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Riot over port land

Hyderabad, March 27: The development divide has spread from steel to ports with riots breaking out in a fishing hamlet near Visakhapatnam over a project involving a Dubai group that ran into a xenophobic backlash in the US a few weeks ago.

A young mother was killed in police firing and 41 others were injured as fishermen clashed with police who swooped down on Gangavaram, about 45 km from Visakhapatnam, to evict families and acquire a harbour for building a port.

One of the partners of the consortium is Dubai Ports International, part of a group that was forced to abandon projects in the US following concerns that the deal posed a threat to American national security.

In the US, a group company, Dubai Ports World, backed off managing six ports after a revolt within President George W. Bush’s party, though he had approved the deal as part of a drive to deflect accusations within West Asia of American xenophobia.

In Visakhapatnam, the bone of contention was far more basic and all too familiar: differences over compensation.

The government had offered each of the 3,600 families spread over six villages between Rs 20,000 and Rs 25,000 and the cost of shifting their boats but the villagers have been demanding twice the amount. In an ironical twist, the government has announced Rs 3 lakh as compensation for the 27-year-old woman, Nagaratnamma, who was killed in the police firing.

For over six months, the families had been staging relay hunger strikes and dharnas. On Sunday, the villagers beat up and drove away district revenue officials when they arrived with bulldozers to flatten their homes and make them leave the designated port area.

The officials came back today with over 500 policemen after Section 144 was clamped in the area. But the fishermen attacked them with fishing poles and stones, and the police opened fire after a baton-charge failed to break up the mob, Visakhapatnam police commissioner V.S.R. Kaumudi told reporters.

All the injured -- 18 villagers, including two children, and 23 policemen -- are being treated at the King George Hospital, Visakhapatnam.

Families from two other fishing villages that fall within the Gangavaram port area have shifted after they received government compensation. But the dispute in the other villages could not be resolved.

Displacement because of development has often led to such flare-ups, the last in Orissa where land acquisition for a steel plant triggered clashes in which 13 people were killed.

A common thread running through such confrontations is the festering delay in resolving disputes, which underscores the need for a uniform compensation package.

The spokesman for the Andhra consortium ' a company promoted by software professional D.V.S. Raju is the local partner ' said it was the duty of the government to pay compensation.

The official explanation is that the election code of conduct is in force in the area for next month’s bypoll to the Visakhapatnam Assembly seat, and so the relief package cannot be revised now.

Politics could also be at play since the project was sealed by the erstwhile Telugu Desam government. The current Congress government is not against the port but many of the affected families are said to be party supporters who thought the administration would not crack down.

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