During the 2020 monsoon, the celebrated Kovalam Beach in the Indian state of Kerala was devoured by the ocean. Other beaches suffered the same fate. Roads and houses have crumbled into the sea. Local experts have blamed the huge breakwaters being constructed by the Adani Group at its Vizhinjam port for this accelerated coastal erosion. Other experts disagree. Nevertheless, the company’s deep-water trans-shipment port at Vizhinjam has attracted headlines for all the wrong reasons – delays, damage to fisheries, community protests and now coastal erosion. A special correspondent has investigated the issue for several months and provides a comprehensive report on the issue for AdaniWatch.
The beautiful Kovalam beach is one of the crown jewels of Kerala tourism. Thousands of tourists have visited the beach every year. Many believed that, due to its relatively sheltered situation, the beach would not be badly affected by erosion affecting other beaches in the general vicinity. But that belief was shattered during the 2020 monsoon when the waves devoured Kovalam’s sandy shores and walkway for the first time in history. Months later, in November 2020, footage shared on social media showed that there was still no beach. Kovalam is only three kilometres from the huge breakwaters being constructed by the Adani Group at its Vizhinjam port and some experts have said that this new infrastructure has disrupted normal sediment flows, leading to accelerated coastal erosion.
It’s not just beaches that have been washed away. Homes, roads and infrastructure have collapsed into the waves, ruining livelihoods and lives. Meanwhile, during October 2020, fishing communities protested against Adani’s port re-development, blocking access roads with their boats. They say dredging and construction of breakwaters have seriously impacted local fisheries.
Adani says that Vizhinjam will be a ‘deep-draft all-weather port’ that will become a ‘major economic gateway’ for India. It is located only 18 km from the world’s major east-west shipping route and only 13 km south of the capital city of Kerala. The project is being undertaken by Adani Vizhinjam Port Private Ltd (AVPPL), a subsidiary of Adani Ports and SEZ Ltd (APSEZ), in partnership with the government of Kerala through its state-owned business, Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited (VISL). The project has earmarked 140 ha of land for the first phase, including about 50 ha to be created by artificially extending the land into the sea. The first phase will see completion of an 800-metre-long berth, eventually to be extended to 2.5 km with a capacity to load 4.3 million shipping containers per annum. Breakwaters over three kilometres in length are a critical, challenging and controversial part of the revamped port.
Kovalam is not the only beach to have suffered severe erosion recently. The historic Shanghumukham beach, which is 14 km from Vizhinjam port, was also claimed by the sea in 2020. During the 1986 visit of Pope John Paul II, approximately two hundred thousand people gathered at this beach. It has been the venue for political and religious events attended by tens of thousands of people. Now the entire beach has eroded. If the sea advances three more metres, it will enter the precinct of the Thiruvananthapuram international airport.
These events have led to a war of words between experts over whether Adani’s colossal new structures at Vizhinjam have disrupted sediment flows sufficiently to cause this accelerated erosion. The debate has received international media coverage.
Since the Adani Group won the management rights for the Thiruvananthapuram international airport, online portals favouring the company are propagating claims that the firm will build strong breakwaters to prevent the sea water from advancing further. Computer graphics show the beach reconfigured with walkways and parks to resemble the Mumbai Marine Drive in an effort to support assertions that wonders will be done for the tourism sector. But experts have spoken against building breakwaters at Shanghumukham. Dr K V Thomas, former researcher at the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, and Joseph Vijayan, former researcher at the International Ocean Institute, have warned that laying great beds of rocks in the sea will lead to severe beach erosion at the fishing villages lying to the north.
‘The Thiruvananthapuram coastline has witnessed erosion earlier too. The sea flows to the south during monsoons and takes the sand with it. And it flows to the north in the remaining nine months, re-depositing the sand that it took to the south. This was a cyclic process, but now this has been hampered,’ said Dr Thomas.
An Adani spokesperson denied that its breakwater had exacerbated erosion, pointing to scientific reports by an ocean-studies institute that gave the Vizhinjam development the all-clear in 2019.
