Field Notes: Dispirited & Defeated In Dahanu

ARSHI QURESHI

As I travelled through Dahanu, the last remaining significant sprawl of farms and forest north of Mumbai towards Gujarat, I wondered why anyone, government or conglomerate, would want to destroy this beautiful region.

I was curious to learn why harvests of its signature fruit, the chikoo or sapota, had declined substantially from two decades ago. Dahanu was once known as Mumbai's fruit bowl and still accounts for a third of the state's chikoo harvest.

"There was once an abundance of chikoo, but the pollution from the thermal power plant has ruined everything," said Vishesh, 30, an Adivasi who I met as he worked at environmentalist Nargis Irani's farm in Dahanu.

In an Adivasi-dominated region, Vishesh, who uses one name, has witnessed the government taking land from his tribe easily since most of his compatriots are unaware of their legal rights. 

The majority of people in this area were impoverished, according to Vishesh, who assessed their story thus: "Once upon a time, they had vast farms and were affluent, but then the government started taking control and exploited their innocence." 

As we talked, Vishesh offered me three big lemons, and star fruit freshly plucked from the farm. 

Irani, who is 80, has lived in Dahanu since 1972 and has spent years opposing large corporations setting up industries in Dahanu, which the state government classified as an "ecologically fragile" area 31 years ago. Her weakened bones, she told me, prevented her from fighting any longer. 

Irani accused the government and powerful industrialists of conspiring to "rob people" in the name of development.

Later, I was seated in a tiny room that farmer Damodar Raju Macchi uses as his office. He offered me coconut water and told me that I should have arrived before the rainy season when the walls were coated entirely with ash from the main thermal power plant on the edge of Dahanu, owned first by Reliance and then by the Adanis.

Macchi looked disappointed as he described the absence of government initiatives to help farmers and fisherfolk whose livelihoods and lives had been wrecked by the actions of the State, which has systematically watered down or dodged the laws that once protected Dahanu.

"When the thermal power plant was set up, they had promised us jobs, but none of that happened," Macchi said, complaining about how many farmers, including him, got less compensation than they were supposed to when their land was taken over for the power plant.

Every farmer and fisherman I spoke to appeared sad and dispirited.

Ganesh Akre, the president of the Dahanu Machhimar Society or fisherfolk society, told me the vast majority of locals were involved in the fishing industry but were now struggling because the quality of the catch had declined since the power plant began operations in 1996. 

"We have protested against the plant, but it has been too long, and we have given up," said Akre, who explained to me how the sea held riches that no industry could replace.

He told me about one of the world's costliest fishes, the ghol (in English, the black-spotted croaker), treasured because it was rare and fetched "lakhs of rupees" for those who managed to catch some. 

Indeed, in 2018, a ghol caught by locals in neighbouring Palghar fetched Rs 5.5 lakh. In 2021, a local called Chandrakant Tare earned Rs 1.3 crore from 157 ghols that he caught at one time.

If the power plant, which fisher folks like Akre accuse of reducing the catch by discharging warm water, were not damaging enough, a port is coming to the area. They fear increased pollution and damage to local mangroves, where fish often breed. 

There appears to be no respite in sight for Dahanu.

You can read Arshi Qureshi's full story here.

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