The Dighi port, about 100 km south of Mumbai, is the latest acquisition in the Adani Group’s string of twelve ports around India’s coastline. The Group has paid $131 million in a distress sale to acquire the small port and has announced a plan to expend $1.8 billion to turn it into a ‘new gateway’ to the western Indian state of Maharashtra. With connections to other planned industrial projects, the port expansion is transforming the landscape for the area’s traditional residents. A community that has depended on fishing and agriculture for generations is now facing an uncertain future and the threat of displacement looms large.
The Rajpuri Creek, an inlet of the Arabian sea at the edge of the Ratnagiri and Raigad districts in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, about 100 kilometres south of Mumbai, is an area of historical and geographical importance. The landscape comprises hills, long stretches of beach and rich forest ecosystems. The town of Murud in the Raigad district, which is on a bank of the creek, was an important regional port city between the 15th and 19th centuries. For local monarchs, the creek was an important outpost for maritime trade. Now, this creek is the site of the Dighi Port, the latest acquisition by the Adani Group’s port company.
A $1.8-billion port expansion is planned by the new owner of Dighi port – Adani Ports and Special Economic Zones (‘Adani Ports’).
Fishing, agriculture and tourism are the main livelihood options for the local community. However, due to a reduced catch in recent years along with constraints imposed by the port authorities, the community of traditional fishermen has been suffering. The expansion of the port along with a large industrial complex close by now threatens to upturn their livelihood prospects.
Mahesh Patil, 35, formerly a fisherman, ferries tourists to the Murud-Janjira and Padmadurg forts. These forts, built on islands in the creek in the 16th and 17th centuries, are tourist destinations. In 2005, when a public hearing was held to seek the views of Dighi residents about the port that was to be built in their harbour, Patil was 20. The hearing was held at the district headquarters, Alibaug, which is 100 km away from the Dighi port harbour. This public hearing remains a point of contention for locals. In a Public Interest Litigation filed in 2009, a group of them attempted to persuade the Bombay High Court that the public hearing was improperly conducted.
‘We have always been told to expect the long arm of the law to extend its sympathy to the poor, ignorant and oppressed,’ said Patil.
Jitendra Shegaji, a 34-year-old fisherman said that the ‘farce of a public hearing in 2005 in Alibaug, 100 kilometres away from Dighi village, said that there is interest from the residents in the development. My father and I were present. However, the decision makers were from Mumbai, not from our village.’
The Bombay High Court appears to have agreed that it was improper for the public hearing to have been held so far away from the residents affected. Thus reads the High Court’s view: ‘the public hearing was held at Collector's office in Raigad-Alibaug which we are informed is nearly 100 km away from the site in question or village Dighi. This appears to us not proper compliance to the requirements of law. It would have been more appropriate for the authorities to hear the people on the site in terms of the above provisions or at best in the public places of the village concerned or at a place which was not so far away from the site.’
Despite this, the High Court upheld the validity of the public hearing as some local residents did manage to attend.
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Acquisition by Adani and Expansion Plans
At present, the Dighi port is a minor facility. With three operational berths across the two banks of the Rajpuri creek, the port handled 0.79 million metric tons of cargo in 2018-19, the last year for which data is available. Most of the cargo consisted of coal, steel coils and bauxite.
However, the port has considerable potential. The Rajpuri creek has a 14.5metre-deep channel and can accommodate the largest classes of cargo ships. Across its two banks, the port can be expanded to fifteen berths to handle bulk, break-bulk, liquid and containerised cargo. Planned to expand to over 60 million metric tons per year in cargo handling capacity, Dighi port may end up being the second largest port in the state, after the government-owned Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust located in Mumbai Harbour.
Most significantly, the port is a key component of related industrial-development projects. It is a part of the Dedicated Freight Corridor and Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor projects which are being jointly developed by the Government of India and the Government of Japan, and the port area has been identified as a National Investment and Manufacturing Zone by the Indian government.
An expert of the shipping sector based in Mumbai who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the only issue relating to the viability of the Dighi port is improving its inland connectivity. He said ‘for a state the size of Maharashtra, it is necessary to have multiple mid-size ports to serve different regions. The Dighi port has significant potential to become the largest non-container port serving Southern Maharashtra and the Konkan region, as well as deeper inland to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. It has a deep channel so even the largest ships can call there, and with two banks it has a large enough waterfront to accommodate many berths. [Karan] Adani has stated that he will focus on improving the inland connectivity as well as redeveloping the port, so the project is certainly viable’.
It is perhaps for all these reasons that Adani Ports sought to acquire the port when its developer and previous owner, the Balaji Group, was pushed into insolvency proceedings due to mounting debts in 2019. The acquisition was undoubtedly made attractive by the 50-year concession (land lease) that had been granted the Balaji Group to develop the port by the Maharashtra Maritime Board. The acquisition process was completed in February 2021 for Rs 705 crore (about US $93 million).
According to publicly available information, Vijay Kalantri, the head of the Balaji Group put up stiff resistance trying to prevent the port from being handed over to the Adani Group. Kalantri first offered a settlement proposal to the port’s creditors, and then filed a petition before the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) seeking to affect the insolvency proceedings and retain control of the port. None of these efforts succeeded. The NCLAT declined to overrule the ‘commercial wisdom’ of the port’s creditors in rejecting Kalantri’s settlement proposal. A separate petition to the Competition Commission of India argued that the acquisition of the port would lead to Adani Ports coming to occupy a dominant and anti-competitive position in the ports sector; it also failed.
