India
Coastal ecosystems and livelihoods devastated by Adani’s massive Mundra port complex and power station
Sep 03, 2020
Fishing activities near Mundra - Tata power plant at left, Adani power plant at right. Photo Soumya Dutta

As opposition to Adani’s proposed Godda power plant spreads internationally, discussion of the Adani Group’s environmental legacy in other parts of India is intensifying. A recent webinar heard graphic details about the impacts on local people and the coastal environment of the operations of the Adani Group and the Tata company at Mundra in the Indian state of Gujarat. The description was based on various studies in which Mr Soumya Dutta was a key player.

Soumya Dutta is also a co-convenor of the South Asian People’s Action on Climate Crisis (SAPACC), and active on the Climate & Energy Group, the Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha (India people's science campaign), and India-Climate-Justice. He is an Ashoka Fellow and a member of the Advisory Board for the UN Climate Technology Centre and Network.

‘The Tatas and Adanis call these thermal power projects development, but I barely see any kind of development happening here. Our fishing season is from August to mid-May but owing to their outlet and intake pipes, the hot water and the pollution, we are packing our way back to our villages now in April. Not enough fish this year so we are going back early... What is development to us? … Let them leave us on our own, we were happy earlier.’    Ahmed Ali Illiyasa, fisherman and head of a local advocacy group for fisherfolk, 24 April 2012, as reported by an independent fact-finding committee (see below).

Ahmed Ali Illiyasa (centre), fisherman and head of local fishing advocacy group, Mundra. Photo Soumya Dutta

The jewel in Adani’s industrial crown is its giant port complex at Mundra in the Indian state of Gujarat. This 15,000-ha ‘special economic zone’ has numerous factories as well as power stations operated by both Adani Power and the Tata company. According to the website of Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone (APSEZ), Adani hopes this hub will also attract petrochemical industries, textile manufacturing, food processing, warehousing and defence and aerospace industries.

The Mundra industrial complex is located on the Gulf of Kutch. A prominent feature of this coastline is the vast intertidal zone comprising a network of creeks, estuaries and mudflats. These features provide a conducive environment for several sea-based traditional occupations such as fishing and salt-making as well as land-based occupations like agriculture, horticulture and animal husbandry. Even by the standards of India, the region has a very high rural population density. The rapid development of Adani’s port and associated infrastructure over the last 30 years has generated intense concerns amongst such communities.

In 2012-13, an independent fact-finding committee headed by Justice (retired) S M Bhargava carried out studies of the areas affected by Tata and the Adani Group at Mundra.  Soumya Dutta was the committee’s convener as well as lead author of the ensuing reports which included extensive documentation of social and environmental impacts, including measurements of water temperatures, pH, dissolved oxygen (all critically important for marine life), damage to mangroves and creeks,  increases in particulates and noise levels in adjacent villages, radioactivity increase near the ash ponds of the mega power plants, and a drastic reduction in fish catch across a range of species. Dutta says that very clear impacts on women and children were documented.

Because of the huge influx of workers from outside, alcoholism increased. Local production of alcohol increased significantly causing an increase in family violence. To tackle the problem, a women’s group, Rina Rabari, had to raid some of these illegal alcohol-making establishments. In response, an Adani spokesperson said that the state of Gujarat follows a strict prohibition policy and the law is implemented with equal rigour for all.

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Within three or four years of the development of the Tata and Adani power plants, there were significant impacts on children. According to Dutta, local doctors were afraid to go public due to fear of the Adani Group’s clout, but after one and a half years of effort on the part of community advocates, some doctors opened up. They said that their data showed that within three years of the Adani Mundra and Tata Mundra power stations commencing operations, there was a 20 to 22% rise in upper respiratory-tract diseases in children, particularly amongst those up to the age of seven. Similar impacts were observed amongst the elderly, who regularly complained about feeling a ‘heavy pressure on their chests and difficulty in breathing’. Families used to gather over half a bucket of coal dust and ash every morning just by sweeping household areas. Local water sources were also contaminated.

Socio-economic groups whose livelihoods were already marginal suffered the most, particularly pastoralists. Dutta says the committee was told that grazing land became covered with coal dust (emanating from the huge coal storages at both power plants) and fly ash (a product of burning pulverised coal). As a result, there was a sharp increase in abdominal diseases and miscarriages in cattle. Cows were dying, not in ones and twos, but by the dozen. To ameliorate the situation, Adani and Tata were forced to provide fodder for the cattle at fixed areas to which the pastoralists had to bring their animals.

