From a cosmopolitan city to a dead dock: The attempt to revive Machilipatnam port

The fishermen may face a loss of livelihood if a deep sea port comes up. But many locals are far from averse to the proposed idea – and some are even looking forward to it.
From a cosmopolitan city to a dead dock: The attempt to revive Machilipatnam port
From a cosmopolitan city to a dead dock: The attempt to revive Machilipatnam port
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There is a flurry of activity on the road leading to the shores of the Bay of Bengal near Gilakaladindi village in Andhra Pradesh, situated a few kilometers from the coastal town of Machilipatnam. Several colourful fishing boats are lined up at a canal and preparations are underway to set sail.

While a few people are busy shredding ice to store the fish and stocking up for the journey, others are engaged in a discussion at a nearby tea stall.

"There are around 95 boats that set up here. Since these are slightly larger boats, we can't go daily and we set sail for one week at a time. To store the fish that we catch and ensure that it stays fresh, we take about three tonnes of ice on each boat," explains one of the fishermen.

These fishermen may soon face a loss of livelihood, as the state government has proposed an ambitious deep-sea port project on the coast of Bay of Bengal. But many locals are far from averse to the proposed idea and some are even looking forward to it.

One reason for the strong local support for the project is that it could potentially revive the slow economy of the coastal town, which had a glorious past.

The history of Maesolia

A few kilometers from Gilakaladindi is the house of Mohammed Silar, a retired Tahsildar and historian, whose books on Machilipatnam are often cited, even by research scholars.

"Machilipatnam is actually ancient and even finds a mention in several ancient Buddhist texts. It was said that when Buddha himself visited Amaravati, there was also a mention of the coastal town. This means that a settlement existed here even in 500 BC," he says.

"Some stories in the Sinhalese Chronicles say that Buddha travelled along the Krishna river, before reaching Machilipatnam. At this time, as he was in a deep state of meditation, a large cyclone struck the town, and a local king rescued him," he adds.

Silar says that the coastal town soon became a crucial point of contact for traders in the medieval area, who would sail by sea.

The town even finds a mention in books dated between the first and third centuries, like Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, Silar says.

The town continued to flourish during the Qutb Shahi era in the 14th and 15th Century, as even today, a single highway connects Charminar in Hyderabad to Machilipatnam, through Vijayawada.

In 1676, a book titled 'Travel in India’, published by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a French merchant, also mentions the coastal town.

"Tavernier wrote in his book that there were people of many nationalities here and people who spoke several languages. He said that it was a cosmopolitan city, the likes of which he had never seen before," Silar says.

Mohammed Silar

"During the reign of the Delhi Sultanate, they took a rough census of cities under their jurisdiction, and found that Machilipatnam had a population of 2 lakh people when the core city of Delhi had roughly 9,600 people. That's how vibrant the city was," he adds.

'Masulipatnam' was also one of the first places where the East Indian Company set up a factory in the country, in the early 17th century.

Silar says that some Britishers even recorded that 22 ships would always anchor here during the time. Other stories narrate how there was a foreign exchange unit in the city, where traders from other countries could exchange their currencies, for local ones.

However, the fall of this once cosmopolitan town was unavoidable, as it was frequented by cyclones, with each disaster killing countless people. Soon, this forced people to start migrating to other places, including Vijayawada.

"The British also had a native infantry division here, which saw many people die after one such storm, following which they shifted to Madras," Silar says.

By the time India gained independence, road and rail transport had taken priority and cities like Hyderabad and Vijayawada had developed, so all the attention focused on them.

"Due to the apathy of successive governments since then, those centres developed, but the politicians of Machilipatnam have turned a blind eye towards the town for their own personal greed," Silar says.

Today, the once proud port and dock, lie in ruins as there is no more trade through water and most boats that visit the shores are used for fishing. Even the fishermen aren't too happy with the present state of affairs.

All that remains of a once glorious port

“The boats are getting damaged due to the canal, as it is narrow and there is a high chance that it might hit the sides. Desilting and dredging is also not done, so a lot of silt accumulates below the water. We don't have money to repair the vessels each time it hits something solid. If we get a dock, then we will be able to park our boats more easily,” one fisherman laments.

Many rue that government officials have visited the spot several times and conducted numerous surveys, but no action has been taken on the ground.

They are also not too content with politicians as the local legislators have repeatedly won elections by promising to build a port, but failing to do so after getting elected.

The attempt at revival

In 2008, then Andhra Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy, expressing happiness that people voted in several Congress leaders from the region, laid the foundation stone and awarded the contract to a consortium led by now-tainted Satyam Raju's Maytas Infra.

The Rs 1,590 crore all-weather deep water port was expected to be built a few kilometers away from Gilakaladindi, with a cargo handling capacity of 15 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) initially, and up to 35 MTPA in the end. However, after the Satyam scam broke out, the contract was negated, and a fresh proposal was given to Navayuga, an engineering company, in 2010.

