The determined members of a threatened fishing community in India’s southern state of Kerala are now in their seventh week of a relay hunger strike outside an airport operated by the Adani Group. The protest has been prompted by Adani’s massive port redevelopment at Vizhinjam, which has been blamed for coastal erosion and impacts on fishing resources. Seventy-one families have lost their homes to the encroaching sea. The sathyagraha (fasting protest) has, of course, been attacked by supporters of Adani’s port development. Yet the beleaguered fishing community is in a fight for its very existence.
The protest, which began on June 5, World Environment Day, completed 44 days on 18 July. It will carry on for an indefinite period as community members participate on a relay basis. Due to severe coastal erosion that some blame on Adani’s port project, many members of the community have been forced to take refuge in warehouses and schools that have been converted into evacuation areas. The people live like refugees in close proximity to the state’s administrative headquarters. (See videos of the tough life at the camps.)
The phrase ‘caught between the devil and the deep blue sea’ has become literal for Kerala’s fishing community. On the one hand, these hardy people have to flee for their lives to escape the increasing onslaught of the seas. On the other, they have to face the devilry of the Adani Group and its backers in the government and development lobby.
Local people say that time balances everything; this holds true for the seas. If the seabed is dredged, it will take sand from the shores. If you drop rocks into the sea to create a shore at one end, a shore from another end will disappear. Humans are helpless in front of this ‘oceanic justice’. But those in power continue to dredge the ocean floor and pile up massive breakwaters while people who reside on the coast are forced to flee. Fishing boats have been destroyed at the Vizhinjam Harbour, with lives lost. Even before the monsoon struck, several fishing villages in Thiruvananthapuram like Poonthura were hit by severe erosion.
The protests against Adani’s Vizhinjam port project have gathered steam lately. An alliance of fisherfolk, unions, farmers’ organisations, ecologists and conservation NGOs was formed prior to World Environment Day and began the relay Sathyagraha in front of the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport.
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The protest alliance is composed of the Kerala Swathanthra Matsyathozhilali Federation (Federation of Independent Fishing Labourers), Rashtreeya Kisan Mahasangh (National Alliance of Farmers), Sewa Union, Coastal Watch, TFM Union, Coastal Students Cultural Forum, Tree Walk, AICUF, Sthri Niket Vanitha Federation, Western Ghats Conservation Society, SUCI, Ekta Parishad and Voice. I.P. Udayakumar, who led the Koodamkulam Nuclear Plant protest, inaugurated the Sathyagraha, whose numbers have been swelling.
The Demands of the Protest Alliance
One of the key demands of the protest is to compensate the people who have lost their homes. The alliance insists that the people responsible for this plight, the government and Adani Group, must offer solutions. Sea walls are ineffective in the long run. Depletion of beaches has impacted the livelihoods of the fishermen as there is a lack of space to pull up the nets from the sea. Coastal residents say that the port project is not even half done and already hundreds of homes have been destroyed. They fear that if the project continues, the beaches, roads, houses and allied infrastructure will be engulfed by the sea.
The alliance has called for:
- The scrapping of Adani’s port project.
- The provision of adequate compensation and rehabilitation to those who have lost their homes.
- Steps to reclaim the coastlines that are the work places of traditional fisherfolk.
The Adani Group originally signed the agreement for the port project with the then United Democratic Front (UDF) state government. However, the current Left Democratic Front (LDF) government is also facilitating the smooth execution of the project. Both parties have been taking turns in ruling the state for decades and both are reluctant to oppose Adani publicly. In response, the protest alliance has beseeched everyone who is in favour of shutting down the port project to join them in the agitation.
Udayakumar said in 2016 that the Vizhinjam Port project is a huge scam. Speaking during the inauguration of the Sathyagraha, he warned that the Kerala and Tamil Nadu coasts will be destroyed if the port is completed. He said that this is the struggle of those who depend on the sea for their survival.
While visiting the protest camp on 17 July 2022, prominent Supreme Court lawyer Prashanth Bhushan said that due to the construction of the Vizhinjam port, fishermen have been forced into relief camps. People should take to streets against this, Bhushan added. His criticisms of the pro-Adani policies of governments have also been aired through Twitter.
A joint petition highlighting these concerns, signed by 70 acclaimed authors, environmentalists and scientists, was submitted to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on 26 June. The petition said that while the Vizhinjam Port might be a dream project of developers, it will irrevocably destroy the lives and livelihoods of coastal residents.