For people living in the front line, it remains a frightening situation. Sneha,15, and Lavanya, 13, live with their mother Kochuthresia at Kochuthoppu village near Shanghumukham beach. When they were visited for this story, the mother and daughters had been collecting sand in small vessels and depositing it around their home. Small sacks of sand were stacked on the border of their property as reinforcement. A few days previously, this had been the kitchen, a place where Kochuthresia spent most of her time. In August, the raging sea that had already devoured the shore came for their home. The walls and ceiling of the house trembled in the onslaught of waves. One night a damaged wall and ceiling crumbled into the sea.
Now these children, who should be attending their online classes, are engaged in a futile attempt to protect what’s left of their home. They are left only with a bedroom. The house of their neighbour, Benedict Mary (35), toppled onto its side on the beach.
These are not one-off incidents. Fifty houses were fully or partially damaged in this year’s monsoon. Many families took shelter with relatives. Seven families took refuge at the relief camp in St Roch’s Convent School, Valiathoppu. They cannot return to their homes even if the sea retreats.
‘When the time comes to vacate the relief camp, we will go and stay in front of the state secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram,’ a young woman at the camp said.
There are families who have been staying at the Valiyathura Fisheries School for years. Since 2017, more than 800 homes have been destroyed in fishing villages such as Kochuthoppu, Poonthura, Panathura, Kannanthura, Vettukad, Veli, Thumba and St Andrews. The sea devoured houses that were in the fifth row this year at Valiyathura and Kochuthoppu. There are 18,685 houses adjacent to the tidal areas of Kerala’s 600-km coastline. Thiruvanathapuram has 1062 such houses. Kerala’s coastlines are some of the most densely populated in India. And Thiruvananthapuram district is the most populous of all.
‘We have been facing severe tidal waves in these parts from the beginning of the Vizhinjam port project,’ said Jeswin, a Valiyathop resident who has made her living as a fish monger. ‘Before that, the sea used to wash away the shore during monsoons and to re-deposit the sand in later months. But I’ve never seen such catastrophic beach erosion in the 59 years of my life.’
Her house was claimed by the sea three years ago. She is now staying with her brother. She used to sell fish at the point where the beach ends. That area has been destroyed. Now she sells from the side of a road that is collapsing into the waves.
According to the 2010 Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute there are 42 fishing villages, 51 fish landing centres and 33,340 fisher families In Thiruvananthapuram District. The total population is 146,326 and there are 32,859 traditional fishermen. And 19,377 families are below poverty line. These are the people who are facing the impacts of a rising sea level and accelerated coastal erosion. Port authorities claim that the problems will be over by the time the port is completed. But the fisherfolk fear that arrival of big ships will bring more destruction.
An assessment of shoreline dynamics carried out for the 2013 Environmental Impact Statement for the Vizhinjam development warned that developments along the shoreline could have unintended consequences.
‘The cycle of sediment transport by the waves to and from the coast is continuous, which has aided in maintaining the equilibrium of the coastline over the geological times,’ it said (pp. 3,4). ‘Any change to the sediment transport due to natural and manmade development leads to imbalance in shoreline dynamics.’
‘… human activities such as reclamation, construction of shore protection structures, establishment of jetties and building of breakwaters can result in modifications in dynamics of the local coasts leading to changes in shoreline. Most of the shoreline changes are on account of the structures which have been developed/constructed along the foreshore of the country. Several of these developments are not compatible with the dynamic nature of the shoreline.’
Nevertheless, the report concluded that the proposed Vizhinjam development would ‘not influence’ the Vizhinjam fishing harbour and the beaches, including Kovalam beach. Similarly, the Oct 2018 – Sept 2019 report of the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) says that coastal erosion has always occurred here and that areas of erosion are substantially the same after the development as before.
‘The Government of Kerala along with Adani has engaged NIOT to scientifically monitor the construction of the breakwater to ensure the surrounding built and natural environment is appropriately maintained,’ an Adani spokesperson said. ‘There is also a scientific expert committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal, which exclusively monitors shoreline changes, and regular scientific studies indicate there has not been any erosion due to the project.’
