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'Non-existent' people make way for chemical hub

December 06, 2007 08:39 IST
"We don't belong to this place -  actually none of this is supposed to be here, you know," Jayanta (he refuses to give his second name) admits candidly standing at the doorway of the hut that has "Fisheries office on Meen-dwip/Nayachar" scrawled in red ink on the front wall.

The occupant of a small office-room in the hut comprising a flat bed and a chair, he steps out to intercept our questions as other villagers stand by, sheepishly reluctant to answer or speak out.

We are on Nayachara, the 10,000-acre island being pushed by the West Bengal government as the site of its proposed "chemical hub" under the Centre's PCPIR scheme (Petroleum, Chemicals & Petrochemical Industrial Region) scheme.

The PCPIR was proposed to be set up at Nandigram, a rural community just across the river on the main land mass, but the violent response there and subsequent disturbances appear to have led to the termination of that decision.

It's clear why Nayachara is the place now being favoured by the West Bengal government. Besides being sparsely populated (700-odd according to the highest government estimates), this is a community that is not "supposed to be here" and, therefore, presumably easy to shift out.

Nayachara is not just an island on the periphery of the state of West Bengal - the population is on the margins too and with no rights of their own, they are simply not there.

"We come here for a few months every year to rear fish from summer to autumn, and then go away," he continues, justifying his earlier statement.

"Here" means a small hamlet of about 25 mud and bamboo huts occupied by the silent mass, along with a visitor's centre called 'Matsya-Kanya' built by the government's fisheries department, three small brick and mortar rooms, and in the distance, guard rooms overlooking large squarish depressions in the ground that now look like lush lawns providing fodder to cattle and goats.

These depressions are actually fish-rearing ponds, around 320 of them, stretching away into the horizon.

Jayanta, the leader of this community, which looks to be about 50-strong at first glance, explains: "This is an island with no official existence and so we have no police station or any other facility and no permanent population. That we are here is not on any records".

But why are the fish ponds dry and empty, we wonder.

The reason, it appears, is that this group migrates here every year in April, pumps in water from the river Hoogly to fill up the ponds and then release fish to harvest them till the onset of winter, after which they abandon the ponds till next year.

"There was a scheme to have permanent fisheries by using water from the river all the year around, but now that the chemical hub will come up, that will not happen", says their leader who does not appear to be upset at all because of the end of their way of life.

What is reared, we ask.

For the first time, a villager speaks up, his face alight with pride in his work: "We grow the best prawns, large ones that are exported and are in great demand."

We turn back on their leader and ask, "How did so may ponds come up, and plans for permanent fisheries drafted, if you are not here?".

He has no further answer. "We all have homes and other facilities on the mainland and we will go back there, everything here is under the fisheries department", he says turning away.

However, the annual migration is not a story many buy.

"Water is there round the year and while productivity does come down because of the winter cold, I understand fish is reared there round the year. This year they will be moved out," said sources in the Trinamul Congress, an opposition party that is yet to take a position on the issue.

Sadly, it is not so easy going to Nayachara, located as it is several kilometres south-east of the Haldia Dock Complex (HDC) of Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT) in the middle of the channel where the River Hoogly pours into the sea.

For these fish-rearing communities, the only way to get food and provisions, or to avail of medical or other services, is to catch one of the two ferries that run during the day between the island's western coast and a small jetty on the Haldi river.

"The boats run at 8.30 a.m. and 3 p.m., and charge Rs 8 per trip", says Sariful sitting in front of his small hut close to the edge of the river, accompanied by his wife and an infant.

They are resigned to their fate and waiting to move, like perhaps they do every year. Only, next year they may not have their hut to come back to.

Pradeep Gooptu in Nayachara/Haldia