Noor Mohammed has been engaged in the shipbuilding profession at Mandvi since his late teens. He told us that his ancestors have been engaged in the trade for two hundred years. Both local and foreign clients continue to come to the contractors at Mandvi to construct vessels. The ships built there typically range from 1100 to 1200 tons. Although dependent on the tonnage, the cost of making a vessel is typically 12,000 to 13,000 rupees. The shipbuilders are paid in monthly instalments by shipowners. Many different types of vessels are constructed but the traditional Kachchhi ships koytiya are still in vogue. Teak is brought from Malaysia, and other woods (including bawad) sourced from the forests of the Kheda district of Gujarat. Machinery is chiefly procured locally from Bhuj, although steam engines have been imported from Dubai and the Gulf states. The initial stage is for a carpenter to make a model of the ship; in two years, the vessel will be finished. A typical ship’s cargo once in service will consist of rice, soya beans, sugar and building materials amongst many other things. The return cargo from the Gulf usually consists of dates, dried fruit and spices.
Gesturing to the few ships moored in the shallows, Noor Mohammed feels strongly that the on-going recession in the world economy has adversely affected their business. Nevertheless, he maintains that shipbuilding is a profitable concern. He believes that around twenty to twenty-five contractors are engaged in the same business at Mandvi, employing not just local labour but workers from other states too. Labourers from Andhra Pradesh are actively involved in the building process and have set up temporary accommodation in Salaya where they live with their families.
Salaya, the village adjacent to Mandvi harbour and Jahajwado, where Noor Mohammed lives with his family, is populated by between 150 and 200 families of Bhadalas, Waghers, Kharwas and Harijans. Other communities, namely the Bhatias and Vaniyas, maintain commercial rather than residential premises. Noor Mohammed is an influential man: he served as the vice-president of the Muslim Bhadala Jammat community and also held the presidency of the professional association of ship builders (known as the Kachchhi Vahanvata Association), which consists of eleven members, for nine years. In this position, he arbitrated many disputes. He proudly asserts that his decisions were always respected and abided by, and he was never challenged.
Noor Mohammed also discussed his views on the siltation of the Mandvi coast, generally thought to be one of the chief causes of the gradual decline of the once prosperous port-city. Being local to the port, Noor Mohammed is of the opinion that while constructing a breakwater the government neglected some basic factors. He explains that the parallel level of the breakwater and the jetty is the prime cause behind the siltation and due to tidal pressures, silt accumulates near the harbour and cannot flow away. He feels that this perennial problem could be resolved if the mistake is rectified, although there is no-one willing to take the blame.
Noor Mohammed talked at length about shipbuilding and the history of the industry in Mandvi. He also discussed one of the prime commodities in the trade between Kachchh and Zanzibar, cloves. Mohammed believes that recently, the Chinese market has come to dominate the clove trade, at the expense of India. Mohammed also described another important uses of cloves: a red dye can be obtained from the bark of the clove tree, which is used by both fishermen for colouring their nets and by weavers for colouring their cloth. The branches of the clove tree known as bhurki are also used for making the roofs of the houses.
Noor Mohammed served in the merchant navy for sixteen years, staying mainly in Mombasa, Kenya. He frequently travelled between Mombasa and Zanzibar; loading goods in the former and unloading in the latter port. Noor Mohammed recalls that during the 1980s, following independence, Zanzibar suffered from a severe food shortage. He himself survived mostly on tea and biscuits. On arriving back in India twenty years ago, he began working in the shipbuilding workshops. Noor Mohammed is confident that his business will survive under the stewardship of his two sons, who are the owners of mobile shops in Mandvi.