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Abeja Dispatch

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In the Name of Development
June 3, 2000

Click image for larger view
This beautiful beach is also a fertile fish breeding area
Caption
Waves crash on shore and children play in the surf as a crowd of people gathers under the tall trees. Seated in the sand, the group of nearly 2000 people (70% women) are dressed in bright colored saris that give the event a festive look.

But no one seems very festive. A few police officers wander through, staring down the villagers, and attempting to appear threatening. One police officer carries a video camera, focusing in on one person and then another, as if to say "we know who you are." He comes back to me several times, probably because he doesn't know who I am and cannot understand why a foreigner has come.

Map
This village is named Umbergaon and is one of 21 fishing villages located within the 10km (6 mile) area on which the government of the State of Gujarat and the company of NATELCO plan to build the mega-port facility. The government says that this mega-port will bring prosperity to the region. The people who will lose their homes and their livelihoods aren't so sure.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Believe me, I am not cheating by re-writing my dispatches about the Narmada River but there seems to be a pattern here. Like the "development" plans along the Narmada, the people affected by the proposed mega-port at Umbergaon are Adivasi (tribal) villagers who are mostly illiterate and excluded from the political system. They were not consulted about the plans for the port and knew nothing about it until one day someone was traveling from village to village, knocking on each door and cheerfully asking "When the government takes your land for the port project, do you want monetary compensation or a resettlement package?"

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Thousands of villagers have gathered to protest the port
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Whoa! What would you say to a question like that? What if your ancestors had lived and fished on that land for as long as history and you knew no other way of life?

Getting back to the event in the village of Umbergaon, a large, horned cow wanders by me, the crowd continues to swell, someone stands up to take the microphone and begins to leads the group in singing and chanting. Why are these people so opposed to progress and development? Why do the police seem so angry? Why is there such fear and sadness in the eyes that surround me?

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Don't these people want development and progress?
Caption
It has been over one year since the community of the Umbergaon taluka (a group of villages like a county or province) learned about the proposed mega-port. Despite the fact that most of the villagers are poor and illiterate, they quickly organized themselves, demanded more information and made an official stand to oppose the building of this structure. Over 45,000 people in this taluka depend on fishing for their livelihoods. They may not know how to read or write, they may not know history or chemistry, but they do know that the area in question includes fertile wetlands made up of mud-flats and mangrove forests and estuaries inhabited by the fish they sell and eat. It doesn't take a rocket-scientist to know that dredging up the wetlands, building huge concrete docks, and bringing in thousands of cargo ships carrying oil, gas, and toxic chemicals means an end to their livelihood.

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Villagers are determined to stop the development of the port
Caption
You would think that in the home state of Mahatma Gandhi, on the very beaches where he defied British rule by peacefully making salt, that non-violent resistance to injustice would be accepted and even admired. But in the last year, the villagers' peaceful opposition has been met with government lies, blatant corruption and violent police repression. Several times, the Gujarat State Reserve Police (SRP), a police unit generally "reserved" for dangerous emergencies, has been called in to break up peaceful protests.

On April 7th, just two months ago, the SRP charged a group of peaceful protestors with their lathis (billy-clubs), arresting 48 people and severely beating several of the arrested men once inside the jail. Former army Lt. Colonel Pratap Save (pronounced "saw-VAY"), a war hero for service in two of India's wars, has been one of the most vocal opponents to the port and has organized the opposition efforts among the local villages. As a result, at one o'clock in the morning one day, the police burst into his home and arrested him. While in jail, the police beat Colonel Save so badly that his brain bled severely and he slipped into a coma for over a week before he died.

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for larger view
The Tribunal's report supported the claims of the villagers.
Caption
"We expected at least 10,000 people here today," one of the organizers told me, "but people are afraid to go out." After impassioned speeches by local activists and others who have come to show their support, a former high court judge takes the microphone. He declares that he has come to present the official report of the Indian People's Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights. This tribunal is made up of a group of lawyers, judges, and activists who have been investigating the port project from all angles - social, economic, environmental and legal.