‘All scientific data is captured and used in modelling by a third party, L&T Infrastructure Engineering Ltd [the company that carried out the EIA on the project], and the report is validated by NIOT and the National Green Tribunal expert committee. NIOT also submits an annual report on shoreline changes and beach profiles using satellite technology which is submitted to the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority, and this report demonstrates that erosion points are at the same level as they were prior to the commencement of construction. The NIOT report suggests any erosion that has occurred to the north side of the project is a regular phenomenon related to monsoonal weather only.’
The NIOT report concluded 'that the spots of erosion such as Valliyathura, Shangumugham and Punthura remains (sic) same before and after the commencement of the port (December 2015)' (p.52). However, the report period concludes at September 2019. NIOT's analysis of the critical 2020 monsoon period, by which time the breakwaters were further advanced, is not yet public.
There are plenty of local people who say erosion has intensified. Benans Lopes, the parish secretary and one of the leaders of a group protesting against the port, said that, although beach erosion has been occurring since the construction of the Vizhinjam harbour in 1960, it has worsened recently.
‘The waves became highly destructive after dredging activities were done for the port project. Since it was a deep sea, we were made to believe that there was no need for dredging to build the port. Once the project was flagged off, there has been regular dredging here. And acres of sea were turned into flatland. This led to beach erosion on the northern side and sand embankment on the southern side,’ he said.
VISL’s Oct 2019-March 2020 compliance report says that 2.90 mega M3 of sand and rocks that were dredged from the sea have been used to artificially extend the port into the sea. Government records show that 7.1 mega M3 of dredging and reclamation are required for the project. Joseph Vijayan says that such heavy dredging is damaging Thiruvananthapuram’s coastline. As of now only 40% of the dredging has been completed. And the sea keeps depositing the sand in these channels every monsoon. Vijayan claims that this sand is not being re-deposited on the beaches further north, which is the root cause of the problems in Vizhinjam. He predicts that thousands of people from Poonthura to Veli, a 10-km stretch of coast north of Vizhinjam, will lose their homes in the coming years.
The densely populated fishing villages to the north of the port project are witnessing severe beach erosion. Around 800 homes in five rows were destroyed in the last four years, since construction of the breakwater began. During a press conference in 2019 at Thiruvananthapuram, State Fisheries Minister J Mercykutty Amma was reported saying that once the proposed 3.1-km breakwater is completed, coastal destruction will rise significantly.
Meanwhile, houses adjacent to the actual project site have also been damaged. Resident groups have blamed the port’s pile-driving operations that commenced in the middle of 2017 for serious damage to 243 houses in the villages of Vizhinjam and Kottappuram. The Vizhinjam parish led a protest in 2017 against piling. In response, VISL and the AVPPL conducted a vibration assessment in the presence of the local residents and other organisations to prove that piling wasn’t causing the damages.
An Adani spokesperson said ‘the committee that oversaw the assessment included members from the Kottapuram Village, and geotechnical experts from the Council of Engineering Technology, Trivandrum, VISL, the District Administration and Adani Vizhinjam Port Pvt Ltd. The report endorsed by the committee demonstrated that cracks were not due to port construction activities piling works.’
Now the protest group believes that people were misled by the authorities.
Playgrounds and beaches used by the local youth for games and sports training have been washed away. More seriously, port construction has led to a severe shortage of drinking water in nearby villages, according to the agitation committee. A Water Supply Scheme for the local community was commissioned by VISL in April 2013 and cost $AUD 1.4 million. Protesters says that the project largely benefits the port, not the villagers, who are forced to pay private suppliers for a pot (about 10 litres) of water. A family that buys around five pots of water a day will shell out about AUD $23 extra per month, three times as much as city dwellers pay for their water.
While the local residents have been testifying that this port project is destroying the shoreline, their lamentations have fallen on deaf ears. The majority of Malayalis believe that this is a pride project for Kerala. They believe that this port will bring socio-economic development in the state. But environmental activists predict that this single project could be devastating for Kerala in a number of different ways.
They say that dredging has severely muddied the deep-sea coastline of Thiruvananthapuram. Fishermen who used to get a good catch within five nautical miles of the shore say they are now forced to go beyond ten nautical miles. The rise in fuel costs is more than many can afford. A 36-hectare area that was rich in perna perna indica mussels has been filled in and built up as part of the port.
