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Special Report: Gujarat’s Massive Efforts To Boost Investments & Growth Along State’s West Coast

By Himanshu Bhayani
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Located approximately 125 kilometres from Porbandar and 230 kilometres from Rajkot, Positra is a small coastal town on Gujarat's westernmost shores. It is currently a hive of activity after the Gujarat Maritime Board's August 2023 request for permission from the Gujarat government to identify private players to develop an all-weather direct berthing port in the town. 

Positra had once dominated the headlines of India’s pink newspapers in the late 90s when a port and a special economic zone were proposed, with a capital expenditure of Rs 5,700 crore, under the aegis of the Nikhil Gandhi-led Sea King Engineers Limited. 

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The buzz around the Positra Port project comes almost 25 years after the project was first planned. Over 300 hectares of land were acquired for the proposed Positra SEZ, which never saw the light of day.

Positra is on the western coast of Gujarat that is home to several industries such as energy, oil, gas, shipping, logistics and port sector. Reliance Industries announced mega factories in Jamnagar for renewable energy, solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells. Gujarat’s coastline is also one of the leading producers of wind energy in the country with offshore wind power projects in the pipeline. 

The area near Positra has seen industrial growth with renewable energy assets from Torrent Power, Cairn Energy India's (now Vedanta Group) liquid storage terminal at Bhogat, and Ghari Detergent and Soda Ash plant at Kuranga, alongside established players like Tata Chemicals Limited's Mithapur site and Carborundum Universal's Okha site in traditional sectors such as salt, soda ash, and cement manufacturing, has significantly driven up real estate prices in the region.

Recent visits by Reliance Industries Limited and the Khimji Ramdas Group members have raised the hopes of locals. The push to revive the Positra port project is a signal that the Gujarat government is working to boost investments on the West Coast. This also comes ahead of the 10th edition of the biennial Vibrant Gujarat Summit that is scheduled to be held in January 2024. 

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The entrance of the Positra village that has a population of 3,800-4,000

How The Project Got Shelved

Positra Port was allotted for development in 1997 to a consortium led by the Anchor Group. 

According to the agreement, the Gujarat Maritime Board was to hold 26% equity and the consortium 25%. The balance 49% was to be held by financial institutions and the public.

The Anchor group consortium included Sea King Engineers Limited, Koatex Infrastructure Limited and Horizon Battery Technologies Limited. Gandhi was one of the promoters of the consortium.

Gandhi was equally involved in developing another private port in the state, at Pipavav on the Saurashtra coast, in Amreli district. Pipavav Port is now controlled and managed by APM Terminals of The Netherlands.

The project was announced in April 2000 as the country's first special economic zone to be developed by a private player. 

Over 150 national and global entities had inked agreements with the developer of the Positra Special Economic Zone to set up facilities, which included The Walt Disney Co, Radisson Hotels, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and Jurong Town Corporation of Singapore, now JTC Corp.

The location of the port was significant. It’s situated at one of the tips of the Gulf Of Kutch,  30 nautical miles from Pandit Deendayal Port at Kandla. This would have helped international ships berth directly, without entering the Gulf of Kutch. To approach the Kandla and Mundra ports, ships have to enter the Gulf of Kutch.

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Environmental activists and local community members resisted the project. The coast surrounding Positra is home to diverse flora and fauna and is also the breeding ground for government fisheries.  

On the other hand, 33 villages came under the acquisition mark-up area that only included village land, farmland, places of faith, religion and worship.

Budhabha Bhati, language press journalist from Mithapur told The Core, "There was a sense which developed among residents of the 42 villages that they were being displaced from their farms and faith, irrespective of their creed, caste and community and so they protested.” 

Local communities protested saying they would be displaced. While Gandhi’s team had made verbal commitments to the protesters, they demanded promises made on affidavits in court. 

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Children play at the Positra village on a sunny afternoon in October

Former minister P Chidambaram appeared in court on behalf of Sea King Engineers Limited and it was assumed that the case would be an easy affair. 

Professor DS Ker, Founder of Gram Vikas Trust who led the protests and agitation against the Positra Project, told The Core, “But we were clear that what about the resettlement of the people who would be displaced from across 42 villages of which 32 villages were falling in Okhamandal area while 10 villages were falling in Kalyanpur Taluka, so we had challenged the matter in court of law and the decision was clear that unless and until the rehab plan for the displaced was not worked out the project will not get the nod.” 

