Kachchh is the home of more than my forefathers. It is home to the agrarian Ahir, the cattle breeding Jat, the weaving Harijan, the nomadic Rabari, the Wagher fishermen. It is home to mangrove forests, coral reefs, wild donkeys, breeding flamingos. It is home to fierce cyclones, ruinous droughts, and devastating earthquakes.
The earthquake of 2001 had a leveling effect on Kachchh, literally and otherwise. It affected everyone, rich and poor, high- and low-caste, of every religion. Everyone was forced to bear witness to pain and death. Everyone had to suffer the destruction of places, routines, and histories. Everyone had to face a future filled with uncertainty and hardship. Cities and communities were brought together and torn apart by this commonality of experience.
This leveling was, perhaps, only momentary. It’s no secret that government can be corrupt, incompetent, ineffective, and unresponsive in the wake of a disaster. Perhaps it will be said that they did their best in managing the earthquake relief. They gave out plots of land to those who lost properties, but did little to help construct anything. They facilitated some relief aid, but huge amounts disappeared as the aid passed through the talons of government bodies. Most people were on their own. It was a difficult recovery for everyone, and for many the recovery is incomplete. It helped if you had networks outside of Kachchh to rely on. It helped if you had family with enough disposable income to borrow a bit of money for rehabilitation. It helped if you had savings to help shoulder the cost of rebuilding. But many people had none of these things.
Even as aid poured in, without any way of distributing it equitably, with poor roads in remote rural communities, much of this money stayed within the urban centers. Those who were most vulnerable, and often hardest hit, were also those with the least access to help.
Just three years earlier, in 1998, Kachchh was ravaged by a powerful cyclone, and, as the local response to it organized, it became apparent that a large number of civil society organizations already existed in Kachchh, some well-specialized in elements of disaster relief. An informal collaborative of these organizations worked together as a network to facilitate disaster relief after the cyclone.
Seeing encouraging results in 1998, and facing another cyclone in 1999, the organizations grew increasingly interested in formalizing their network, and in 2000, Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan was formed. Beginning with about eleven organizations, the network has swelled over the past decade to thirty-five. Each organization continues to operate independently, but receives additional funding and network support from the Abhiyan umbrella. These organizations ran the gamut, from domestic violence relief to environmental advocacy to rights education to trade cooperatives, and a lot could be said about each of them individually. Almost all of their efforts, however, work to organize marginalized communities of farmers, artisans, fisherfolk, livestock breeders, and saltpan workers. Abhiyan’s main strides are in bolstering rural communities and gram panchayats to realize their full potential through decentralized planning, reliable access to information, and sustainable viability of traditional livelihoods.
After the 2001 earthquake, Abhiyan saw that despite an outpouring of response from donors and non-governmental organizations outside of Kachchh, most of these interventions were, as Abhiyan puts it, “thematic and territorial in their approach,” rather than holistic. As so often happens, the “community’s need for help [had] been overtaken by the NGO’s need to help,” and thus created “a complex web of dependencies, expectations, and layers of ‘beneficiaries.’” Despite good intentions, the NGO approach of “implementing large programs, driving global agendas, and working with pre-determined outcomes has increasingly made the people passive recipients.” Abhiyan formed a network of thirty-three Setu Centers across the Kachchh region to try and reverse this trend.
Literally meaning “bridge,” the Setus are facilitation centers that each work with independent clusters of villages and panchayats. Though they share a common purpose, each has its own specific interventions, depending on the needs expressed by the communities they work with. Still, all assist the villages and panchayats in becoming more self-sufficient. For instance, a number of Setus, realizing that communities rebuilding after a disaster often had to rely on external engineers or health professionals that they could not afford or trust, began training local youth as community teachers, para-engineers, para-health, para-veterinary, and para-legal professionals. These community members thus had the expertise to shoulder most issues that arose in a sort of self-help capacity. In another example, members of a Setu noticed that fish prices were incredibly expensive, even though local fishermen were not profiting. It turned out that a chain of resellers was driving massive cost inflation. In response, the Setu organized a fisherman’s collective to sell better quality fish at a cheaper price by eliminating the middleman and introducing competition. The plan worked, and the prices dropped, while the fishermen themselves began earning fairly.