Concern has also been expressed about beach hatcheries for the endangered Olive Ridley turtle. Their existence in the region had already been severely affected by fishing and ribbon development along the coast. An Adani spokesperson said that the project’s EIA had found that there are no marine endangered species or Olive Ridley nesting sites at the project location. However, scientific papers had reported turtles hatching at Mulloor beach, immediately adjacent to Vizhinjam, a hatchery now destroyed by port-construction works.
In 2013, marine researchers identified 123 species in the sea and 73 species from the 40-year-old wall of the Vizhinjam harbour. The fisherfolk are worried about the devastating impact on the ecosystem when dredging and ship traffic become a regular affair. They say that the project’s environmental impacts on the sea have not been studied properly – neither before the construction commenced nor subsequently. The only organisation delivering information from underwater to the people is Friends of Marine Life, a Thiruvananthapuram-based citizen collective that partners with the UN for various projects. They have documented the destruction of coral reefs and mussel habitat by dredging. But government agencies have not taken these findings seriously.
Impacts of the new development are also being felt out at sea. Since 1960, hundreds of thousands of fishermen from various parts of Kerala and from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu have been sailing to the sea through Vizhinjam harbour. The once calm approach has now become a death trap. Accidents at the harbour mouth have become an almost daily occurrence. Waves rebounding after hitting the port breakwater are destroying or damaging fishing boats. A sand bar that developed at the harbour entrance after new breakwaters were constructed has been blamed for the capsizing of boats. These impacts, which have led to loss of livelihoods amongst fisherfolk, have been described in an earlier story about Vizhinjam.
Another cause of alarm for fishing communities is the potential threat to a 12,000-square-km fishery known as the Wadge Bank that lies off the southern shore of India. It plays a pivotal role in maintaining the fish population along Indian shores. Fishermen fear that ship traffic will degrade this fishery’s ecology, leading to losses of marine wealth. Local marine-ecology activists and scientists, doctors Johnson Jament and Lisba Yesudas, prominent in the local community, have stressed the need to conduct a new environmental impact study on an emergency basis factoring in the knowledge of traditional fishermen. In June 2017, they spoke at a UN scientific conference on oceans, identifying threats to indigenous fishing communities from industrial developments involving dredging and the construction of large breakwaters.
The appetite of the Vizhinjam development is also being felt in the hinterland. The 3.1-km-long breakwater requires immense quantities of rock. Six and a half million tonnes of rock will be mined and transported for the project with 600,000 tonnes already deposited into the sea. This resource is being extracted from 20 new quarries that have been approved by the state, many of them in the Western Ghat ranges, an area of great ecological significance. During the floods of 2018 and 2019, hundreds of people in these hilly parts of the state died in landslides. Scientific and public opinion have subsequently moved strongly against these quarries. Protests against these cascading impacts have occurred, but the government has paid them little heed, despite the loss of property and livelihoods. And while the majority of economic activities were put on hold during the COVID-19 lockdown, the Adani Group was allowed special concessions to continue work at the port.
The Vizhinjam project’s economic fundamentals and governance have also been questioned.
In 2015, the Adani Group received a 40-year contract to construct and operate the port in three phases. The company is obliged to return the port and all the assets to the government in 2054. The port is primarily envisioned as a trans-shipment hub – that is, shipping containers are moved from one vessel to another en route to their final destinations. Proximity to the Malacca Strait and the deep sea were factors that swung government and investors in favour of Vizhinjam. At a projected 4.3 million tonnes per annum of containers, Vizhinjam would have a similar capacity to that of Adani’s port at Mundra, and would compete for business with nearby Colombo in Sri Lanka, which has a capacity of 7.4 million. The total cost of this public-private partnership port project was estimated at AUD $1.4 billion, split between the public sector and Adani.
The government of Kerala acquired 90 ha of land for the project and is committed to covering many of the project’s costs. However, it will not receive revenue for 15 years and after that period, Adani will pay the government 1% of the profit. This arrangement has been criticised for providing less of a return to the state than is provided in port contracts elsewhere.
