Thiruvananthapuram/Kannur (Kerala): Joyce, 40, a widow from Thiruvananthapuram’s coastal neighbourhood of Vizhinjam, sells fish for a living, like several other women in the locality. Dependent on her income is her family of three, herself and her two daughters, in class 6 and 12.
For several weeks now, Joyce has also actively engaged with another activity, the indefinite strike led by the 17,000-strong fishing community of the region.
Since July, thousands of Vizhinjam residents and people from surrounding areas have protested against a controversial under-construction port being developed under a public–private partnership (PPP) scheme by Adani Ports And SEZ Ltd in partnership with the Kerala state government, through the Vizhinjam International Seaport Ltd (VISL).
The Rs 7,500-crore proposed port will be the country’s “first mega transshipment container terminal”, where containers are moved from one ship to another during transit, according to the developers. Reports said the proposed port is well-positioned to compete with ports in Dubai, Singapore and Sri Lanka. Currently, nearly 75% of India’s transshipment cargo is handled at ports outside the country.
After four months of peaceful demonstrations, the protest site located just outside the main gate of the proposed port witnessed violence on 26-27 November when the Adani Group tried to resume construction work, leading to resistance by protesters. The protesters also had a confrontation with pro-port agitators tacitly backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The police registered nine cases against the protesters, including Catholic priests who were not present at the spot during the violence but have been supporters of the protest. Some protesters from the site were arrested.
Later, a large gathering of protesters outside Vizhinjam police station seeking the release of those arrested also ended in violence, with the protesters attacking the station.
Police personnel and protesters sustained injuries, and police vehicles were damaged. The police booked 3,000 persons.
The violent face-off came after months of local community members pleading that the port could drastically change their lives by destroying their livelihoods centred around fishing activities. Environmental activists said the project is economically unviable as well as damaging to the environment.
An earlier audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), tabled in May 2017 also said project would cause a loss of Rs 5,608 crore to the government of Kerala over the course of the 40-year concession period, arriving at this figure by subtracting the termination payment of Rs 19,555 crore from total revenue accrued to the state government over 40 years, estimated to be Rs 13,947 crore.
Elected representatives and researchers also raised doubts on procedural lapses, such as granting of the environmental clearance without a widely publicised public consultation required by law.
The Kerala government and the Adani Group have rejected these accusations, and have maintained that the project will bring development to the state.
Meanwhile, leaders of the protest demanded a judicial probe into the recent violence, which they blamed on “elements belonging to” the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI (M)] and the BJP. They have earlier demanded suspension of the construction works and a comprehensive study on the port’s impact on their lives, livelihood and the marine ecosystem.
The Thiruvananthapuram protest is one among a series of protests against the Adani group’s projects in different states including in Jharkhand, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. The group’s commercial endeavours in Australia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar have also landed in controversy.
Coastal Erosion Has Already Caused Relocation
The Vizhinjam port project began in 2015, under the Congress-led UDF government of chief minister Oommen Chandy. Originally expected to be operational by September 2018, work could not be completed for multiple reasons, including the impact of Cyclone Okchi in 2017 and a shortage of rocks.
The protesting families say that the construction work for the port, such as dredging for a breakwater, had already caused coastal erosion—a change in the natural flow of sands beneath the sea that leads to the loss of shores—leading to loss of homes and livelihoods.
The government does not deny the coastal erosion the region has witnessed, but rejected any suggestion that the ongoing construction works at the port site may be responsible.
The strike has affected construction activities at the site, officials told Article 14. They said the ongoing fair weather season (September to May), ideal for port works, had not seen any progress so far.
The protesters in Thiruvananthapuram put forward seven demands. The state government took a favourable stand on six, but refused to considerhalting construction of the port, a key demand. The government’s expert panel formed in October 2022 to study the project’s impact also lacks a representative of the protesters.
‘Turn Back, However Far Down The Wrong Road’
Reiterating the government’s stand, V Abdurahiman, the minister for fisheries, on 17 November asked the protesters whether it was fair to seek halting of construction work “after spending crores of rupees”.
In their November 2022 petition in the Kerala high court against the project, the protesters responded with a Turkish proverb: “No matter how far you have gone down a wrong road, turn back.”
