This article is part of a special Scroll reporting project: ‘dhandho’ the Gujarat elections, exploring the state’s complex business-politics nexus as it heads to the polls.
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In the villages and small towns near the port of Mundra, on the northern shore of the Gulf of Kutch, one encounters two distinct groups of people. The first to euphorically list how “life has changed so much” for them since the facility opened. The other, perhaps larger in number, definitely resents the missed opportunities.
Yet, ahead of the Gujarat assembly elections, their political preferences appear to be largely converging – with both groups agreeing that politics and economics should not always intersect.
Operational since 1998, Mundra Port, owned by the Adani Group, is the largest private port in India. In the last financial year, 150 million tonnes of cargo was handled. Named after the city where large parts of it are located, the port stretches over 8,000 hectares of land. Much of it is a special economic zone with several tax incentives for businesses located there.
For the many once-sleepy villages on its fringes and its inhabitants – many of whom are traditional pastoralists – the port and the companies are an imposing presence and evoke strong feelings.
One village, two opinions
For Ali Mohammad, a seventy-year-old farmer in Drab, the village closest to the port’s main entrance, this is irritating. He claims that large tracts of land have been cordoned off by the port authorities, leaving very little space for his cows and goats to graze. “What do we get from all this development?” he asked. “They didn’t even compensate us properly for the road they built through our village to the port.”
However, his neighbor Asghar Ali Mohammad said he had nothing to complain about. An electrician by profession, he was employed at a chemical manufacturing plant in PPE. He used to grow date palms, another main occupation in the area. “At least now my income is stable,” he said. “As a farmer, if I had a bad year, I’d be doomed.”
In neighboring Zarpara, the same story is repeated.
Samar Gadhvi, 28, who worked at a container loading station at the port and earned 20,000 rupees a month, said he was grateful for the job. Earlier, he helped his father in the fields and the dividends were much lower.
A common complaint
But Jagdish Gadvi of the same village was not convinced. “The main contracts are with outsiders – only 20%-30% of our local guys get third party jobs through them,” he said. “The truth is that the benefits we should have received as the original inhabitants of this area, we have not received.”
It’s a recurring complaint in the area – that outsiders have been getting jobs and contracts that should have been meant for locals.
In Mota Kandagara, located about 10 kilometers to the west, Jigar Singh Jadeja became indignant. The 24-year-old has a degree in electronics but was forced to run a tea stall. “I applied everywhere from Tata to Adani,” he said – both the Tata and Adani groups run power plants in the area. “But they turned me down, but people from outside with the same qualifications get jobs, is that fair?”
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From rags to riches
Yet there are those among the local population who have flourished in an indirect way.
In the village of Sriracha, the men I met spoke enthusiastically about the opportunities the port and industry had brought to their lives. “I used to graze goats,” said Bhimsi Gelua. “Today I transport coal from the port to the power station – and you can imagine how much more I earn.”
In Mundra Shiva Rabari had a similar story to tell. He and his brother were pastors until about a decade ago. Today they own a transport business with a fleet of 20 vehicles.
Gangabai Chawda of Navinal village, who runs a grocery shop from her home, said that although she did not go out much, she could see and feel the change. “People have more money now,” she said.
“Adani benefits much more”
However, detractors insist that they were promised the moon, but the reality was not half so rosy.
“Have any people benefited? Of course, how is it possible that no local resident can benefit from such a massive project,” said a Drab resident on condition of anonymity. “But not enough. Let’s just say that Adani has benefited far more from us than we have from him.”
Many local residents believe that those who actually benefited from the project are close to the authorities. “On paper, Adani is giving us a lot,” Saumenbhai Gadhvi, a farmer in Zarpara village, said flatly. “But everything is cornered by those who are politically connected.”
Saumenbhai Gadhvi argued that the industries were particularly detrimental to farmers like him. “All these years they could not supply us water from the Narmada,” he said, referring to the government’s plans to divert water from the Narmada river to the parched Kutch region, a project that has yet to fully bear fruit. “Whatever groundwater we have is being polluted by the factories, it’s becoming increasingly unusable.”
The nation above itself
Saumenbhai Gadhvi may be unhappy with the state of affairs, but he didn’t think he could do anything to fix it at the polls next month when Gujarat votes to elect a new assembly. On the one hand, he believed that the Adani Corporation de facto administered the area. “Whoever comes will be co-opted anyway because the company is too big to fail now,” he said.
But more importantly, he said it was important for the Bharatiya Janata Party to continue to rule the state, where it has been in power for 22 years. “We are Hindutvadis [Hindutva-adherents] and Rashtravadi [nationalistic] people – so it is obvious that we support the BJP,” he said. “We can handle some losses for the sake of the country.”
Similarly, Jagdish Gadhvi, who resented outsiders allegedly taking away jobs, didn’t seem to think things would be any different under any other government. “Business and everything is fine, but this is the border, Pakistan is not very far,” he said. “So it is imperative that the BJP stays in power, otherwise you know very well what will happen, the Muslims will run over us.”
He added: “Except for the Muslims here, everyone will tell you that.”
To a large extent, this appears to be the case. While those who are doing well economically largely support the BJP, even most of those who grumble about the port and industries not serving their purpose seem to lean towards the saffron party.
In fact, many Muslim residents in the fishing villages around the port also seem to think it makes more sense to vote for the BJP.
In the predominantly Muslim village of Luni, Samir Relia, a crab trader, said he had suffered a lot because of the port – more so in recent years. “They are blocking the roads to the sea, coming up with random no-go zones every day, it has become very difficult to work,” he said. “They can do whatever they want because the government is with them.
However, he said the most sensible thing to do is to stick with the BJP. “Because if you want to get things done, you have to stay with the ruling party,” he said. “And in Gujarat it’s the BJP.”