While the company managed to acquire some land, protests broke out and the Land Acquisition Act, 2013 was passed by Parliament. The Telangana agitation for a separate state also hampered activity.

However, things changed when the TDP took charge of the residual state in 2014, voted into power on promises of building the port within a few years. While the state government said that it would build a port, it has also charted plans to build an entire industrial corridor in the area over 30,000 acres.

This triggered a massive row with many opposition leaders and activists questioning if it was necessary to acquire such large tracts of land. Opposition leader YS Jaganmohan Reddy also tapped into this sentiment, visiting the town on the 150th day of his statewide tour. Alleging that the TDP issued land acquisition notices to farmers in 33,000 acres, he said that he would complete the long-pending port that his father began, if he was voted into power in 2019 and that too, in just 4,800 acres.

Present scenario

According to the 2011 census, Machilipatnam mandal (sub-district) had 2,38,962 people out of which 69,070 people lived in rural areas while 1,69,892 people were urban dwellers.

However, if one were to compare this to the 2001 census, there were actually 2,50,521 people, which reflects a percentage variation of -4.61% in total, suggesting that more people were migrating out of the area, rather than into it. While rural areas showed a decline of  -2.95% in population over the decade, urban areas fared worse, with the figure standing at -5.28%.

The villages surrounding Machilipatnam towards the coast were once known for their trade and boat building and repair activity, but business has been bleak in recent years, as neglect by the government has left the few hundred fisher families in the area in dire straits.

With many tourists also visiting the city each year for its beaches, others have turned to opening and working in businesses related to the tourism sector.

Many have also shifted to the jurisdiction of the neighbouring mandal of Pedana, which has witnessed a growing popularity for items like rold gold ornaments and Kalamkari textiles, the same census shows.

In fact, many fishermen that TNM spoke to, said that they had urged their younger generation to get an education and take up another profession, as fishing was no longer economically viable.

They also hope that the youth, some of whom have engineering degrees, will be able to get jobs in the port, operating the machines and doing other such work. Some have also pegged their hopes on the larger plan for an industrial belt, which has promised to create at least 25,000 jobs for the locals.

"The port must come. The people wish for it and so do the fishermen. They have not seen development and they are hoping that they will get jobs once it starts coming up,” says Kollati Srinivasa Rao, a Left leader based out of Machilipatnam – adding that proper rehabilitation is also a must.

Srinivasa Rao

“There is no guarantee of jobs as the port will largely function with automation and the locals may just be relegated to coolie work of loading and unloading the cargo," he says.

"It is going to be a big setback for the fishermen in the area. Many will have to vacate their ancestral land and find work in other places. Secondly, even if they are given rehabilitation, it will be far away from the coast and it could destroy the local economy that stands today," he adds.

Meanwhile, the state government said that it is working at a brisk pace. "The Master Plan layout is evolved comprising of two dock arms, which would be developed in phases and can be integrated with ease to ensure efficient port operations. Due care is taken in firming up the modified Phase-I layout, duly adhering to the safety and environmental aspects, to ensure that mangroves existing near the south side of the port are not disturbed," the state government said, in a Pre-Feasibility report for the development of Phase 1 of the port, in April 2015.

Stating that a land area of 5,324 acres has been earmarked by the state government to cater to the traffic forecast of 2041-42 which is 253.3 MTPA, the report said that the estimated capital cost of this phase alone was around Rs 11,924 crore.

Speaking to TNM, Andhra Minister and Machilipatnam MLA Kollu Ravindra said, "The total proposal for the port consists of 5,300 acres. While 4,800 acres will be used for the port, another 500 acres will be used to lay roads and rail and other such infrastructure projects to improve connectivity."

"While 3,000 acres has already been acquired, large parts of which were government land, another 2,300 acres have to be acquired and negotiations are ongoing," he added.

He also said that presently, the state government is mainly acquiring land under the land pooling system (LPS) and the Land Acquisition Act 2013 and subsequent amendments.

When asked about when work could begin, he said, "We are just focusing on acquiring the land. We need some funds for the project and the MUDA is taking loans from banks, for which the state government will be the guarantor. We plan to begin work in another one or two months."

He added that the state government already owned large tracts of land for the industrial corridor, and work on it would begin soon as well.

Meanwhile, locals say that they are desperate to see economic activity in their area for their future generations, even if it comes at the cost of their own livelihood.

"It is not an advantage as such for fishermen if we get the port. We will anyway continue living the rest of our life like we have and perish. The hope is that our next generation, especially those who have studied, will be able to get some employment from the development work," says Lanke Naguru, a long-time fisherman.

"We have all worked hard by catching fishes and ensured that our children got an education, so that they don't struggle like us. However, many have finished their degrees and are struggling with unemployment. At such a time, the port might help us more than being a fisherman," he adds.

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