While spending a week with the Setu in Bhadreshwar, a village about twenty kilometers from Mundra, I met some members of Machimar Adhikar Sangarsh Sangathan (MASS), a fisherman’s union. The main project of MASS is to mitigate the ecological and social consequences of rapid industrialization along the Mundra coast. The development of massive shipping ports and power plants by outside corporations, bolstered by earthquake relief aid, has displaced nearly ten thousand Wagher fisherman, who annually set up temporary villages near the coastal estuaries for their catch. It hasn’t helped that the ports themselves have blocked these coastal rivers. Moreover, the new coal-fired power plants have led to a rise in respiratory problems not only for the fishermen, but for the laborers in the plants, and for residents of nearby communities. The dumping of polluted waste into the rivers has killed off or sickened many of the coastal fish, again shrinking the yearly catch, while also slowly destroying the delicate beds of coral offshore, one of the only such reefs in India. The construction of ports has required the cutting of immense numbers of coastal mangroves, which is causing a slow desertification of the coast. The killing of mangroves, too, means far less protection from the ever-more frequent cyclones, the consequences of which we have seen in Burma and Bangladesh.
One of the members of MASS, Samji, takes me on a motorcycle tour of coastal Mundra. As we drive to the ports, everything seems to vanish, as though we are entering an endless desert. The winds are ferocious. The whipping sand buries into my scalp, burns my arms, clings to my eyelashes. Looking left to right, I can see nothing, and in front of me, only tall cranes, barely visible, are creening through the arid haze. It is only when we pass by the few remaining mangroves that the sand stops. The mangroves catch the sand and hold it back, and instead, I feel only a cool coastal breeze. Even with so few survivors, the deep roots and hardy branches of the mangroves protect me from harm as they once protected Mundra from cyclones. I would never notice their presence except for having known their absence. And I fear that absence, and I try not to imagine how a cyclone might ravage this area, these ports and power plants, the villages, the fishing communities, the city of Mundra, without their shield.
Samji shows me the remains of a migrant fishing community, who had since returned to their permanent villages for the coming monsoons. The huts are makeshift, and it is incredible to me that these fishermen will stay in them for eight months of the year. I see a competition emerging between civil society and corporate responsibility. I see a MASS school sitting near the huts. Directly next to it is a slightly fancier school, constructed by a corporation building a port and a power plant on the coast. Nearby are two water tanks—one placed by MASS, a larger one placed by the corporation.
Despite being surrounded by power plants, this community has no power. The water is polluted, the fish are sickly, and the rivers are filled in by sand. In response, the fishermen have come out in full force against the coastal development — a public hearing on an expansion along the coast saw a showing of six thousand fishermen strong, and lasted over five hours. But much of the damage has already been done.
Reconstruction and development have been mashed together into one here in Kachchh. The aid pouring in after the earthquake has become, for many outside corporations, an opportunity to profit in the region. To be sure, this sometimes benefits the Kachchhis themselves. Roads have improved. Power is increasingly available. Employment is rising. Water is cleaner. Development, for many here, is a good thing, profit and all.
But truth is many-sided. And this development is rarely done in consultation with its neighbors. And why should it? The development companies did not need to bother being conscious of environmental damage or local livelihoods, because neither they nor the government would stop their development. Repeatedly, land was occupied and stolen from people without governmental permit or local permission. Repeatedly, buildings were constructed and operations were carried out that exceeded or violated environmental restrictions. But the courts are often compromised, and the opposition is weak, as many of the farmers who sold their land for these ports and plants have effectively been bought off.
The Wagher fishermen receive little sympathy from those in power. Their industry is unloved by the vegetarian upper class, and their Muslim religion earns them few points with supporters of the Hindutva movement of Gujarat. Triply marginalized, there is little recourse available but that offered by the ragtag titans of local NGOs, who are well-connected and energetic, but few in number.
