The P&O port that no one wants

Ian Burrell reports on a threat to old India
Click to follow
The Independent Online
PLANS by P&O, one of Britain's best known companies, to build a giant port in one of India's most beautiful and environmentally fragile areas are to be pushed through, despite fears that it will damage the livelihoods of the tribal people living nearby.

The pounds 700m port is to be built in Dahanu, an area in the west of India that has become known as the "lungs of Bombay" because of its tropical orchards and flower farms.

Dahanu is home to the Warlis, one of India's remaining tribal peoples, who remain unassimilated into the rest of the population, living a traditional life in huts made of wood, straw and cow dung. The Independent on Sunday has obtained a report, commissioned by P&O in an attempt to gather evidence in favour of the project, which concludes that the port will destroy the Warli way of life. The report, which has not been officially released, was compiled by Vasundhara, an Indian non-governmental organisation, and found that 70 per cent of villagers opposed the port while only 11 per cent favoured it.

"Respondents feel that their existing way of life will completely change because there will be an increase in population, an influx of anti-social elements and destruction of temples," it says. "They also feel that their community will be alienated and fragmented, with industrialisation and urbanisation."

The report concludes: "The special status of Dahanu Taluka, with its high tribal population, makes the building of an industrial port in the region totally inappropriate and unsuitable."

The researchers found that there would be no economic benefit from the 29-berth port, which would be about eight times the size of the port of Liverpool. "The regional economy is a self-sufficient one and rooted in the natural wealth of the area. The sustainable use of natural resources has created a flourishing economy," they reported. "The people in the region are basically self-sufficient and self-employed ... there is a high degree of social cohesiveness."

It is argued that a port in the deep natural harbour at Vadhavan in Dahanu would take the strain from the congested port of Bombay 80 miles away. The opposition has been led by the tribal fishermen, who recently took to their boats for a mass protest against the port plans.

P&O has also been threatened with legal action, because the region is protected from development by national government environmental laws. As a result the company said it would consider dropping the deal. But last week the government of Maharashtra, which believes the port will create jobs and help to regenerate a large area of India, said it was keen to push the proposals through. The Chief Minister, Manohar Joshi, said: "My government is determined to see the port start." He said opposition was "misguided".

P&O said yesterday that it was conducting a feasibility study for the Maharashtra government and no decision would be taken until April.

Sultana Bashir, of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, said: "We believe that P&O are acting in a way that would be unacceptable in the UK. We are not against building industrial ports in principle but we are opposed to developing such a port in Dahanu where it would have an irreversible social, economic and environmental impact."