Following its acquisition, Adani Ports announced a plan to invest Rs 10,000 crore (about US $1.3 billion) to ‘develop the port into a multi-cargo port with world-class infrastructure as well as investing in the development of rail & road evacuation infrastructure for seamless and efficient cargo movement.’
The company’s Chief Executive Officer, Karan Adani (who is the son of the Adani Group’s founder, Gautam Adani) said ‘the successful acquisition of DPL [Dighi Port Limited] adds another milestone in the Adani Ports’ target of creating a string of ports to increase service coverage to the entire economic hinterland of India. With our growth focus, experience, and expertise in turning around acquisitions, we are confident of making DPL value accretive for all our stakeholders. Our investment and capacity augmentation plan will be aligned with policies of the Government of Maharashtra for development of ports, associated infrastructure, and industrial and socio-economic development in the state.’
Impact on the local community
The depth of the channel that is part of the reason for Dighi port’s potential has also made the waters highly fertile for the fishing community that inhabits both banks of Rajpuri Creek. In a visit to the region, this reporter met with multiple people who have been pushed out of fishing into other occupations due to difficulties that have arisen for them to continue fishing after the development of the port. With its expansion and the associated industrial development, the locals fear further loss of employment and even possible displacement.
Jamwal Rajkutikar, a former fisherman who now drives an auto-rickshaw, said ‘Dighi port may have been helping real-estate brokers but not the fishing communities. Its only benefit is that rich people can become richer.’
Padmakar Bhuje, a 50-year-old fisherman from Dighi village who was repairing his fishing boat when this reporter met him, noted the various changes already made to the landscape. He pointed out that ‘the Government of Maharashtra and Maharashtra Maritime Board have built a new highway going out of Agardanda village and that beautiful patch of jungle [where the north bank of the port is located] has now been destroyed’ and that ‘the Dighi port is an important part of the Government of India’s Sagarmala project [which covers port development across India’s coastline]’.
Bhuje also said, ‘the project is related to the National Waterways system, connecting to the newly built highway. This has led to a divide between Hindu and Muslim residents regarding the ownership of boats and who is getting opportunity for upcoming waterways system in Rajpuri Creek’. The National Waterways system is another ambitious project of the present government to connect big and small waterways of the country.
Bhuje said ‘earlier, politicians used to be the ones making empty promises. Now politicians are no more and we can only hear the words of tycoons like Adani. His officials have come to the village and guaranteed us jobs. But they have not committed to it in writing.’
He added, ‘I am thinking of selling my fishing boat and buying an auto-rickshaw.’
Shegaji, the fisherman quoted earlier, said ‘we used to easily go out to the creek and the sea for fishing. Now it has become much more difficult. The parameters for fishing are set by the port authorities.’
These parameters consist of fishing zones that have been declared out of bounds by the port authorities. Ganesh Bendu, a 24-year-old fisherman from Dighi village whose earns his livelihood fishing, is now finding it hard to make ends meet. What used to be a free and open sea for the local community is now entirely controlled and regulated by the port authority. He said, ‘a few days back, the port trust authority seized my boat because I must have crossed the line that they have decided’.
‘The port authorities kept the boat for a few days before returning it,’ he added.
Ashok Kadgaonkar, 33, of Agardanda village is an arts graduate and the owner of a fishing boat. He said ‘earlier we were living a good simple life but because of the Dighi port, there are many real-estate agents making a beeline to Agardanda and Dighi. Now we see meetings, arguments and heated bigotry.’
In addition, he noted that ‘while we have been given a channel for fishing and port administration expect us to not disturb their daily activities, the coast guard controls the creek and views us as trespassers. If we go by mistake to the port side, they catch us and take our boat and vessels for some days’.
Priyanshu Perikar, 22, is the nephew of Mahesh Patil quoted earlier. He runs a food truck in Rajpuri village close to the Dighi port and supports Adani’s $1.8-billion port expansion. He believes the project will lead to better job opportunities for unemployed people in the area like himself. He is, however, in a minority in the local community.
Darmesh Agardandekar, 44, an activist of the Shetkari Kamgar Communist Paksh (Communist Party of Farm Workers) who lives in Agardanda village, said that ‘there are about 400 fishing vessels in four villages which have a population of around 14-15,000. The villagers are primarily dependent on fishing, agriculture and agriculture labouring; the children have not gone for higher education and education rate is very low.’
He was worried and stressed about what’s happening to the area. He added ‘since the highway and the Dighi port, we have been divided on the basis of religion’. While explaining it, he stressed that, ‘in our villages we are having small fights, arguments over tea and marriages which we never had before’.
‘Muslim boat owners who sail to the Janjira fort and do guiding job are being denied the upcoming opportunities’, Agardandekar added. He also said it had brought tension to the area that is being exploited by religious and political activists.
Ganesh Bendu added that, ‘there are groups active around here that are also working for the government department. One of the groups is busy propagating how brave Hindus were in the time of King Shivaji and Sambhaji. One such group is Hindu Janjagruti Samiti.’ The Samiti is a controversial far-right Hindu nationalist organisation that has been linked to a string of murders of progressive political activists and writers.
‘It was a very good time 10-15 years back; I don’t know what has gone wrong,’ Agardandekar said. He also said because of such groups, the village harmony has been snatched away and it can now see the Hindu-Muslim rivalry at work.
‘We used to eat and sit together. Now it’s very rare to see villagers coming together to enjoy themselves’.
Shiva Thorat is an independent researcher and film maker based in Mumbai.