Constantly Updated Schedules
The minister for ports has predicted that the Vizhinjam development will welcome its first ship towards the end of the year. This is a bold forecast considering with the project only 33% complete. The Adani Group has already made it clear that it will just procure raw materials during the monsoon and resume construction in the sea after the rainy season. In June 2022, the group also submitted a renewed construction schedule to the government which states that the first schedule will only be completed in December 2024. The government claims that it has not approved this new schedule.
The port-construction contract stipulated that the first phase of the project was to be completed by 3 December 2019. It remains incomplete. A legal tussle is occurring between the Kerala government and Adani Group on this failure to complete the project in line with scheduled milestones. The government issued a notice in March 2020 fining the company. Adani argued that its construction schedule had been impacted by ‘force majeure’ occurrences such as natural disasters and the Covid-19 pandemic. The Group has asked for a five-year extension to complete the project. The Arbitration Tribunal is hearing the case.
Poonthura is one of the highly populated fishing villages in Thiruvananthapuram and lies on the northern side of the Vizhinjam development. Kerala’s first sea wall to prevent tidal waves was constructed in Poonthura in the 1970s. Incursions of the sea began here after small breakwaters (of about 600 m each) were built for the Vizhinjam harbour’s fish-landing centre. The sea wall has been renewed a few times over the last 50 years. Several groynes (small breakwaters of 25 m each) were built along with the sea wall 15 years ago.
The tidal attacks along the Beemapalli-Cheriyathura coasts increased after this construction, said the chief organiser of CoastalWatch, A.J. Vijayan, who is also an ocean ecologist and an ocean-governance expert.
Sea incursions became more drastic after port construction began in 2015. The sea wall and groynes at Poonthura were damaged and began sinking into the sand. There are plans to reinforce the sea wall, but the Vizhinjam project is experiencing a scarcity of rock. Vijayan believes that once the port is completed, the protective walls and groynes will completely disintegrate and the sea will destroy village homes.
As of now, 250 houses in Poonthura are in the danger zone. Nine breakwaters built from Cheriyamuttam to Poonthura St Thomas Church have been destabilised. The local MLA and the state Transportation Minister, Antony Raju, inspected the affected areas and under his orders, the water authority has begun depositing rocks. The minister also allotted 24.25 lakh rupees for steps to combat the impact of the rough seas. He said that works will commence as soon as the procedures are complete. This amount was allowed to construct a 50m sea wall at Thaikkapalli area near Beemapalli. The funds were released after discussion with the minister for water resources, Roshi Augustine. It’s expected that 14 homes will be saved through this effort.
Geo-tubes that wasted over US $15 million
It was during the first Pinarayi Vijayan government (2016-20) that the then minister for fisheries, Mercikuttiyamma, and a contingent of officers and fishermen visited Kadalur in Tamil Nadu to study geo tubes. They believed that planting geo tubes in Thiruvananthapuram would stop tidal waves. She dreamt that if the project were a success, it could be replicated across the state’s coasts. The geo-tube project was green-flagged by KIIFB (Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board). But the law ministry led by minister A.K. Balan raised objections, which resulted in angry outbursts by minister Mercikuttiyamma.
In February 2021, the chief minister inaugurated the Geo-tube, online. He said that the geo-tube offshore breakwater will replace rocks in the ongoing efforts to protect the coast.
(Geo tube installation videos from Minister Antony Raju’s Facebook page)
The fishing community and its representatives warned against the likely impacts of this grand vision. They said that stopping the Vizhinjam project was the only permanent solution to the coastal problems. Meanwhile, even before the monsoon began, the waves crossed over the geo tubes installed in the first phase and started eating into the shore.
These projects are the creations of clueless ministers in power, said Kristhudas Adimalathura, an ocean-ecologist and the leader of a fishers’ association. He said that, as with different terrains in the world, there are different seascapes. Creating projects without understanding the waters will lead to failures like the geo-tube plan. Not only did this project drown crores of rupees, it has aggravated the dire situation along this coast, he added.
Meanwhile, in the latest figures submitted by former fisheries minister Saji Cherian on 30 June 2022, 71 families have lost their homes to coastal erosion in the Thiruvananthapuram district. There are 260 members in these families and they are staying in 12 camps. Of these 71 families, only seven have found and registered land. The remaining 64 seem destined for homelessness. According to certain figures presented at the state Legislative Assembly, the annual per capita income of fishing labourers is half that of the general public. In the financial year 2015-16, the average per capita income was Rs. 164,554 (US $2060) while that of a fisher was Rs. 81,494 (US $1020). So, when people who earn such meagre sums lose their homes, how are they going to find the money to buy new ones? They say that the government’s response is severely inadequate.