Ker said that the protesters were not against the project, but wanted proper rehabilitation and resettlement of the displaced.

Recent Buzz

Gujarat Maritime Board officials concurred on the recent developments and the fact that the letter of intent was taken back from the Nikhil Gandhi group, but they did not comment on future developments at and around Positra.

Instead, they spoke of the new six sites identified to be developed as a port city, for which a private consultant will be hired soon.

"Positra is not among the new identified sites, which includes three sites on Saurashtra Coast and 3 sites in South Gujarat in the vicinity of Gulf of Khambhat," said a senior GMB official.

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The local governance office at Positra Village

"Since the first edition of Vibrant Gujarat in 2003, the development focus was more or less in North and Central Gujarat, now the gears have shifted towards the West coast starting from Kutch and scaling down to Saurashtra region, South Gujarat region and areas adjoining the Gulf of Cambay region,” a senior official from the Industries and Mines department of Gujarat government said.

According to the official, this was the reason why there was an aggressive anti-encroachment drive on the coastlines of the state. 

With port-led growth in focus on the government’s agenda, development along the west coast has become imperative. 

Curious Visits To Dwarka

Among the curious visits to Dwarka is that of the director of Reliance Industries Limited's Corporate Affairs department, Parimal Nathwani.  He is also a member of the Rajya Sabha. Nathwani attended a mass wedding function of the local Wagher community and was seen out and out praising the local member of the legislative assembly Pabhubha Manek.

Bhati said, "Till date Parimal Nathwani has never appreciated or appraised Pabhuba from any public platform, but this sudden change in his behaviour has surprised many. " 

Reliance chairperson Mukesh Ambani and his son Anant visited the Lord Dwarkadhish Temple in October, on the eve of Dussehra. Members of the Khimji Ramdas family and their financial consultants also visited the area recently.  

The Khimjis originally hail from Mandvi (Kutch) and have been associated with maritime trade (vahanvatta vyapaar) and allied business activities for six generations.

A priest from the temple dismissed speculations saying, "It was purely a religious occasion and has nothing to do with the perceived business developments."

Those involved in Dwarka’s real estate sector said an Ahmedabad-based realtor recently acquired 400 acres of land surrounding Positra, which is perceived to be a deal on behalf of an Ahmedabad-headquartered diversified Indian conglomerate.

Stakeholders in the town are busy connecting the dots on these recent updates and the Gujarat Maritime Board’s request to the Gujarat government has further added to speculations. 

A port logistics operator based in Jamnagar said, "There was a buzz of Reliance Industries keen to develop logistics hub at Positra in year 2007, when the group was aggressive on retail front, opening Reliance Marts across several cities in India, where the facility to use the duty entitlement passbook credits for exports of hydrocarbon produces, was expected to be a game-changer and the group was exploring possibilities to use Positra as hub to import perishable products from South East Asian markets.” 

There was no word in that direction in the last 15 years, but the recent visits by the Ambani family and other trade players to Dwarka have once again put the logistics sector players on a kind of “alert mode”, he added.

This reporter reached out to Reliance Industries Limited, once keen in 2007 to develop a logistics hub at Positra, on behalf of The Core. But the company has refused to remark on the matter. 

Market sources closely monitoring the development said, “Reliance may not be keen today, but if the opportunity arises for any possibility to enter the terrain via tie-up, association or joint venture, it may consider exploring such business opportunity."

Meanwhile, the communications arm of the Adani Group confirmed that they had conducted surveys in the area. "Being an eminent player in the port sector, yes the company had conducted few surveys in the past at the Positra site, but presently there is no forward-looking happening in that direction," they said. 

Growing Tourism And Real-Estate

As happens with areas on the cusp of development and progress, the real estate market in the Okhamandal area is booming.

Paresh Jhakharia, a realtor in the Dwarka and Okhamandal area, told The Core, "Rental for a 180 square feet shop in prime location at Dwarka is no less than Rs 1.75 lakh to Rs 2 lakh per month. A wall rented for display of cutlery products fetches no less than Rs 50,000 to Rs 75,000 per month.”

This he said, could be accounted for by a  mix of tourism and industrial boom. 