Driving along the long rural roads of Kachchh, it would be easy to look out of the window and feel as though I were passing by just a lot of land, peaceful and calm and silent. The shrubs, the grazing cattle, the little rivers. But the more that I learn about what’s happening in Kachchh, the stronger my senses grow. More becomes visible between the letters and the lines, and the world begins to speak. The new buildings and the old, dilapidated huts. The empty lots and the occupied ones. The electrical outages, the street lights, the breadth and reach and durability of power. The types of produce available. The length of rainfall. These things are symptoms and consequences which point to a cause. Each is an index of industrialization, of short-sighted development. Each is evidence of change occurring too fast for purposeful planners to keep up with. It is a spaceship chasing the speed of light, a curve chasing an asymptote, Achilles chasing the tortoise.
And each is part of a system. Not a system consciously created, with rules, with winners and losers. In spite of its mechanized appearance, it is an organic system, with principles and properties and propensities. And in its operation, some things are created and some things are destroyed. We can call these as winners and losers, but to do so mischaracterizes the complexity of what’s happening. It anthropomorphizes and simplifies. The changes in Mundra have to do with much grander dynamics of globalization, of social equity, of capitalism, of heterodoxy, of needs and desires.
At the same time, there is a danger to using the language of systems to discuss this. We might become too acquiescent to the status quo. We might fool ourselves into thinking of the system as dynamic in function, but static in structure. We might come to believe that we must accept some destruction and loss as a necessary byproduct of the system’s operation, because, after all, every system generates waste. “These fishermen have to go! They are clinging too tightly to the old ways. The world is changing and they must change with it!” Then the highest ambition we can reach for is to accept the system, but minimize the scope and magnitude of its destructiveness. “Well, maybe we can mitigate dumping of toxins.” “Well, maybe we can set limits on mangrove destruction.” “Well, maybe we can designate a formal fishing zone somewhere.”
But there is a very different morality that is unsatisfied by this. This morality believes that a world is possible where people are not destroyed simply because they are continuing to live. That change can be inclusive, especially of those in closest proximity to it. That within a system, humans are making choices, and those choices grow more powerful in a collective.
In Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Jonathan Lear explores the fate of the Crow., one of the First Nations of the United States The Crow were traditionally nomadic warriors, and a vast portion of their cultural tapestry of rituals and beliefs were grounded in the need to protect territory, fight enemies, and migrate constantly over expanses of land. When Crow land was stolen by the United States government, and when indigenous societies were being destroyed by war, disease, and genocide, this culture was rendered meaningless in the context of the changing world it was trying to survive in. The crow would set stakes in the ground called coup lines to mark their territory, but these had no meaning on a reservation. Coming of age rituals emphasizing war and combat had no meaning when all other native peoples had been massacred. Nomadism had no meaning when there was nowhere to go.
When cultural meaning cannot be made of new events, there is no way to go forward, no language with which to conceptualize the place of the Crow people in this new world. As the Crow chief Plenty Coups put it, “After this, nothing happened.” The Crow were faced with a choice. They could fight to the death, disappearing with their traditions into the history books. Or they could “watch as the sparrow does,” to sit and listen to the changing world, to survive through it, and to try to carve out a new place within it on the other side. To do so, one cannot rely on reason, because the only reason is raw survival. One cannot rely on evidence, because nothing can be seen through the meaningless haze of the future. One has to rely on faith alone, on radical hope, that by living consciously in a changing world, and with a bit of luck, one may build a space in which the Crow can discover a new way to exist, without relinquishing the memory and practice of what it means to be Crow.
Maybe that doesn’t look altogether different from the first view, that “the world is changing and they must change with it.” But I think there is a degree of empathy that is missing in that first view, and I think its absence may motivate us to turn the other way even when something is very, very wrong. To me, the conflict on the Mundra coast requires an inclusive morality that engages even as it accepts, that protests even as it evolves, that preserves what is valuable in tradition even as it accommodates what is valuable in modernity. This is not a new notion. It has been done countless times before. But it requires consciousness, awareness, forethought, care, and intentional conversation. Empathy naturally produces such attitudes, and a little more of that is needed here.
Not that there’s much incentive for empathy, when antipathy is so profitable.