The protesters’ other demands, on which the government reportedly took a favourable position, included a temporary, free and accessible residential facility for those whose homes were lost to coastal erosion; compensation for these losses and adequate rehabilitation; a subsidy for kerosene; ensuring minimum wages for fisherfolk on days when they are unable to take their boats for fishing owing to bad weather; rectification of damages in certain specific seaside regions to make them available for fishing; rehabilitation for families that may be affected due to coastal erosion.
Protesters told Article 14 that they would not trust government promises on these until official orders are released and action begins on implementing them.
When Article 14 met Joyce on 9 November, there were many other women at the protest venue in front of the main gate of the under-construction port, at Mullur, near Vizhinjam in Thiruvananthapuram.
Keeping vigil during the daytime hours of the 24-hour protest were mainly women. There are two protest sites, one in front of the port’s main gate and the other on the breakwater being built for the port, near Vizhinjam fishing harbour.
“This shore is ours,” the fish seller Joyce told Article 14. “But the government has abandoned us for Adani.”
She said the protesters would not withdraw the protest until the government accepted all their demands. “We get scared when we see the construction work at the port,” she said.
Mettilda, 63, another woman protester, said, “I am protesting for the victory of this shore’s own people.”
Construction Work Affects Fishing
People were not aware of the consequences that the port may have on their lives, said Hamlet Jerom, 42, another protester. “We were told we would get a job, this place would become another Singapore,” he said.
Paniadima J, an independent councillor of the Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation elected from a ward close to the proposed Adani port, said officials carried out a ‘public consultation’, a statutory requirement for getting the environmental clearance under the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, “selectively” and without informing the public of the full details of the project. “It took time for locals to understand the problems associated with the project,” he said.
Mukta Joshi, a lawyer and researcher with Land Conflict Watch, a collective tracking conflicts over resources across the country, said every port construction work requires a prior environmental clearance. “An essential component of the environmental clearance process is the public consultation stage whereby all affected communities must be heard and consulted,” she said.
Hamlet and other protesters said the port project negatively affected the availability of fishes in the sea off the port site. “Now, fisherpersons now have to sail more kilometres to get fish,” he said.
Eugine H Pereira, a senior priest with the Latin Archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram, a Christian community institution that has played a key role in the protest, said the port project “threatens livelihoods, the beach and (fisherpersons’) houses”.
Pereira, an key leader of the ongoing protest, said locals have experienced the negative effects of construction in the sea. At Muthalapozhi, a fishing region close to Vizhinjam, for example, he said, locals witnessed heavy coastal erosion and deadly sea accidents, following the construction of two parallel breakwaters for a fishing harbour. A breakwater is a barrier constructed in the sea to protect a port/harbour/coast from heavy waves.
Extensive dredging and piling are part of the construction of the 3-kilometre breakwater at Vizhinjam.
Locals said this large-scale human intervention could affect the marine ecosystem. The breakwaters at Muthalapozhi are less than 500 metres long.
In an earlier interview, Pereira said the protesters were demanding the halting of construction because it was “going to be an ecological and economic disaster”. He also said the construction work for the port had already wreaked havoc on the fishing community’s livelihood.
Many protesters are from the Christian minority community. A couple of them told Article 14 that the community members from different parishes attend the continuous protest in a relay model. The Archdiocese has more than 80 parishes under it. At the main protest venue in front of the port gate, around 50-75 persons attend the protest on an ordinary day, in three shifts, said a protest leader.
‘Defend Fishing People’s Rights’
Calling the violence an effort to discredit the strike, protesters continued to gather support from different corners.
More than 30 groups have announced solidarity with the protest, including political parties (such as Aam Aadmi Party and Welfare Party), trade unions, Dalit-Adivasi movements, environmental groups and religious organisations.
In the first week of November, a group of more than 350 academicians and activists issued a statement expressing solidarity with the protesters. “We urge the government to settle the Vizhinjam issue urgently by arriving at a reasonable and sustainable solution,” said the statement, calling on the government to defend the rights of fishing and coastal communities.
Meanwhile, a counter-protest in support of the port witnessed senior leaders of rival parties BJP and the CPI(M) share a platform.
“Why does a political party whose elixir is class mobilisation decry a democratic, non-party mobilisation by a marginalised social group like fisherfolk?” wrote Sunny Jose, a Hyderabad-based academician.
The BJP has been openly supportive of the project, and party workers are active at the counter-protest site near the protesters' tent. The workers have publicly campaigned against the protesters, accusing them of “impeding development”.
Protest leader Pereira alleged that right-wing groups had a role in the recent chain of violent incidents around the protest.
