The Living Coast: Port Development and Ecological Transformations in the Gulf of Kutch, Western India

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Sivaramakrishnan, Kalyanakrishnan


This dissertation analyzes coastal development, and ecological disturbance in the 21st century. Specifically, it examines the resurgence and degradation of life in the Gulf of Kutch, Western India, as the region becomes enmeshed in the construction of one of India’s largest ports. Although life at first glance seems imperiled and destroyed by massive modern port development in the Gulf of Kutch, Gujarat, Western India, my research reveals new ways of living with the coast. I show how these times of ecological stress and socio-economic disruption generate new imaginaries and the reemergence of forms of life. These insights arise from over two years of ethnographic and archival research which led me to reconceptualize a coast previously understood as a narrow and insignificant strip of land and water as a meshwork of freshwater, seawater, sediment, organisms, and emotion. Since 1991, port-led efforts to reengineer the coast into a global hub through no-go zones, extractions, reclamations, and highways have coexisted and contended with a web of farmers, fishworkers, graziers, seafarers, mangroves, goats, and other species. Calling this diverse and dynamic ecology a “Living Coast,” I study how people both take up new opportunities and strive to live meaningful lives with other beings as they adapt to intensified infrastructural activity. Forests in the region historically created the conditions for monsoonal rivers. Monsoonal rivers worked with soil-holding mangroves to carve out, conserve, and dissolve the harbor, shaping Indian Oceanic flows to and from the old town and surrounding farms. Massive modern port construction depends on snapping such ties between river and sea, emphasizing permanent tidal depth for containerized shipping. But the subterranean intermingling of freshwater, seawater and sediment today generates and distributes salty and sweet plants. Goats and their graziers daily wander in search of the tastiest salty and sweet plants nourished by freshwater and seawater in a patchwork of fields, shrines, rivers and commercial developments lying in varying degrees of rise and decline. Cattle are less agile. They need terrains free of obstacles. Remote islets, replenished by tidal and monsoonal flows, were where diverse livestock ate diverse crop residues, and farmers acquired goodwill. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s farmers sold the islets for a large amount of money to the port developers. Without these islets for grazing, only cattle with their robust udders can survive on progressively salty vegetation behind the port walls where vast intertidal stretches lie undeveloped. Many coastal dwellers continue to look out for commercial opportunities from the port. They extract and supply earth and groundwater to help build the port and highways connecting the port to wider industrial networks. Others express a quiet refusal to participate in such wealth accumulation that splinters their lived environments. They align themselves with a world whose networks extend far beyond earthly possessions. In the 20 years of living with the port and its fluctuating trade flows, people have witnessed the sharp rise and decline of individual fortunes. Realizing that the port cannot be relied upon for a better life, residents across the old town and villages actively hold onto agriculture to secure an intergenerational future. Some experiment with new varieties of the date-palm they bring from their religious travels to Middle Eastern shores, made possible by port-driven wealth. Others make arrangements with plants, animals, graziers, and share-croppers, negotiating erratic seawater ingress. Through this fine-grained analysis of experience, adaptation, and future-making, I show that the Kutch coast – typically understood as a wasteland – can be better understood as a vibrant site where coastal dwellers are enacting struggles for living good lives amid uncertainty. My project combines participant observation in Mundra’s old walled port town and its villages, attendance at public meetings on livelihood concerns, and the port sector, with oral histories, folk tales, and archival research in Gujarati, English, and Kutchi from private collections and government offices. It examines land-water use across rural and urban dwelling, forestlands, private farms, and riverbeds along the coastal belt. Challenging accounts of both inexorable progress and apocalyptic decline, it shows the diverse opportunities and threats produced by ecological shocks.

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