A port all at sea

The slide of Machilipatnam port - as seen in 1953.

Small catch: Machilipatnam's fishing harbour is not as vibrant as it used to be

Shut shop: A closed workshop at the port that was used to repair fishing boats

Once a vibrant Machilipatnam boat building industry is now in a sorry state.

The once prosperous Machilipatnam port is now an inconsequential speck on India's coastline. But Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu wants to bring back its glory. Can he? G Naga Sridhar reports

Times have been testing for M Rangayya. He belongs to a family of weavers that has a 250-year-old legacy. Back then, the weaves of his forefathers travelled as far as France, thanks to the port of Masula, now known as Machilipatnam. Their Kalamkari technique of block printing had found customers far and beyond.

But for Rangayya and the rest of the 5,000 weaver-community in Pedana, a village off the port of Machilipatnam, in Andhra Pradesh, nothing remains of that past glory. “We have been finding it very difficult to live with monthly earnings ranging from ₹6,000 to ₹8,000 per weaver,’’ says the 58-year-old Rangayya, a father two girls and a son. He weaves handloom fabrics, which need hours of hard toil. To weave a 42-yard sagu, which means a length of fabric, Rangayya works 12 hours a day for five days.

In Pedana, 8 km from Machilipatnam, there are about 5,000 weavers, who continue to work on handloom weaving and use the Kalamkari technique.

The fall of the art coincided with the dwindling fortunes of the port. “I grew up hearing tales about the brisk trade and affluence weavers had long back. But I witnessed the shrinking of our business along with the decline of activity in the port,’’ says Rangayya as he takes a break from work. At present, hardly any trade takes place via the port.

Few from the younger generation want to take up the art. “Most of the weavers are not paid well and are selling to middlemen who buy cheap and with large margins,’’ says P Srinivas, owner of Shyamala Arts and Crafts and Bandar Kalamkari in Pedana. He is the only master craftsman who exports textiles to the US and Asian countries.

The number of weavers and kalamkari workers is dwindling. “Going by the ration cards in the village, we have about 1,400 people dependent on Kalamkari and 2,000 people on handloom,’’ adds Srinivas, who prefers to export his merchandise either by air, or from the Chennai port

But, of late, hopes of Rangayya, Srinivas and the rest of the community have risen. The state government headed by Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu is expected to soon set up a development agency and initiate the process of acquiring 30,000 acres that will not only redevelop the Machilipatnam port into a new one, but make it an industrial hub.

Luckily for the otherwise sleepy port town, the proximity to the new and upcoming state capital Amaravati, which will be just 60km away, is a life saver.

Plans also include linking Machilipatnam with Amaravati by rail, which could further boost the prospects of the port and the population around it.

But the likes of Rangayya and Srinivas are also wary. In 2008, the then government had proposed to resurrect Machilipatnam as part of a grand plan to develop ports along its 996-km-coastline and handle 200 MT of cargo by 2020. There was little progress.

“Irrespective of the ruling party, no government has bothered to develop Machilipatnam port and town,’’ rues Srinivas. Will the new port revive their fortunes, and other businesses such as boat building, fishing, maize cultivation and salt manufactures? Can the past glory come back?

Port of call

If one travels back in time, the port hinterland dynamics in the town perched on the east coast not only looks impressive, but also lends credence to their hopes.

The magnum opus on ancient global trade in the early centuries of the Common Era - Periplus of the Erythrian Sea (The Diary of Red Sea), authored by an unknown Greek navigator - gives an account of the prosperity of Masula and its people. It was a hub of trade, especially attracting traders from the Roman Empire.  Everyday, there would be at least a dozen ships from Rome and numerous other vessels engaged in domestic trade at the harbour.

Fast forward to the modern period, the picture turns prettier. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, Masula had regular trade with domestic ports such as Madras, Pondicherry, and also with the West. The Dutch and French traders sourced and exported various types of textiles including salampores, Kalamkaris, muslins and percales. French records show that the port had significant revenue from diamond exports too.

For the European trading companies, Masula was a preferred base for exports to Bengal, Madras, as also Jeddah and other ports in the Persian Gulf, besides South-East Asia.

Machilipatnam was preferred because it was the only active port that connected the rich hinterlands of Andhra and Telangana with the rest of the world. The other prominent ports on the east coast included Madras and Tamralipti (in Bengal).

Apart from exports, the region also witnessed spurt in retail trade and a rise in monetary transactions.  The French struck their coin, Dabou, in 1755, and minted at least 49,000 kg of copper every year in Masulipatnam alone.

The French customs office, according to data from the Hyderabad Archives, made an income of ₹34, 911 in the same year. When the English took over Masulipatnam in the second half of the 18th century, the port became a base for their trade.

Downhill after 1947

This glorious era gradually declined after Independence, because of government apathy.  Even as other ports in the region, such as Kakinada and Vishakapatnam, were developed, Machilipatnam (its name had changed by the 18th century) suffered for lack of infrastructure such as dredgers and anchoring facilities.

“There was some activity even in the 1980s. But now there is nothing other than fishing boats here,” says Ch Srinivasa Rao, a supervisor at the harbour for 30 years. There was dredger till a decade ago in the harbour but it has gone now.

Today Machilipatnam port is a pale shadow of its former self. The port is poorly connected by road and a visitor will see just four-five boats at the port; not used for trade but for fishing.The famed boat building industry exists, but now builds fewer than 10 boats a year.