According to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) 2016 annual report, the project will result in the loss of AUD $5 billion for the state treasury, in part due to the exceptionally long lease. This caused a furore in the Kerala State Assembly. But media reported that a 2018 judicial commission report on this issue threw out the corruption allegations, clearing the government. According to an Adani spokesperson ‘allegations made by the Comptroller and Auditor-General have been rigorously investigated and proved false by a state-government-run inquiry commission’. Nevertheless, the commission unearthed a clause in the agreement with AVPP that allows the company to take loans using government land as collateral. That led to further political unrest in the state.
The agreement stipulated that the company was to commission the first phase of the project within four years, or 1460 days. Founder of the Adani Group, Gautam Adani, boasted that the ‘first phase will be completed in 1000 days’. Construction work began on 3 December 2015 and the first phase should therefore have been commissioned by 3 December 2019 (well before the global impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic). The thousand days passed, and so have the contracted 1460, but Adani has not been able to complete 50% of the project. The central Indian government has confirmed that the project faces a significant delay.
An Adani spokesperson said that completion of the first phase had been forestalled by ‘various force majeure events, including but not exclusive to Cyclone Ockhi, long periods of high waves making construction unsafe, and COVID-19. There has also been delay in granting necessary mining permits for applied mines. We continue to deliver the project in line with the terms of our contract.’
Based on the contract, the company was given a three-month penalty-free curing period and a six-month extension with penalties. However, the Kerala state government has appeared to accept Adani’s explanations for the failure to meet its deadline, flagging concessions to the company. The CEO of VISL has not responded to email queries as to whether the government will give an extension to Adani and waive the penalties at the expense of the state exchequer.
As if to substitute something for the failure to complete phase one, the government organised a special event to inaugurate the project’s newly completed office block in September 2020, complete with an up-beat video.
An Adani spokesperson said ‘the Government of Kerala decided to hold an inauguration in line with completion of land-based facilities such as the Port Operation Building. The inauguration was a celebration of completing these facilities, bringing the Vizhinjam International Seaport a step closer to reality.’
Yet the Vizhinjam mega-port remains dogged by delays and controversy.
On 30 September 2020, the local fishing community came out in protest against the project’s impacts, dragging fishing boats on to dry land to block the construction site’s access roads. AdaniWatch has described this spirited dissent in detail. Adani has tried to distance itself from the controversy, describing it as a conflict between protesters and the government.
However, vocal supporters of Adani's Vizhinjam development in Kerala have levelled virulent insults at protesters, marine ecologists and representatives of the fishing community. In aggressive social-media posts, defenders of the environment and fishing communities have been branded 'Chinese spies', accused of opposing the Vizhinjam project in order to protect the business of the Chinese-built port in Sri Lanka. Two coastal campaigners, Ajit Shankhumugham and Gopakumar Mathrika, have actually been called traitors. At a time of strong Indian nationalism amid tensions with China, such accusations are dangerously inflammatory.
Adani was asked by AdaniWatch whether it would condemn statements designed to evoke an angry, nationalistic response against protesters. In response, a spokesperson said ‘everyone has the right to voice their opinion in a democratic way within the factual and legal framework. All stakeholders need to be respectful and not put themselves or anyone else in harm’s way.’ Whether these worthy sentiments have been conveyed to the mega-port’s cheer squad in Kerala is another matter.
(Meanwhile, it has been reported that the Adani Group, not China, is the front runner for redeveloping the container port in Sri Lanka)
Back at the Vizhinjam construction site, the fishing community says it has had enough of being marginalised for the benefit of those who are seemingly indifferent to their future. Fisherfolk command a lot of respect in the general community of Kerala following their heroic rescues during the floods of 2018, when they were hailed as ‘Kerala’s Army’. In early November, they suspended their blockade of the Vizhinjam worksite but warned they would be ‘closely monitoring’ the government’s performance in fulfilling its promises and was prepared to ‘re-launch the agitation in a stronger manner’.
With Kerala's Army preparing to show their strength, the government and Adani are in for a tough fight over the shifting sands of the Vizhinjam coast.