The US Supreme Court sits more than 12,000 miles from Tragadi Bandar, the patch of India’s west coast where Budha Ismail Jam has spent most of the past two decades fishing for a living. Jam’s seasonal home, a single room with burlap walls and no electricity or running water, is beyond the Court’s usual reach.
Yet, on October 31, Chief Justice John Roberts will announce Jam’s name as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that could determine whether organizations like the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) can be held responsible for harming the very people they’re supposed to be lifting from poverty.
Jam, who is about 60, belongs to the Wagher people, a Muslim-minority group in India that, for two centuries, has relied on the Gulf of Kutch for survival. Every summer, about 1,000 Wagher families migrate from their inland villages to a string of fishing grounds near the town of Mundra in Gujarat state. There, they erect temporary dwellings on the sand. The men harvest the fish, both from boats and on foot. The women dry the catch on long bamboo trellises, preparing it for sale across South Asia.
“We lived high-class,” Jam told me, reminiscing about the old days, when I visited Tragadi Bandar four years ago. “We worked from eight in the morning until 11 at night…. We did not mind if we didn’t get rest…. When we had fish, our whole day went by quickly.”
Then heavy industry began taking over the coastline. Among the behemoth newcomers was the coal-fired Tata Mundra Ultra Mega Power Project, which began operations in 2012 at the edge of Tragadi Bandar. Seven times the capacity of the average coal-fired plant in the United States, it was designed to help modernize a country where millions live without reliable electricity.
Backing the project was the International Finance Corporation, a self-described “sister organization” of the World Bank that provides private-sector loans and other financial services in the developing world. The IFC lent $450 million to a subsidiary of Tata Power for the $4 billion project.
The IFC says its aim is to “end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity.” But on the Gulf of Kutch’s fishing grounds, the poverty has only worsened. According to Jam and his neighbors, Tata Mundra helped turn a fertile coastline into a sacrifice zone. They say that heated discharges from the plant’s cooling system have decimated fish stocks; that dredging has destroyed the mangroves that act as marine nurseries; that coal dust and fly ash have tainted the drying fish; and that their drinking water has been ruined by saltwater intrusion. “The joy has gone away,” said Jam, who catches a fraction of what he used to.