Every city or town has a beginning point. The point or the location that were first inhabited and from where the city or town would have spread or grown over the years. Across the globe cities grew around these beginning points to become mega cities, retaining some of the structures, culture or landmarks as mark of respect for history and heritage. But the city of Visakhapatnam, seem to be heading towards a different script.

Though the ‘City of Destiny' has got a glorious past, its mention is limited to a few miserly lines in the pages of history. The only historical part of the city – is the Old Town area.

Historians point out that this was the place where civilisation began about 800 years ago. In the Old Town, the fort area now known as Kotaveedhi is the oldest locality. Though, the fort walls are no more to be seen, the locality and its surroundings are still littered with structures that are old enough to be termed as heritage buildings or sites. It has got the 800-year-old burial ground of the Muslims, a Dargah by name Isakh Madina which is supposed to date back to 1200 AD, the Ambu Sarang mosque that was built in 1844, St. Aloysius High School- 1847, St. John's Church that was built by the legendary Sir Arthur Cotton in 1844, the 17{+t}{+h}century Dutch Cemetery (the oldest known Christian grave in India) and the St. Peter's Church. These apart there is the Town Hall, the old Corporation building, the Masonic Lodge building, Queen Mary High School, CBM High School and the old lighthouse.

Most importantly, the area is still known for its religious harmony. People from the three main faiths have coexisted in peace since years. In the earlier times, shippers be it the British, French or the Scandinavian would lower their mast as they sailed past the hilltop Dargah, as mark of respect for the revered saint- Isakh. This would also probably be the only place in the world where places of worship from all the three faiths existed on one single hill. At one time, the hill beside the channel housed the Ross Chapel, the Dargah and the Venkateswara Swamy temple. (It is in the past tense, thanks to Visakhapatnam Port Trust, that has cut the hill into three to facilitate its traffic movement.)

Today, the locality and its inhabitants are being threatened by the growing levels of pollution and insecurity over relocation. Every second child in Kotaveedhi is asthmatic or is suffering from some respiratory disease including tuberculosis and cancer is rampant among the aging, thanks to the sudden shoot-up of the suspended particulate matter in the air beyond the prescribed norms, due the heavy discharge and transportation of bulk cargo like coking coal, thermal coal, iron ore and various fertilisers by the VPT. Apart from the health problems, the residents also fear the issue of displacement knocking their doors, courtesy- the proposed expansion and takeover plans of the VPT. There is a growing level of discomfort between the port authorities and the residents. Clearing the air, a senior officer with the consent of the Chairman informs, “There are no plans to takeover the Kotaveedhi or any part of Old Town under the pretext of expansion or building stockyards. Relocation is a ‘wrong term'.

Relocation, land acquisition and rehabilitation are the jobs of the district administration and so far we have not approached anybody and neither have we issued any notices. Yes, pollution is a factor and we are doing our best to control it. But one should understand that we may not have full control over some factor such as the wind speed and direction, that adds up to the menace.

And keeping that in mind and the health of the people, we have volunteered to give land-to-land compensation and the cost of building after assessment to the residents who want to shift. It is not a compulsion and nothing is official about it. We understand the sentiments of the people and it is only a goodwill gesture. Moreover, we have taken up a huge plan for modernisation and mechanisation of the existing facilities, and in a couple of years it will be completed. This would solve 80 per cent of the pollution problem. We intend to give a facelift to the area by taking a planned green drive.

Some of the schools have agreed to shift, keeping the welfare of the students in mind and we are adequately compensating them. You can go on records that the idea of breaking any part of heritage structure is false- it is a miscommunication. They shall be protected, only the maintenance part is to be finalised.”

Whatever, be VPT's ideas and intentions, the residents across communities and faiths, have united and have plans to take up a fight, if required. “We will not allow them to run bulldozers over the graves of our ancestors, our ancestral homes and religious places,” says Md. Alikhan the former President of Ambu Sarang Mosque.

If this part of the city gets buried under the high stacks of coal and sulphur, then the historical part of the city would be lost forever. The irony is that none of the noted politicians - including the MLAs and the MPs - have taken up the issue. Residents feel that ‘why should they' when majority of them have vested interest in the port. “If one MLA owns a stevedoring firm the others runs a clearing house or a private berth under the PPP scheme, so why will they take up a stand against the port for us. One should realise that the settlement was centuries prior to the building of the port and not the other way. If VPT is really concerned about us then they should go by the Ennore Judgement. Development is essential for economic growth but at what and at whose cost,” says a resident.

The Madras High Court has directed the Union Shipping Ministry not to dump and handle dusty cargo like coal and iron ore at the Chennai Port and shift handling of such cargoes to Ennore Port to prevent pollution in north Chennai.

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012