A previously undisclosed survey by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), to assess the impact of the proposed Vadhawan Port on coastal fisheries in Palghar district’s eco-sensitive Dahanu taluka, shows that the project will impact livelihoods of at least 20,809 fisherfolk, comprising 5,333 families and living in 16 fishing villages within a 10km radius of the port. These include Agar, Narpad, Dahanu, Dhakti-Dahanu, Gungwada, Tarapur, Varor, Dandepada, Chinchani, Ghivali, Kambode, Tadiyale, Dhumket, Abram, Asangaon and Matgaon.

“Fishing is the main occupation of people in the 16 coastal villages as mentioned,” states the report, which was obtained last week under the Right to Information (RTI) Act by Devendra Tandel, president of the Akhil Maharashtra Machimaar Kruti Samiti (AMMKS), and shared with Hindustan Times.

The report identifies five villages in particular (which lie within the port premises), where fishing activities would be impacted the most, including Tadiyale, Gungwada, Dhakti-Dahanu, Vadhavan and Varore. Notably, these account for at least 8,296 affected fisherfolk.

In all, the port will render approximately 72 sq kms of current fishing area inaccessible to fisherfolk once operations are underway, and during the construction phase as well. This is equivalent to about 17,791 acres in area. “The area outside the harbour of the port (58 sq. km. approx.) may be available for fishing subject to regulation by the port authority and security,” the report notes.

These fishers ply a broad gamut of fishing and allied trades, from working on boats to net mending, fish marketing and distribution, supplying of ice, fish transportation, fish drying, peeling and sorting, aquaculture, and subsistence fishing (such as collection of crabs and shellfish from intertidal areas). They employ a variety of methods, from using bag-nets, shore-seine nets, dragnets, gillnets and crab traps, targeting a diverse variety of high-value fish, from pomfret to rawas, lobsters, prawns, Bombay duck, mackerel, mullets, croakers, snappers, seerfish and anchovies. In 2018-19, the total value of fish caught in the Dahanu fishing zone was estimated to be 1,74,05,90,981.

Tandel, and other experts, emphasised that this figure (of 20,809 project affected fishers) is likely a gross underestimation of the port’s impact on coastal livelihoods. The report — ‘Impact Study on Proposed Vadhavan Port on Coastal Fisheries’ — was commissioned by the project administrator, the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Authority (JNPA) as part of the process to obtain environment clearance (EC) for the project. JNPA is yet to apply for EC from the Union environment ministry.

Notably, the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) has recently “reclassified” the list of permissible regulated activities in the Dahanu taluka eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) to allow the construction of ports and harbours. The ministry issued an office memorandum (OM) in this regard on May 26 this year, drawing the ire of environmentalists.

“In 1998, the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority had clearly prohibited the construction of the project on ecological grounds. This order has not been challenged by any party before any court, and that stands final. This attempt at reviving the project clearly violates it,” said Debi Goenka, executive trustee, Conservation Action Trust, a city-based environment non-profit.

“As for the matter of this report on impact of coastal fisheries, it was not provided to us despite requests before the DTEPA, or under the RTI. It begs the question of why the JNPA has not been forthcoming about it. This project is going to completely wipe out extremely productive fishing grounds for at least the next 20 years. Fisherfolk in Uran, who were displaced by the JNPA’s port at Nhava Sheva in the 1980s, are still awaiting compensation and rehabilitation. Unless better sense prevails, the same human rights violations are about to be repeated at Vadhavan,” Goenka added.

Notably, the report also mentions that the project site serves as a nursery for several commercially viable fish. “The proposed port area and surroundings do not act as a breeding or spawning ground… but can act as nursery ground of several commercially important fishes… Due to the productivity of that region and presence of creeks, juveniles and adult fishes are seasonally abundant in near shore waters,” the report states, noting that most of the fishes observed were juveniles during June and July, while dominantly mature fishes were observed from November to May.

“This makes the area a golden belt for fishers from Palghar, Thane and Mumbai, especially since the catch closer to Mumbai city has declined severely in recent decades. It is not just fishers from the 16 villages who go there to fish. The productivity of the Dahanu fishing zone is essentially for the fishing economy right from Zai, which is the northernmost fishing village in Maharashtra, to Colaba in Mumbai,” said Tandel.

Bernard D’Mello, a fisherman from Uttan in Mira-Bhayander taluka in Thane, added, “Over the past few years, fishermen from as south as Madh and Gorai have been visiting the area. And fishers from Uttan and Vasai have been frequenting the location for the last three decades at least. It is completely wrong to say that we will not be affected by the development of the port.”

Commenting on the findings of the CMFRI report, Unmesh Wagh, deputy chairman, JNPA, conceded that the port will have “some impact” on coastal fisheries in the region. “There will be some impact on fisheries, but it is important to note that not a single person will be displaced from their place of residence, and will in fact be compensated for their loss. Vadhavan Port is a mega-port of extreme strategic importance to the country. It will circumvent the need to set up many smaller ports instead, which in the long-run would be more damaging to the environment and livelihoods,” he said.