Paradip port and the borderlands of 2026

India’s first decade as an independent Republic was marked by many Centre-state skirmishes. The battle over Paradip would underline the idea that India is a union of states.

ByVijayalakshmi Balakrishnan

Published May 29, 2023 | 1:16 PMUpdatedMay 29, 2023 | 1:16 PM

Paradip port inaguration

The picture above shows the foundation-laying ceremony of the Paradip Port in January 1962. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is on the left, and Biju Patnaik, Chief Minister of Orissa, on the right.

If you look closely, the words chiseled on stone are different from that on any other foundation. “Willed by the People of India … I commend you to this yet another national adventure” and it is signed with a familiar flourish, JN.

That has to be the most graceful, admission of defeat by a prime minister and an acknowledgement that the really tall man strategically standing on his right had been right all along.

The (maritime) boundary award

To understand this unique admission of defeat by a ruler of people’s hearts and minds, we would need to go back to the boundary award that created the two countries of India and Pakistan.

All of our research and mindspace is largely taken up by the land border divisions, which continue to create friction. For policymakers, the maritime border divisions created immediate worries about the coastline and commerce.

Shipping in the 1940s, even more than now, was vital for the economic health of the country. The Radcliffe boundary award gave Karachi, on the west, and Chittagong, on the east, to Pakistan.

In 1947, India was a food importer: The loss of the two ports meant imminent supply blockages, and potentially the real threat of starvation of citizens in independent India.

British India was already short on ports and the Radcliffe maritime award left partitioned India with an additional deficit and had the potential to cripple India’s economy and all her plans for economic development.

Soon after the partition plan was announced, in 1947 itself, the work on Kandla, as a substitute for Karachi, was started. It had been allocated ₹966 lakh in the first five-year plan.

It was completed in record time, and in 1952, inaugurated a symbol of the ambition and prowess of a newly independent nation.

Kandla was classified as a major port, and plugged the loss of Karachi on the west; on the east, Delhi took the view that a minor port would be adequate.

The classification as a major port is significant, as that means the port is part of the Union list, and is built, paid for, and administered by the Central government. Minor ports, by contrast, were in the state list and needed to be financed by the state.

Deciding what is or should be a minor or a major port was a technical assessment, peppered with a large dose of economics, and at least some politics. Within the bhavans of Delhi, Paradip, pushed strongly by the Orissa leadership, was not envisioned as a major port and left out of the second plan.

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The Paradip port battle on 13 December 1957

Orissa, which had been pressing for a major port at Paradip, was offered only a soft loan of ₹21 lakh as part of the second plan, which was not acceptable. So a one-line resolution was moved in the Lok Sabha: “This House recommends that the Government should provide a major port at Paradip on the Orissa Coast in the Second Five Year Plan period.”

Within the Lok Sabha, 13 December 1957 was a red letter day.

The battle for Paradip was valiantly fought by the Odia representatives, cutting across party and ideological lines. The patience and nerves of steel, that Lal Bahadur Shastri was to display to the entire world in 1965, were on display that day in Parliament.

Shastri was then minister for transport and much of the Odia ire was directed at him. Shastri, who had dropped out of school and been arrested as a satyagrahi by the British and let off as he was a minor, in 1921, was taunted as leading a department that continued to think like the imperialists had.

There were multiple reasons for the unwillingness to consider Paradip as a major port.

Kandla, on which significant and limited resources had been invested, had not met revenue expectations despite having good connectivity through roads and railways. Orissa did not have the infrastructure backup of roads and railways, critical to ferrying loads to the port. One without the other was impossible.

The phrase white elephant was not used on the floor of the house, but the skepticism was real. At the end of a hard-fought battle, when the resolution was put to the vote, the Odia representatives lost.

In 1958, a loan of ₹21 lakh was sanctioned to Orissa, for the initial work on Paradip as a minor port.

That the idea of a port, strategically located between Vizag and Calcutta, would only aid India’s export of iron ore, was not questioned, it was the scale that was opposed. End result, Delhi classified it as a minor port.

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Getting things done

Paradip Port

Paradip Port (

Paradip would have remained a minor port, but for the imagination of one man, Biju Patnaik, who refused to take no for an answer.

When the Railways refused to lay any track to link Paradip with the mines, he decided to build a road network. SK Banarjee, by then secretary, steel, would recall how really early one morning, in September 1962, his daughter opened the door to find a tall man, standing at the doorstep, who told her his name was Biju Patnaik.

The stunned bureaucrat invited the chief minister in, and over a cup of tea, was asked, “Banarjee, you have opposed my proposal on the expressway. You have suggested a railway line. I am interested in the Paradip Port and the expressway must be completed by 1964. Can the railway line be completed within two years?”

Understanding but helpless, Banarjee explained that the file had already reached the minister. That’s when he learnt that the file would be returning to his desk. Later that morning, Banarjee signed off on the expressway.

Recalling that morning decades later, Banarjee would assess that it was not just that Biju Babu’s vision was unparalleled, “he knew how to get things done in Orissa”.

That expressway cost the state ₹7 crore, and the port, ₹16 crore. By themselves, the numbers may not seem large, but juxtapose it with the revenue of the state, which in 1961–62 was around ₹55 crore and the significance of the investment by Orissa for national prosperity becomes clear.

The borderlands of 2026

The recent election results, where local elections in Uttar Pradesh saw the continued dominance of the BJP and Karnataka returned to the Congress fold have once again raised the north-south faultlines and begun a new round of questions — of aspirations and resource allocations.

In all of this, 2026 begins to look like a bogey. It doesn’t have to be.

When envisioned, India was a union of states. Somewhere along the way, centralisation began to dominate.

In 1965, the government of India finally accepted that Paradip, built by the state government, was a major port, and brought it within the ambit of the Port Trust Act. In time, it would be one of the singular achievements of the third plan.

As Nehru had pointed out while laying that foundation stone, Paradip is a national adventure that was willed by the people of Orissa. We need more such national adventures.

(The author lives in a village in south India, and looks at the rest of India and the world from that perspective. She has been a journalist, a development worker, and a writer and podcaster over the years. She is the author of ‘Growing Up And Away, Narratives of Indian Childhoods’. Email: These are the personal views of the author)