Proliferating quarries for the breakwater
Amid mounting protests, 1840 metres of breakwater have been constructed for Adani’s port project out of the intended 3000 metres. The proposed L-shaped breakwater has been plagued with problems, with sections destroyed by rough seas several times over recent years.
The minister himself informed the Assembly that only 33% of the dredging and breakwater construction have been completed. As part of the project, 7.1 million cubic metres of dredging and ‘reclamation’ have to be done. Only 2.3 million cubic metres of this have been completed so far. The minister also clarified that dredging, reclamation and berth building can be completed successfully only if the 3.1km breakwater is constructed fully, as it is essential to protect these structures from the waves. Both Adani and the minister say that there is a severe scarcity of rocks to complete all these works.
The Adani Group is trying to open new quarries in the districts of Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam and Pathanamthitta to meet these requirements. Though procuring rocks is not the government’s prerogative under the contract, the current government has decided to open 13 new quarries to assist the project. Floods and landslides have impeded these plans.
The breakwater itself requires 6.9 million tonnes of rock. Adani’s attempt to buy stock from small quarries and distributors has failed. That’s why the company has decided to develop its own quarries, the minister said. The government has approved five quarries of which two, one in Thiruvananthapuram and one in Kollam, are to deliver 100% of their resource exclusively for the port project, with the three remaining quarries allocated to private investors under the obligation that they must deliver 50% of their rocks to the project. Procedures for state and national approvals have been completed. The state government also initiated procuring rocks from Tamil Nadu.
On 13 July 2022, the minister informed the Assembly that of the required 8.7 million tonnes of rocks required, 4.0 million tonnes (46%) have been procured. For the balance, 1.9 million tonnes have been procured from Thiruvananthapuram and 780,000 from Kollam. About 1.4 million tonnes of have been brought to Vizhinjam from Tamil Nadu.
The minister insists that Kerala has enough resources to meet the needs of the Vizhinjam project and is fast-tracking new quarry approvals. The minister said that eight new quarries, apart from the five allotted to Adani and other private investors, will be opened soon. But protests have erupted over the opening of these new quarries. There were protests in Tamil Nadu against opening quarries for the Vizhinjam project. AdaniWatch had reported about the protests in Pathanamthitta, the district adjacent to Thiruvananthapuram, over new quarry approvals. One quarry proposal was rejected by the residents during a public hearing held on January 27, 2021.
The quarry allotted to the Adani Group in Thiruvananthapuram is situated near the Neyyar-Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary. The National Wildlife Board (of the union government’s ministry) gave approvals for the project based on a report from the Kerala government that it would not impact the wildlife sanctuary or the protected forest area. This move from the state government comes during a time when worries about Kerala’s eco-sensitive zones (ESEZ) are on the rise.
The conditional approval for the quarry was given to the Adani Group during the online meeting of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) on 30 May 2022. Guidelines were imposed. The quarry must not function before sunrise and after sunset. A bond of Rs.1 million (only US $12,500) must be deposited by the promoters to reduce human-wildlife conflict. The quarry owner must file an annual certificate to the Chief Wildlife Warden saying that the establishment follows all of the guidelines. The Warden must, in turn, file a report to the central government. AdaniWatch has covered this controversy before.
The proposed quarry lies only 5.12 km from Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary and 6.76 km from Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary. The state’s Chief Wildlife Warden has stated that the quarry will operate in an area out of the ecologically Sensitive Zone (ESZ) border. The warden’s recommendation also states that no special measures are to be taken to mitigate the quarry’s impact.
The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued a draft circular on March 2022 (search with Neyyar or Peppara) designating 70.9 square km as eco-sensitive zones within 2.72 km of the Neyyar-Peppara wildlife sanctuaries’ protected areas. The draft contains the list of all the wildlife species in this area. Since this draft could affect residential areas in these zones, people, governments, political parties and other organisations have started protesting against it.
The proposed ESZ in Neyyar-Peppara wildlife sanctuaries have a lot of Myristica swamps (a type of freshwater swamp forest adapted to inundation by way of stilt roots and knee roots). There are numerous scientific papers supporting the protection of these endangered swamp lands.
Warnings of many kinds
According to studies by Kerala University, the Thiruvananthapuram coastline will face severe soil erosion in the years to come. The studies reveal that erosion levels have consistently risen in the areas between Shanghumukham and Anchuthengu, a fishing village. If it continues unabated, the erosion will destroy Shanghumukham beach and the adjacent airport completely. The studies were conducted using modern methods such as remote sensing and GIS. Prediction of future trends based on this study may not be realistic as the shoreline features along the southwest coast of India are constantly changing due to both natural and human interventions.