On the ground tiny flakes of dried fish and shrimp mingle with the warm sand. The air smells of drying fish, like delicacy shop in Chinatown.
The Wagher live in shacks made from bamboo and driftwood frames covered in a patchwork of hessian sacks. Outside the homes lie piles of firewood and bundles of fishing nets. A patient donkey is still attached to his wooden cart. Skinned and gutted fish glisten on bamboo drying racks, and graceful women wearing bright salwars carry brass pitchers of water on their heads.
The Wagher’s fishing settlements or banders are dotted along the vast expanse of coastal mud flat of the Kutch coast in India’s far west. Although the banders are temporary settlements, the Wagher spend the majority of their lives in them. For eight to nine months they live on the intertidal zone by their brightly painted wooden fishing boats, their shacks sitting on the higher areas of mud and sand so as to be completely surrounded, yet not inundated by the high tide.
The other three to four months, which encompasses the monsoon they retire to their villages a few kilometres inland and walk everyday back to the shore to collect the fish caught in their paragria nets – nets strung out on the mudflats that collect fish during the high tide.
The Wagher live a separate existence to rest of Kutch with their own language, customs and interpretation of Islam. Unusually, in a country whose female birthrate is seriously impacted by a preference for boy babies, the Wagher consider a couple’s first child being a girl as a sign of good luck. The women are responsible for the cleaning, sorting and drying of the fish, which is just as valued and more labour intensive than the actual catching of the fish. It’s a simple existence that the Waghers insist they are happy with – albeit with the addition of the odd mobile phone and motorcycle. It is an existence that will not last much longer.
When the company first came to build the port, they thought little of it. The Government port had co-existed with them for 20 years and caused them no trouble, but the new private port grew and grew and is still growing. A Special Economic Zone was declared with tax breaks and cheap and abundant electricity. Over 60 industries, everything from cooking oil to crude oil, toiletries to tyres rushed in to set up shop. The abundant power for these industries comes from the coal coming into the port, which is burnt in two ‘ultra mega’ power plants. To make way for the booming development was cleared. Thousands of hectares of mangrove forest has been cleared and commonly held grazing land sold. As more land was needed the company turned to the intertidal zone.
Without permits or clearance more mangroves were cleared, creeks blocked with earth and filled with material dredged from the bottom of the port. Soon the intertidal mudflats resembled a desert. The company then applied to the government to buy the land, now classified as wasteland.