C R Neelakandan, an environmental activist who opposed the project from the beginning, told Article 14 that the proposed port would bring “no good” either to the government or to the public. “The project is economically unviable, technically unfeasible and environmentally destructive,” he said.
Officials of Adani Ports and of VISL disagreed with the protesters.
A senior employee of Adani Ports, who declined to be named because he is not authorised to speak to media, said the upcoming port was important “for the entire country”, and that the protest had caused losses to the state and the country.
While the protesters’ demands were mostly “genuine”, said the Adani employee, the demand to suspend construction work was unreasonable. “It is an unscientific demand,” he said. “There is no evidence that coastal erosion happens because of the construction for the port.”
He claimed that the protesters were using the port project as a “bargaining tool” to pressure the government to address various problems the community currently faces.
Port Authorities, Protesters Brace For Legal Battle
Protesters told Article 14 they hope the judiciary will recognise their concerns.
A joint petition recently filed by 128 fisherpersons is now pending before the Kerala high court. It seeks to halt the project work “at least” until the government-appointed expert panel submits its report on anticipated impact of the port.
The petitioners said their homes “have been destroyed due to coastal erosion “after dredging work commenced in 2016 for the construction of a breakwater. A protest leader said the HC will hear the petition on 5 December.
Meanwhile, the Adani Group moved the Kerala high court, seeking compensation totalling Rs 78.7 crore for loss it said it incurred due to the ongoing protest. The company also moved the HC against the state government, accusing the latter of failing to provide security for construction work at the site.
On 16 November, the court said the state and the people cannot be held to ransom by protesters blocking the route to the Vizhinjam port. Despite similar warnings from the court earlier, the protest has continued.
Maharashtra To Odisha, Protests Against Adani Ventures
Conflicts for land, water and other natural resources have intensified across India in recent years, with Land Conflict Watch, which tracks disputes over natural resources, recording 650 such ongoing conflicts.
On 23 November, more than 10,000 people including fisherfolk and Adivasis held a protest march in Mumbai against the construction of Vadhavan port in Dahanu, 130 km south of Mumbai. A study by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute had said the port would adversely impact more than 20,000 fisherfolk in 16 villages.
In Tamil Nadu, thousands protested in 2018 against a port project in Kanyakumari. In his election campaign in 2021, M K Stalin, now the state’s chief minister, promised not to grant permissions for the project to proceed.
Odisha has recently witnessed protests against the Astaranga port, 70 km north of Puri, and the Subarnarekha port in Balasore district further north, where locals even detained officials who came to conduct a survey.
The Adani Group, owned by Asia’s richest person with a net worth of $150 billion and with business interests spanning coal mining, defence equipments, roads and railways, thermal and renewable power, gas, agricultural products, seaports and airports, logistics, real estate, finance, etc, is not new to controversy either.
The Kerala government itself opposed the Adani Group for taking control of Thiruvananthapuram international airport, and had passed a resolution in the state assembly against the development.
In Gondalpura, in northern Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh, local residents resisted Adani Enterprise Limited that was to acquire agricultural land for a mining project. Reports said the project would displace more than 4,000 people and pollute a river the locals depend on.
Also in Jharkhand, in Godda in the north-eastern part of the state, Adivasi and Dalit villagers moved the high court against land acquisition by the Adani Group for a power plant.
In coastal Karnataka’s Udupi, a power plant owned by the Adani Group’s Udupi Power Corporation Limited (UPCL) was asked by the National Green Tribunal to pay Rs. 52.02 crore as compensation for causing ecological damage and health problems for the locals.
In northern Chhattisgarh, Adivasi communities led a protest to protect the Hasdeo Arand forest, where the Adani group secured coal mining rights. The protest forced the state government to put the project on hold.
In Odisha’s Sambalpur, 275 km north-west Bhubaneswar, hundreds of villagers protested against an Adani Group coal mining project in 2020 for causing deforestation and displacement. Near the Adani-owned Dhamra Port, 430 km east of Sambalpur, more than 700 Adivasi families faced displacement due to construction of a railway line to transport coal from Dhamra port to a group-owned power plant in Jharkhand’s Godda.
The Adani group has also been in the news for contentious business engagements in Australia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
A member of the fishing community in Vizhinjam said they were not daunted by the power wielded by the conglomerate. “We know quite well who we are fighting,” he said.
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(Muhammed Sabith is a Kerala-based journalist and researcher.)