise,’ adds Devuben.


Further, as in case of Mundra, much of the land sold to the developers is revenue wasteland and therefore communities have no say in the change of land-use. The problem of grazing lands will occur in Dholera as in Mundra. Migratory pastoral nomadic communities referred to as jaths graze their camels on the ‘bhal’ grass lands. Bharwads are buffalo and cattle-rearers and are also dependent on these. The scrub forests of the region are famous for their sturdiness to support cattle at the time of drought. Says Naseeb, a jath camel-rearer, ‘Over the past years our camels have reduced in numbers. The grazing grounds are shrinking as factories come up. On the one hand the forest department stops us from grazing, saying that our animals are in wildlife territory, and on the other hand government gives companies all the grazing land for projects. No one even asks us and there are no provisions for alternative employment for us.’ He has no clue that a port and SEZ is coming up in the area.

The growth of the Adani Group, who today virtually own four coastal talukas in the state, has been well-ensured in the current political and economic scenario of Gujarat. This is a state that is out to become the SEZ capital of the country, at any cost. The constant hype around foreign investments, the growing infrastructure and the booming stock markets have shrouded the death of fragile ecosystems, the appropriation of common property resources, and the subsequent loss to the local people who since centuries earned their livelihoods based on access to the land and the sea.


In a sense there are great similarities to the dynamics that are being played out in the creation of SEZs not just in Dholera and Mundra but probably all over Gujarat. While there are apprehensions about the land purchase for industries, opposition has been virtually absent or sporadic even as similar or even smaller acquisition of land in other states (for example, Nandigram of West Bengal or Posco of Orissa) has been strongly resisted. This could be attributed to various factors, which include the systematic breakdown of existing livelihoods based on natural resources; the initial handing over of government lands to projects; the fragmented purchase of lands where buying and selling of land is not a transparent or collective procedure, but rather an individual speculative exercise, with few people knowing the real purpose of land purchase and the rates at which the deals are struck, and the nature of land as a traditional common resource where no or little private patta land exists.

A fragmented society polarized around caste, religion and class makes the possibility of opposition by the ‘losers of resources’ even more difficult in a business-oriented Gujarat. Last but not least, as this case-study illustrates, when the legislature, the bureaucracy and the judiciary serve business interests, there is little scope for democracy to survive.


* The authors are currently researching the implications of SEZs in different states of India. This paper is based on a recent field investigation in Gujarat.