The judge reports that the findings of the tribunal vindicate the villager's position. Lucky for you, I read the long report and I can give you the rundown of important points the Tribunal made--like Cliff's notes:

  • The Government of Gujarat and NATELCO have conducted their planning in secret and have not consulted or informed the locals of their plans.
  • The people in the proposed port area are unanimously opposed to the port.
  • The port would destroy the livelihoods of the fishermen and many of the farmers in the area.
  • The proposed site is a rich and sensitive wetlands area and the government is ignoring it's own policies by not protecting it!
  • The port is not necessary and will only serve to divert ships from other, nearby ports, which are currently underused.
  • This project is another example of the government "looting the people in the name of development."

After the judge's presentation of the report, all those who gathered began to march in a line to the police station where Colonel Save was held. An endless river of saris weaves its way across the beach and the fields and into the village, as far as the eye can see. Outside of the cover of the trees, the sun beats down mercilessly, but the protestors don't seem bothered, as they chant and sing in front of the police station, "Long live Colonel Save."

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Fighting for their rights to livelihood
Caption
When the rally finally breaks up, I am so relieved. Not only because the police did not attack, but because I thought I might die from the heat! Several of the activists from Mumbai (Bombay) invite me to go back with them, but first, we stop at Colonel Save's house to pay respects to his widow.

Should I stay in the bus? I'm not sure what to do. I don't know this family. Am I turning Colonel Save's widow's pain into a tourist attraction or a worthy story? What right do I have to be here? My brain fills with doubt but I feel compelled to go inside and express my sympathy. I was told that my presence at the rally was good for the people and let them know that the world is watching. Maybe my presence made the police think twice about using violence, this time. Perhaps Colonel Save's family will be strengthened.

Vocabulary

estuary - safe natural nurseries
impassioned - filled with passion or strong emotion
tribunal - a court of justice; a place or seat of judgment
vindicate - to clear from suspicion
unanimously - of one mind; in complete agreement

I follow the group through the yard where I find a number of men sitting in the shade. The Colonel's two sons, heads shaved in mourning, greet us. Leaving my shoes at the door, I slip into a room full of women, seated on the floor. Sunita Save, the Colonel's widow, looks tired and sad and sits beside a small shrine devoted to her husband. A black and white photo of Colonel Save is the centerpiece. His facial expression is serious but kind, he wears a thick mustache and a red dot painted on his forehead. A garland of yellow flowers hangs around the framed photograph and other pictures, medals, and his uniform hat surround the frame.

One at a time, each person approaches Mrs. Save, kneels in front of her, and speaks with her. When my turn comes up, I kneel and look into her eyes. Her face is so tired, so heavy, but present and calm.

"Namaste, Auntie," I say, my hands pressed together in front of my heart. I take her hands in mine, still staring into her eyes. "Do you understand English?" She nods.

"My name is Abeja. I am from America and I am a writer. I am very sorry about your loss. There are many people in America who do care. There is nothing I can do to bring your husband back." A look of intense sadness crossed her face for a moment. "But I will write about him, and about the people of Umbergaon, and about your struggle, so that he will not be forgotten."

She nods to me, holding my gaze, seeming to draw some strength from what I have said. I squeeze her hand, touch my heart with a "Namaste," and step back to allow the next person to see her.

Mrs. Save calls one of her sons over, and whispers something to him. He comes to me and says, "She wants you to know that she heard you and she understands."

"I know," I say. "Thank you."

Additional Links

Destination Gujarat

Maps of Gujarat

Every minute or so, Mrs. Save looks up at me and catches my eye. In her eyes, I see my mother. I see my grandmother. I see every woman who mourns for the death of the world that we nurture. I know that I have made her a promise that I must hold true. So I am writing this dispatch so that you too can understand the pain and struggle I have seen. I write to share, to teach and to inspire you to act.

Check out this week's Making a Difference to see how you can support Sunita Save, her sons, and all the people of Umbergaon.

Abeja

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...abejahummel@bigfoot.com
 

Abeja - Making a Difference
Monica - Get Out of My Ear!
Monica - Globalization in the Model City of Chandigarh
Monica - Partition and the Aftermath: At the Indo-Pakistani Border

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