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Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum

Planning for port development / Dholera-India.

Posted By: R. Sudarshana
Date: Monday, 7 June 1999, at 5:49 a.m.

Key words: environmental monitoring, salt extraction, sedimentation, tidal lands.


I wrote last time about Bhavnagar Bhal where development has taken its toll (The repercussions of salt extraction / Bhavnagar Bhal-India), especially on the availability of drinking water in coastal villages. Let me now tell you another story, well - it is not yet a story. What do you say for a stage that is the beginning point for a story, an embryo? a blue print? Well, something like that. Dholera is the beginning of a story and the world will hear about it for a long time. From our side, we have tried through all the best possible means to see that the project follows a path of collective wisdom. Well, we are trying to see that we have a wise coastal practice.


Dholera is actually the name of a village some 25 km inland from the coast at the northern tip of Bhavnagar Bhal in Gujarat on the banks of Gulf of Cambay. It appears that until early in the last century, Dholera was right on the coast and was a flourishing port with a prosperous trade. It was in the right sense a gateway for India and Arabs, Babylonians and Caucasians carried out import/export activities through Dholera. Dholera was a sea front with a deep water channel and the tidal amplitude of the order of 10 m made it a good port for deep draft vessels. Big vessels that were anchored in deeper waters rushed to the port at the right tide and downloaded the cargo before the tide receded. Even at low tide, draft was good in a channel called Malcolm channel and the trade went on like a song. Everyone was happy.


The little ice age ended sometime around 18th - 19th century and the global warming similar to Eemian interglacial period started a couple of centuries back. It also coincided with the industrial revolution and large scale destruction of forests began in greener parts of India. Indian railways were also exanding their routes and wooden sleepers were in great demand. Forests disappeared while the warming induced rains flooded the catchment areas of 4 rivers that flowed into the Gulf of Cambay (GOC). Since the Central and Western Indian top soil was unprotected now, sedimentation took place in the GOC and large sediment banks started developing. Approach channels to Dholera became shallower and Dholera itself fell from nature's grace. There started unprecedented and hitherto unknown siltation at Dholera and the coast grew beyond the harbour into the sea of yesteryears. Time was over for Dholera and it moved back gently inland. Trade collapsed, fickle fortune faded, hearts broke and poverty crept in. Moonlighting became a part of history.


Today, with Dholera being far inland, the coast is a huge expanse of tidal flat. Some areas are quite well stabilised and some are still settling down. Thousands of acres of this low land (about 1 or 2 m above MSL) are riddled with tidal creeks and are mostly barren. A few villages in the vicinity are on the periphery of the tidal flat which itself is confined as a peninsula between two large creeks. Nothing grows here and except for the peripheral villages, no one lives in the Dholera tidal flats. It is hostile, no doubt, but in the minds of villagers - a deity presides over the flat and protects them. Therefore, there is a temple in the middle of the tidal flat where the lamp is always kept alight by the villagers. By turn, they go there everyday, pray for the return of prosperity and have learnt not to say 'no' to hope. Over generations, these coastal communities have learnt to depend less on coastal resources. They now tend the camels, grow cotton in one season outside the tidal flat, collect salt from the peninsula, but are constantly aware that their security is linked to whatever goes on in the sea. Hence, the tideland deity is important.


The Gujurat maritime board realised some time back that the GOC coast cannot be developed efficiently for tourism and living resources. Due to very hostile conditions, it is not all that attractive for any pleasant activity. In terms of biodiversity and biomass, there is not much to speak of in comparision to other areas. The only reasonable path to glory is to industrialise the coastal zone and build ports. Why not ! The nearest port that serves central and northern India is Bombay and a large country like this can be serviced well with a few ports in GOC. Due to a sparse population on the north west coast of GOC, a lack of resources, no private land holding and a hostile environment, there would not be much opposition to development projects. The maritime board announced an opportunity to Build Own Operate and Transfer (BOOT) ports in the region by the private sector. One of the largest industrial houses of India came forward to build an all weather modern port on Dholera sea front. Dholera they chose, because it would invoke historical pride in people and the entire peninsular tidal flat of more than 400 sq.km is just available for the asking. The whole region could be turned into an industrial park supporting and drawing from the port facilities. People of the region, politicians, the maritime board and investors are all too eager for the opera to begin. The beginning bell rang in January 1999.


The port company has already engaged a multinational company to develop a detailed project report for the all weather port. Odds of nature will be fought down by the marvels of engineering and the might of money. A 20 km long road has just been laid in the middle of the tidal flat connecting Dholera village to the sea front. Towards the end of this year, constructions would begin. First, there would be a ship breaking yard which can absorb the overflow from Alang that happens to be world's largest and is about 120 km south. Then there would be berths for salt export. Meanwhile, new berths and jetties would be built along with an industrial park. Thousands of people would start living here, the tidal flat would change its face and the economy of the region is set to boom. For the local communities, the tide land deity has opened up her eyes.


First the GOOD. The port company has planned to draw fresh water to the project site through pipelines from a very long distance. The pipeline would pass through several villages and the locals have been assured of water. The local community would be suitably employed in the port project. Educational institutions of the port project will be open to the locals. In a remote village near to the port site, a surface tank will be built to collect rain water. The tide land deity will have a new temple and a good motorable road. The coastline will be protected from erosion and siltation over a wide area. All environmental regulations will be followed (hopefully) by ensuring representation for scientists on the advisory board. Bhavnagar university will have good access to the project site for scientific and sociological studies during the formative years. Proper satellite based surveys to analyse long term scenarios, and modelling studies to assess the environment are being taken up by the port.

Now, let us see the BAD. The project will increase the commercial activities of salt extraction in the Bhavnagar Bhal. Already, long before the operational phase of the port, MOUs have been signed by salt companies with the port for the export of millions of tonnes of salt. While the project site may provide good life conditions, life may turn out to be unpleasant beyond the radius of a certain distance. Dredging in the port site and erosion protection around the seafront may affect other areas that are safe till now. Conscious researchers may not get enough funding support to study evolving scenarios. In India, no body gives you funds if you say 'something is coming up there and I want to follow the developments.' Rather, funds would come if you say 'this thing has come up and I want to study its effects.'

What could be UGLY? Economically weaker sections like the labour communities may evolve very unhygienic living conditions like in Alang. Due to the changed morphology of the tidal flats, vector borne diseases like malaria, dengue and plague may wreak havoc like they did in a town on the other side of GOC some years back. Today, port development is in the hands of only a few managers who are very receptive to scientific advice. Tomorrow, due to the size of the operations, there would be many managers and not everyone may heed to advice and the system may work on its own with not everything under timely control.

Well friends, that is it. Stories of coastal management begin everywhere almost everyday. But not many of them begin like this in the barren tidal lands where nothing exists. While on the one hand, total planning is easier for areas like this, concessions from the rule position are also easier extracted in areas like this. And it is only after a while that we realise what could have been wiser.


1. Industrialization of the coast is inevitable and in some areas, it is the only wise option.

2. Practical vision for the future in totality is not really possible.

3. Wise practice is a contemporary truth and must change and evolve as situations develop. Hence it is a dynamic concept. You have to allow things to happen, watch constantly and perhaps change the original thoughts with changing times.

4. Never say 'no' to hope.

5. You may not get funds to follow the beginning of coastal stories, but follow them somehow.

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