Aerial image of Adani's Mundra port and industrial complex. Photo by Google

Adverse impacts also occurred in a neighbouring fruit plantation. There was a small area of land suitable for growing sapota (otherwise known as naseberry or sapodilla) because it had fresh groundwater in an area generally dominated by salty groundwater. According to Dutta, an entire sapota plantation was wiped out because the fruits developed black spots, rendering the produce unsaleable. Adani’s response downplayed the significance of this.

‘The reality is that farmers in Mundra and its vicinity have shifted to more rewarding crops such as mangos, pomegranate and dates,’ an Adani spokesperson said. ‘This is because the shelf-life of sapota is short and the alternative fruits have a much longer shelf-life, making them more marketable. Gains per acre have increased 50-100%. The overall area under orchards has substantially increased due to water conservation and drip irrigation and (Adani) has played a very active role in this transition.’

Salt panners, roughly 3000 of them in that area, were also affected by the industrial developments. Sources quoted in the report of the fact-finding committee said that Gujarat produces over 70% of India’s salt, with the Kutch coast being an important part of this industry.  However, in the Mundra area, salt panners say that their salt pans were being contaminated by fly ash and coal dust.

‘The salt-pan work is facing a great challenge due to the fly ash as well as dust that is emitted from the thermal projects,’ a salt panner told the committee. ‘Our livelihood is affected by these thermal power projects like those of the fishermen’.

Fishing is an industry that has suffered significantly from impacts on the coastal environment. Dutta says that when the marine environment is undisturbed fisherfolk are not poor because their catch is very valuable. However, following the advent of Adani Mundra and Tata Mundra, the local ecosystem on which fishing livelihoods depend was devastated. The construction of industrial infrastructure resulted in the illegal blocking of large tracts of low-lying inter-tidal land in order to ‘reclaim’ huge areas of mud flats – highly productive parts of the local ecosystem. Large areas of mangroves were destroyed. Some reports have said that Adani’s developments have pushed the high-tide level over 10 km seaward, with a corresponding loss of the inter-tidal ecosystem. Creeks and reefs were dredged, destroying fish nurseries and fisheries, almost decimating the high-value prawn and pomfret fisheries. Even the common staple, ‘Bombay Duck’ (a type of fish), declined significantly. The fishing season used to occupy eight months of the year, from October to June, but after the destruction of significant parts of the local marine environment, the season now often ends before April, as the catch has been so heavily impacted. As a result, the fisherfolk of the region have become quite poor. According to Dutta, there had been 6-7000 fish farmers in the area and over the course of three years their incomes declined by 40-45%.

Fisherfolk and members of the fact-finding committee discuss the impacts of the developments of Tata and Adani. (Soumya Dutta at far left, in green)

In addition, the blocking of creeks has cut access to the Gulf for many of the fisher people. Fisher women (who do most of the marketing) have to travel further, paying much higher transport charges.

‘The roads are closed, in turn increasing our travel distance, and the outlet pipes have led to reduction of fish catch and the water supply in our villages,’ one woman from a fishing community told the committee. ‘Thanks to these companies we now have to take a long walk to fetch water even for our daily activities.’

In 2013, the report of another committee, established by the central government’s ministry of environment and forests (the Ministry), found that APSEZ had breached conditions of its environmental approval in its treatment of the coastal ecology. The Committee Report observed:

  • There had been widespread destruction of mangroves, including 75 hectares on Bocha Island, a conservation zone under the environmental-clearance conditions.
  • The company had not taken precautions to guard against blocking of creeks by construction activities, with satellite imagery showing signs of deterioration and loss of creeks. 
  • The company had not taken stipulated measures to ensure that the channels that bring and then discharge large volumes of seawater for use in the thermal power plant are adequately lined in order to protect against contamination of groundwater.
  • The company’s inventory of utilisation and disposal of fly ash was inadequate.
  • The company had been less than serious in fulfilling its reporting obligations.

As a result, Adani’s environmental record at Mundra became an issue of contention in government, the media and the courts. A ‘show cause notice’ for the alleged violations was issued by the Ministry dated 30 September 2013, with the ministry reported to have directed APSEZ to restore creeks, mangroves and ‘reclaimed’ land, and to consider returning common land to the control of local communities. Adani says the government disposed of this finding against APSEZ on 18 September 2015, instead directing the company to carry out coastal mapping and to prepare a conservation plan for mangroves. It says that other petitions relating to destruction of mangroves and sand dunes have subsequently been struck down in the courts.

Adani says the area of mangroves increased by 246 ha (about 12%) in the Mundra area between 2011 and 2017, a period that also saw major growth in the Mundra port. The company says it is a signatory to the India Business and Biodiversity Initiative and has carried out mangrove afforestation over an area of 2889 ha across the Coast of Gujarat. Whether the mangrove plantations established by Adani can eventually fulfil the ecological function performed by the mangroves the company destroyed is another matter.

