Untouched by modern times, these tribal people find the might of P&O at their door

Ancient culture of India's Warlis threatened by mega-port. Ian Burrell reports
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P&O, one of Britain's biggest companies, is facing accusations from environmentalists that it is threatening the cultural survival of one of India's tribal peoples with plans for a massive port development on the sub-continents' west coast.

The Dahanu Warli tribe, who farm paddy fields in Maharashtra, remain unassimilated from the rest of India, keeping their own customs, religion and festivals. They live a simple life in huts made of wood, straw and cow dung. Unlike Hindus they eat beef, and unlike Muslims they eat pork.

Flower farms and tropical fruit orchards have given their homeland, Dahanu, a reputation as the "lungs of Bombay", and led to it being designated an ecologically fragile zone.

It is here P&O proposes to build a 29-berth port, capable of handling 250 million tonnes of cargo, about eight times as big as the port of Liverpool. The "mega-port" will include a passenger terminal and facilities for delivering oil, coal and cement.

P&O dropped its bombshell in February, when its Australian arm, P&O Ports, said a pounds 700m project to build a massive port to the south of the region was being moved to a more natural harbour at Vadhavan, inside the ecologically- sensitive zone. In spite of earlier official promises, the Maharashtra state officials enthusiastically welcomed the proposal.

P&O Ports said the pounds 200m phase one of the project, to be undertaken by a proposed new company, Vadhavan International Port, would involve the development of 2,700 metres of quayside, including a berth for bulk cargo, an oil berth and a passenger terminal.

Nergis Irani, of the Dahanu Taluka Environment Welfare Association, said: "If P&O get the go-ahead, it will bring about the industrialisation of the whole area and the Warli way of life will be lost." She claimed the proposal breached central government directives designed to protect Dahanu from developers.

P&O is preparing its feasibility report for the port project, which requires approval from the Indian ministry of environment and forests. The company has paid almost pounds 100,000 as security for its bid.

An international network of environmental groups, including The Body Shop, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, have taken an interest in the project. More extreme groups have talked of protest actions against P&O commercial cruise and ferry operations.

Richard Boehle, of Body Shop, said: "P&O will have to be very careful how they proceed with this project, or the plight of the Warli people could become as damaging to them as the struggle of the Ogoni people in Nigeria has become to Shell."

P&O, whose chairman is Lord Sterling of Plaistow, operates in 16 companies across five continents. It owns, or part owns, 53 ports, from Manila in the Philippines to Maputo in Mozambique.

Although P&O has worked in environmentally sensitive areas, like the Great Barrier Reef, where it manages a tourist centre, the Dahanu issue is a potential public relations disaster. Management has declined to comment publicly on criticism of the scheme, but company sources have defended their environmental record around the world and stress that it is working with local government officials to minimise any damage caused by the project.

In P&O literature, Lord Sterling writes: "We have a responsibility both as individuals and in our business activities to take into account the environmental impact of all that we do." Sources point out that the construction of the Vadhavan port may create 1,000 jobs and the project would open the whole region up to economic development.

The British have built in Dahanu before. But they lived apart from the Warli villages, where a rich tribal culture had evolved over many centuries. The Warlis developed their own form of painting on the insides of their huts, using a bamboo-stick as a brush and a paste made of tree gum, water and rice powder.

Dancing is central to Warli culture. Whole villages take part in a dance after the harvest to music from the sound of a tarpa, an instrument made from a dried pumpkin.

The 175,000 Dahanu Warlis, whose dark skin distinguishes them from other Indians, have lived for most of this century alongside Zoroastrian farmers who migrated to Dahanu after facing religious persecution in what is now Iran.

The Zoroastrians built wells and water pumps and helped to create fruit orchards.

Dahanu now has a yearly production of 50,000 tons of the chickoo tropical fruit, 70,000 tons of fish and 5 million coconuts. Every month it produces 8,500 railway wagons of vegetables. Campaigners claim there is zero unemployment and say an improved water supply could ensure the Warlis' self-sufficiency.

The threat to Dahanu first emerged a decade ago when the World Bank funded a project to set up a power station in the area to supply the urban sprawl of Bombay, 80 miles to the south.

The plan ran into a storm of protests from environmental campaigners who claimed it would pollute the region's last remaining green area.

A succession of court battles helped bring about the Dahanu Notification of 1991, in which the Indian ministry of environment declared the area "ecologically fragile" and banned changes in the pattern of land use or the transfer of tribal holdings. Environmentalists thought they had finally saved the region when the government identified Bordi, a Dahanu village, as the country's first "eco-tourist destination".