“Not many are building boats here now. This year, so far, only three boats have been built,” says  Aarogyam, an expert in boat building.  A new boat costs ₹30 lakh. Though the cost is almost the same in other ports in the country (such as Goa) orders have dwindled due to general poverty of fishermen, says M Rambabu, who owns two boats.

There are about 200 fishing boats operating from the port now. About a decade ago, there were over 500.

The boat building industry not only survives on demand for new boats but also maintenance of the existing ones.  In addition to fishing, tiger prawns are exported to domestic destinations and food processors.

Starting problems

While other port projects like Krishnapatnam and Gangavarm in the state have seen light after the 2008 proposal, efforts to revive the Machilipatnam port have remained stuck.  The foundation stone for the port was laid by the then Chief Minister, the late Y S Rajasekhara Reddy in 2008. Initially, the project was awarded to Maytas of the Satyam group. But after the Satyam scandal - in which the founder B Ramalinga Raju was convicted of financial irregularities - broke out in 2008, the contract was scrapped and the project was awarded to the Navayuga Engineering Company Ltd in 2010.

The company had planned to acquire 5,324 acres, but could take possession of 524 acres, hampered by political issues and confusion over the new Land Acquisition Act brought in 2013; some provisions were added to the Act and later dropped.

The bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh to create Telangana in June 2014, brightened the port’s prospects. The State announced plans to acquire about 14,500 acres of private land to build a new port with attached industrial corridors.

But this kicked off a fresh row. While people opposed the land acquisition, the Government’s political rivals raised questions. Why does the new project require so much of land? What is the justification for converting agricultural land for industrial use?

“The development of the port has been in the offing for decades. What is the guarantee that the project takes off as planned? If it is delayed, who will guarantee our lives?’’ asks VV Varaprasad, a farmer in Machilipatnam.

The Naidu Government is now banking on the land pooling model that it used successfully, though controversially, to acquire 33,000 acres to build the new capital.

Grand plans

The Government’s plan for Machilipatnam is massive. It wants to earmark 30,000 acres around Machilipatnam for various industries. According to Deputy Chief Minister KE Krishna Murthy, the State is now planning to set up a Machilipatnam Development Authority for all-round development of the region, which will include the proposed deep-sea port and port-based industries.  

A fresh proposal for land pooling is being prepared and is waiting for Naidu’s nod. In return for the land, the owner will get an annual gratuity of ₹25,000 to ₹30,000 for five years, apart from 1,200 sq ft of developed site (including the residential site) for each acre that is foregone. The package for tenant farmers includes a monthly pension of ₹ 2,500 and guarantee of 365 days of work under the NREGS.

Plans are also afoot to provide training to farmers in skill development to help them get other jobs in case of loss of livelihood. A final notification is awaited regarding these incentives.

Meanwhile, land prices in Machilipatnam have zoomed from ₹30,000 an acre to ₹50 lakh - ₹1 crore depending on the location, says A Srinivas, a local real estate businessman.

“It is both a positive and negative development. Some of the farmers now expect an appreciation in prices and are unwilling to part with their land. But unless and until land is given, how will the project take off? Without project, there will be no escalation in prices,’’ he observes.

Benefits

The construction of a new port can make a significant difference to the economy of Machilipatnam. Located between the ports of Kakinada in the north and Krishnapatnam in the south, the Machilipatnam port could lead to better connectivity on the long coastline of Andhra Pradesh.

In the first phase of the project, the port will have two berths expandable up to 12 with a cargo handling capacity of 7 million tonnes. This will be increased to 13 million tonnes in phase 2, with an investment of ₹1,590 crore. The project was awarded to Navayuga on a Build Own Operate and Transfer basis for a concession period of 50 years.

Apart from its proximity to the new capital, Machilipatnam will be the closest port to Hyderabad, capital of the landlocked state of Telangana. According to a recent study by the Federation of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a port in Machilipatnam could give a boost to textiles, gems, diamonds, imitation jewellery as well as food processing industries.

The Andhra Pradesh Industrial Policy 2014-15 envisages development of industrial clusters in petrochemicals and integrated textiles, besides smart industrial townships in Visakhapatnam, Krishna, East and West Godavari districts and Machilipatnam; there are plans to develop the port to leverage the untapped potential in the region.

It is also expected to generate direct and indirect employment of over 25,000. The Andhra Pradesh government, which is seeking to provide a big push to the ports sector, is also expediting the implementation of projects at Bhavanapadu and Narsapuram ports.

The experience of the Gangavarm port, since the beginning of its commercial operations, shows that there is untapped potential for growth. “We reached a tonnage of 21 million tonnes last year since the commencement of operations in 2008. A new port in Machilipatnam too can cater to significant unmet shipping requirements,’’ says Pranav Choudhary, Chief Financial Officer, Gangavaram Port Ltd.

From the cargo handling point of view, India’s east coast is known for handling bulk cargo while the west coast is mostly used for container traffic. Cement and power sectors will stand to gain by facilitating coal imports via Machilipatnam port, adds Choudhary.

As the Gangavaram port has now become a gateway for eight states, Machilipatnam too can hope for a pie in the business by handling bulk cargo such as iron ore, coal, fertiliser, lime stone, bauxite, raw sugar, alumina and steel products. More interestingly, it will bring back the old glory to the port town which is now just a municipality with 1.6 lakh people.

“Despite being the headquarters of Krishna district, the town has always been over-shadowed by Vijayawada. A port might bring back development and recognition to Machilipatnam,’’ says A Ramakrishna, a rickshaw puller.

Published on November 09, 2015

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