Meanwhile, the government’s U-turn regarding Adani’s environmental performance became a subject of notoriety. The 2013 decision to impose a penalty on Adani for damaging the environment and breaking laws was made under a Congress-led government. The reversal of this decision in 2015 occurred under the newly-elected BJP government of Narendra Modi. A Scroll.in article reveals documents showing that, under the Modi government, the environment ministry turned a blind eye to previously documented damage and simply determined that relevant conditions pertaining to mangroves and creeks had been complied with despite obvious evidence to the contrary.

Fish drying in the sun can be contaminated by coal dust and ash from the power plants. Photo Soumya Dutta

In 2017, an Australian environmental/legal group examined the decisions made by governments in India regarding conditions and processes pertaining to environmental approvals at Mundra as part of its Adani Brief project. It concluded:

‘Although not entirely clear, it appears that (the 2015) environmental clearance retroactively legalises the previous actions that APSEZ had taken without the proper environmental clearance. However, this does not diminish the concern that APSEZ had caused serious environmental harm, and had undertaken significant development for many years, without the required approvals.’

Adani did not address all of the issues identified by AdaniWatch when it provided comment for this article but did outline actions it had taken to improve local water supplies, saying that clean water had been one of its goals at Mundra. A spokesperson said Adani’s water-conservation activities first took shape in the water-scarce and drought prone Kutch district of Gujarat, where people normally use groundwater for drinking. The water has a high level of ‘total dissolved solids’ (TSD) which causes bone and kidney diseases amongst residents. To address this issue, construction of check dams and deepening of ponds to harvest and increase storage of surface water were carried out. In 2017-18, such works were carried out in several villages in the Mundra area, which Adani said improved local agricultural yields and reduced levels of TSD.

‘Projects to help harvesting of rainwater from rooftops and to recharge wells created a valuable water source for use throughout the year,’ the Adani spokesperson said. ‘Adani has also been working with farmers to convert unused bore wells into artificial-recharge bore wells to improve groundwater resources and crop production.

Adani is proud of its record at Mundra. A spokesperson said that sustainability is an integral part of the business.

‘While Mundra has become a convergence of economic activities aligned to India’s desire for growth, we have ensured that green cover expands,’ the spokesperson said. ‘The total terrestrial green cover in our establishments in Mundra and adjoining areas is approximately 707 ha.’

‘For many years, a lack of opportunities for the locals in Mundra led to outward migration. That scenario has now reversed and Mundra is a bustling industrial hub housing India’s largest port, power plants, solar manufacturing facility, a refinery of edible oils, and a number of ancillary industries, providing gainful employment to the local communities while also attracting global talent.’

‘While our operations have amplified the number of opportunities for the local communities equipped with the required skillsets, the Adani Foundation also has several initiatives to empower unskilled workers to explore their potential. These initiatives are spread across education, skills development, healthcare, community infrastructure, Swachhagraha (creating a culture of cleanliness), nutrition and conservation of culture to name a few.’

Adani's port complex at Mundra. Photo courtesy Google Images

Meanwhile, at least one leader of local protests against Adani’s environmental destruction has been bullied by state authorities. In 2015, a leader of the elected village government of Navinal, Mr Gajendrasinh Bhimaji Jadeja, was detained on flimsy charges and later freed by order of the Gujarat High Court. The actions of state authorities in detaining Jadeja, who had filed petitions against Adani’s operations, were said to be at the behest of the Adani Group. Adani says it has a positive approach to the media, saying ‘we regularly participate in interviews and respond to both local and international media enquiries’. However, media representatives have sometimes had a tough time in Mundra. In 2017, an ABC Four Corners crew asking questions about Adani’s environmental record was effectively run out of town after local police detained and interrogated them about their activities.

The local people have no option but to endure the massive changes to their ancestral lands and livelihoods. Their plight was summed up in 2016 by Gujarat-based environmentalist Mahesh Pandya when he said that ‘irreve­rsible and irreparable damage has been done to the area by the Adani Port and it is difficult to monitor the extent of the damage today. The mangroves have been des­troyed and it has created an environmental disaster. But if you ask the Gujarat Pollution Control Board or the state environment and forest department how many notices they have served to the company, you will find none. The fisherfolk and common people affected by this degradation cannot fight such a big company.’

The impacts of Adani and Tata on the ecology of the Gulf of Kutch in the Indian state of Gujarat, and on the livelihoods and health of local communities, have also been covered by: