Orissa Ports Need to be Developed

Indian coast line is prone to cyclones. Surprisingly out of the entire coastline the Orissa coast is the worst affected. A study by National Cyclone Risk Management Project (NCRMP) says that during 1891-2000 nearly 308 cyclones (out of which 103 were severe) affected the East coast. During the same period 48 tropical cyclones crossed the West coast out of which 24 were of the severe category. 

October 1999 will go as a black month in the history of cyclones on the Orissa coast. On 17th October a cyclone hit the coast and even before the people could recover from the impact a super cyclone hit the coast on 29 October 1999. Fourteen districts were hit by the cyclones and 8960 persons and 450000 cattle lost their lives. About 90 million trees were uprooted and standing paddy and non paddy crop was completely ruined. A total loss of Rs 100 billion was incurred.

A peep into the pages of maritime history of Indian coasts reveals that ports at Balasor, Dhamra, Pipli, Chandbali, Laichanpur, Churamani and False Point, between Paradip and Sagarwere were developed by the British, Dutch, Danes, French and Portuguese for trade. These ports came into limelight during the 16th century and some continued to be in prominence till the 19th century; others lost their significance soon and became minor ports, say Sila Tripathi and A.S.Unnikrishnan of the National Institute of Oceanography, Goain one of their recent publications. Why the flourishing coasts became defunct for trade and maritime trade activities? Was the decline of coasts due to nature’s ire or there were other social reasons behind?

The scholars of modern history ascribed the decline of maritime trade activities from Orissa coasts due to shifting of seat of power from Kolkata to Delhi, heavy taxation, prevalent bribes, attacks from neighbors and a weak economy. Were they the only reasons of the decline or the nature also played its role - this is what this article is all about.

One of the earliest trade centres was established by the Portuguese at Pipli on the banks of Suvaranarkha River in 1514. This was a place from where the Dutch shipped as much as 2000 tonnes of salt every year. This centre thrived for about 120 years but due to formation of sandbars and heavy sedimentation, trade came to a stop and by 1676 the Dutch had even demolished their salt processing factory.  

Similarly the Portuguese had established another trade settlement at Balasore at the mouth of the river Budhabalanga around 1625. Trade through the port flourished and between 1673 and 1694, Danes, Dutch and French were using the port extensively. Quoting Senapati a writer from Orissa, Sila and Unnikrishnan say that owing to cyclones, sedimentation and siltation of the channel even the traces of port were obliterated by the end of 19th century. The first English settlement at Pipli was established as early as 1634. All these foreign traders had established their factories near the upcoming ports and many items like coconut and dried fish were brought by ships to port and in turn they carried back rice and salt. 

Estuaries of the rivers Baitarani and Brahmani formed a natural port. The British took no time to identify this as a safe location and set up ports at Dhamra and Chandbali. The latter was also known as ‘Ravenshaw Port’ says Tripathi and Unnikrishnan. In 1885 after a cyclone the sea became shallow at Chandbali and that disrupted the activities. Both ports became minor ports by 1903 and lost their identities over a period of time.

Similarly old ports like Churamani, Laichanpur and False Point were shut down by 1888 and 1891 respectively. 

There are many reasons for decline of ports. Some of which like the Mughal officers seeking bribe from the mariners and traders to permit their ships to be berthed at the ports remind of the present day traffic cops. Just grease the palms and forget about the parking offence. However, the constant pressure from the officials dissuaded the mariners and merchants from using the ports. The seat of maritime trade was also gradually shifted from Balasore to Hugli in west Bengal. With maritime activities concentrating in Bengal, the ports of Orissa were shut down in no time.

But there are other reasons which suggest that the nature also played a truant in shifting of maritime trade centre from Orissa to W Bengal. Once the British rule was established in Orissa, George Minchin of Bombay Marines was appointed as the master attendant at Puri. He submitted a report saying that the Ports of Orissa were becoming unsuitable due to deposition of silt at the mouths of the rivers.

Rivers reaching the sea lose considerable amount of energy. In the meanwhile their load of sediments goes on increasing. They find it difficult to carry their load and often leave large heaps of sand as sand bars. Also due to seasonal changes the depth of the channel becomes less. In Orissa ports, at places the channel of the river had become as shallow as two meters. It is hazardous for ships to travel that too with sand bars and mounds of sand under the stream. The ports at Balasore, Pipli and Churamani all experienced siltation and formation of sandbars. However, Sila and Unnikrishnan say that compared to larger rivers like Gangaand and Mahanadi, the silt brought by the rivers like Budhalbalanga, Suvernarekha, Brahmani, Baitarni, Gammai and Kamasabamsa may be of limited quantity. In other words there have to be other reasons for abandoning a port.

The bathymetry of the region and orientation of the coast plays a major role say the researchers. The continental shelf near Balasore coast is wide. This results in amplification of storm surges during a cyclone and the resulting loss is tremendous. In addition, as said in the beginning, the Orissa coast suffers more number of damaging cyclones compared to other coasts.

No doubt reasons like the Mughal officials seeking bribes, silting of river mouths etc must have affected the trade, but the human resilience is tremendous and these are issues which could have been overcome by the mariners and traders without much difficulty. 

The real reason behind the decay of Orissa ports have been the cyclones and the damaging storm surges. Compared to west Bengal the tactical location of Orissa coast is much better. With the science of meteorology reaching new heights in the matter of storm forecasting and availability of techniques to constructs proper platforms for berthing of ships it is very much possible to revive Orissa ports to develop maritime trade. 

However, there is a word of caution. In the light of the recent tsunami devastating port towns of Japan, before attempting to develop the Orissa ports a risk evaluation study is a must. As per Phil Cummins of Geoscience, Australia says that a 900 km long area prone to earthquakes lies along the coast of Mynamar, to Chittagong in Bangladesh and the northern Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. This entire stretch lies beneath the sea and it can generate tsunamis says Phil. He has shown via computer generated simulations that a 8.8 earthquake in Arakan could generate a tsunami powerful enough to impact Ganga-Brahmaputra delta.

C.P. Rajendran a seismologist with Centre of Earth Science studies, India agrees with Phil and emphasizes the need of earth scientists from Myanamar, Bangladesh and India to join hands to minimize the risk to more than six million people living in the region. 

Such studies will naturally help in developing better designs so that the ports in Orissa flourish once again. 


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

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