ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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State, Development and Discontent

People's agitation against the proposed new port in Umbergaon on the Gujarat coast is being brutally suppressed by the state which refuses to accept that the new development will destroy the livelihoods of the surrounding villages and severely damage the environment.

On April 7, 2000, around 48 anti-port activists (including 18 women) were arrested by state reserve police personnel and locked up in custody when they were demonstrating peacefully against the proposed port at Umbergaon-Maroli village in Valsad district of Gujarat state. The protesters were lathi-charged and tear-gassed. In the Umbergaon police station lock-up the police brutally beat up some of the activists. The people of Umbergaon formed the Kinara Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (KBSS) with retired Lt Col Pratap Save as president in February 1999. Sobha, a woman activist, who was also arrested on April 7 described the social setting of the area: “We the people of Umbergaon and surrounding villages have been peacefully living in this area without any disturbance. Most of the population of this area survive mainly on fishing and agricultural activities. Umbergaon town and nearby villages are surrounded by the sea. Both tribal and fishing communities have been living in peaceful coexistence. The majority are poor. The coastal area of Umbergaon taluka is abundantly stocked with fish. Agricultural land is also very fertile. Fruits, vegetables and pulses are the major crops. In short, people have been happy and not without work, each one gets something or other work.” What led to arrests? “A year and a half back local people found some mysterious activities being carried out by the Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB). No information could be obtained about the activities. Only did people discover that Gujarat government had decided to establish a commercial port on the Umbergaon-Maroli coast. After hearing this news we were all worried and tried to get accurate information and approached taluka mamaltadar (magistrate and revenue head of the taluka) but he said he did not know anything about the survey.” After a great deal of effort villagers learnt that the Gujarat government had awarded a contract for the project to a consortium compromising NATELCO and UNOCOL (foreign-based multinationals) with the GMB. If this port comes up at Umbergaon then families in 15 villages will lose their livelihood. And yet the people had not been informed about this. So it was decided to oppose the project. Sobha points out “our protest was mainly confined to staging of dharna, sit-in strike, and demonstration. On April 7 we found that a 100 SRP troops were posted at Umbergaon in order to help carry out the survey. Local women objected to SRP tents on the sea shore where most of the women used to defecate. Other residents also joined these women and objected the survey work as well. This incident provided a good excuse for the police to terrorise people. The SRP then started beating up people and used tear gas shells to disperse the crowd. At eight in the evening they arrested 48 people and locked them up. We were all locked in a 15 by 15 feet single room. It was just impossible for us to even sit down. We spent the whole night in that room. It was dreadful and traumatising for all of us. At around 1 a m KBSS president Col Save was arrested from his residence at Dehri. He was beaten up by the police in the lock-up. PSI Zala and superintendent of police Narendra Amin beat the activist with lathis. Colonel Save was held by policemen and repeatedly struck blows with the lathi on his chest till he collapsed on the ground but the beating continued. We were in the same police station and heard Col Save’s shrill voice calling out for help but the police did not respond and continued to beat Col Save. Due to the injuries sustained during the beating Col Save suffered a brain haemorrhage and left ventricular failure and fell into a coma. The police shifted him to Jan Seva Hospital at Vapi knowing full well that the hospital would be unable to give him the required treatment. His family then rushed him to Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai, where he underwent an emergency operation on April 9 and again on April 12. He passed away on April 20” (also see The Hindu, April 27).

Colonel Save’s death raises a number of questions on the motives of the Gujarat government. After Col Save’s death protest gained momentum and people of Umbergaon taluka started organising themselves to save their livelihood. More than 5,000 people attended Col Save’s funeral on April 21. A branch of the ex-army officers’ association demanded inquiry into Save’s death and released a statement: “An incident of this nature sends shock waves through the armed forces in general and the retired personnel in particular. It has a demoralising effect on the serving personnel because they will also be retiring sooner or later.”

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