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The demand for tourism demand is triggered by a mix of religious tourism, beach tourism and adventure sports.

The Gujarat government has reportedly prepared a master plan to develop the Beyt Dwarka area. Marine and maritime sector experts believe that the Byet-Okha Signature Bridge is also seen as a major development, a kind of indicator prior to the revival of Positra port and special economic zone project. It will connect Beyt Dwarka, a small island which is currently accessed through ferry from Okha. 

The bridge is under construction by SP Singla Construction (SPSC) with an estimated cost of  9.63 billion Indian rupees. 

Construction work on the bridge started in October 2017 with a 36-month deadline. The project has run beyond its timeline and is expected to be inaugurated before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Nirmal Samani, president of the Hotelier Association of Dwarka, told The Core, "Weekend footfall in and surrounding Dwarka, Bet-Dwarka CampSites, Shivrajpur Beach touches not less than 15,000-20,000 visitors, mainly the staycation audience.” Samani is also the owner of the property housing the single largest 110-room standalone facility franchised to Lemontree Group.

New industries coming up in the area have also accelerated the rise of real estate prices. 

Land prices have sharply increased in adjoining areas starting from Bhatiya, Bhogat, Kuranga, Okhamadhi, and Baradiya, where the average price per acre is anywhere in the range of 7 lakh rupees per acre to 10 lakh rupees per acre.

Is Positra Prepared For Big Change? 

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The Positra Primary School that was established in 1954

If the Positra port project picks up, it would need to be supported by good infrastructure in the surrounding areas. 

The population of the Positra village is somewhere between 3,800-4,000. Barring agricultural land, most of the land surrounding Positra is marshy with camels moving freely in the saline wetlands.

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Camels seen moving in the marshy land surrounding Positra Village

The infrastructure is in shambles, to say the least. The 7.5-kilometre single-track village road, that links Positra to the main road connecting Dwarka, Mithapur and Okha, is a bumpy ride. 

Salt pans, small broken bridges and kachha (mud) single-lane roads add to the poor infrastructure of the area.

Waghers and Rabari tribal communities and Muslims constitute the population in the area. Fishing, agriculture, animal grazing-breeding and labour work are among the mainstays of the local population. "Very few are employed in industries at Tata Chemicals or surrounding sites," said Jethabha Manek, a resident who works at Okha Port.

The youth are employed in marine and maritime allied activities, where they go on a job for 24 hours and they rest for the next 24. They work for 15 days full-time in 24-hour shifts and earn salaries in the range of Rs 12,000 to Rs 15,000 a month depending on their skill levels.

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Youngsters in the Positra village at the main entrance of the village

Manek said, "Most of us who spend time in the village for 15 days are either busy chatting, playing games on mobile phones or watching films available on Telegram (an instant messaging platform where pirated versions of newly released films are available).” 

Land prices in Positra are pegged anywhere between Rs 7 lakh to Rs 10 lakh per acre in the present scenario, but locals don’t want to sell their farmlands. Would it be different this time then, if the Positra port project were to take off? 

Professor Ker said, "We were never against the project, it is just the matter which needs to be addressed was about rehabilitation and resettlement of the people whose homes, land, farms and place of faith were to be acquired. While we fought against it in 2001, the ground-level realities have changed drastically. In such a scenario, if farmers are getting a good price for their land, they must for once give it a thought."

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Fields and farms near Positra village where groundnuts are cultivated

The professor said that the water tables in and the surrounding Okhamandals had worsened and if the salinity of the water were taken into account, the land may not remain fertile in the coming years. “Good rainfall in the last few years has given good returns in terms of agricultural value, but this may not last for long and so if the land of farmers is acquired at a good price, nothing wrong in giving a thought to it,” he said. 

Gujarat's west coast, approximately 1,600 km long, is the longest coastline any state in India has. The revival of Positra will only add to Gujarat’s existing 42 ports on the coastline. Now all eyes will be on the Vibrant Gujarat 2024 summit in expectation of an announcement about it. 

The Core is the first media outlet to have visited on-ground at Positra, as conveyed and communicated by the local residents of Positra who said that no media till date has ever visited the Positra village to do a ground report.

Also Read: Export Duties, Changing Govt Rules Have Left Gujarat’s Bauxite Mining Business In Dire Straits

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