A public hearing scheduled on 5 September 2023 for consultations with local communities over the Adani Group’s proposed expansion of Kattupalli Port just north of Chennai has been indefinitely postponed amid widespread vocal opposition. This is the second time in three years that the project’s public hearing has been cancelled, even as ambiguity persists over the ruling state government’s commitment not to proceed with the project.
The project – to increase the cargo-handling capacity of Kattupalli Port north of Chennai from the existing 24.7 million tons per annum (MTPA) to a whopping 320 MTPA – has been proposed by the port’s owner Marine Infrastructure Developer Private Limited (MIDPL), an Adani-owned firm. Opposition to the project, whose cost has been pegged at over Rs 53,000 crore (US $640 million), has been driven by fishing and farming communities whose livelihoods are threatened by the project's impacts.
‘ … representations have been received to conduct public hearing at more than one location so as to enable the public to express their views about the project. On the basis of the above representations, the public hearing announced on 05.09.2023 for the project of M/s Marine Infrastructure Developer Private Limited, Kattupalli Village, Ponneri Taluk, Tiruvallur District stands postponed,’ stated a public notice issued on 10 August by Tiruvallur district magistrate Alby John Varghese.
Cancellation of the mandatory hearing is a blow to Adani’s port-expansion plans.
The notice further stated that a fresh date for conducting the hearing will be announced soon by the state’s pollution control board. The public hearing was announced on 5 September by the Tamil Nadu government despite a pre-election promise to the contrary by the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) political party.
Ahead of Tamil Nadu's 2021 elections, the DMK promised to scrap the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report of the port expansion project if it was elected to power. The party’s supremo, Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin, who is now the state’s chief minister, had even released an amended 505-point pre-poll manifesto on 13 March 2021 that included a promise to do away with Adani’s port expansion.
In the first session of the state assembly after being elected to power, Stalin reassured people on the floor of the house that his pre-election pledge would be fulfilled.
In the run-up to the general elections of 2024, the DMK has aligned with a sprawling alliance of more than two dozen political parties that have come together to challenge the nine-year dominance of the BJP-led coalition in the national parliament. The opposition alliance, Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (known popularly by the acronym INDIA) is led by the Congress, whose senior leader Rahul Gandhi has been vocal, both inside and outside the Parliament, about the alleged corporate malpractices of Adani Group. Gandhi has also been bitterly critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his alleged proximity to the business conglomerate’s chairperson, Gautam Adani.
Despite its decision to politically align with the INDIA coalition and its earlier commitment not to go ahead with the project, has the DMK been playing footsie with the Adani Group all along? Sources in the DMK told this correspondent that the state government will not go ahead with the project without the ‘consent’ of the general public.
‘Ever since the DMK came to power in Tamil Nadu in April 2021, there has been a status quo on the project,’ said the source.
‘The very purpose of a public hearing is to seek the consent of local communities. Until we have the consent of people, we are not going ahead with the project. The DMK continues to abide by all promises made in the pre-poll manifesto.’
The left-oriented political parties of India that have aligned with the Congress-led INDIA coalition have been forthright in their opposition to Adani’s port-expansion project. Following the announcement of the public hearing’s postponement, the Community Party of India (Marxist) adopted a resolution for the scrapping of the expansion project in a meeting of its Tamil Nadu state council.
‘Over one hundred thousand people living in 40 fishing villages are dependent on fishing. If the expansion project is started in this situation, marine resources and natural resources will be destroyed, the coastal area will be destroyed and the course of the Kosathalai (sic) River will be affected …,’ stated the resolution.
A new date for the public hearing had not been announced at the time that this article was published. Meanwhile, opposition to the project by the community has continued unabated. Coinciding with the G20 summit meeting in India’s capital city New Delhi on 8 and 9 September, members of a citizens’ collective, the Chennai Climate Action Group (CACG), held an art exhibition to highlight the project’s dangers posed to the natural ecology of Pulicat Lake, a huge brackish water body north of Kattupalli Port. Kalanidhi Veeraswamy, the incumbent representative from North Chennai to the lower house of India’s Parliament (the Lok Sabha), who belongs to the DMK political party, attended the event to express solidarity with communities set to be affected by Adani’s project. The event titled ‘Strokes of Solidarity’ was publicised on social media with the hashtags ‘Stop Adani’ and ‘Save Pulicat’.
‘The proposed public hearing by the Tamil Nadu state government is unwarranted on two counts,’ said nature conservationist Yuvan Aves, who is also a member of CACG. ‘As per the environment impact assessment report prepared by the project proponent, the site is in an area which is being rapidly eroded by the sea. Secondly, the project area falls within the eco-sensitive zone of a bird sanctuary for which the project proponent has no approval’.
A public hearing scheduled in January 2021 when the DMK’s principal opposition political party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was in power in Tamil Nadu, was also cancelled amid public outcry. The official reason proffered by the state government for the cancellation was that the gathering of large numbers of people for the event would have violated COVID protocols.
Later, in the face of intense public opposition to the project, the AIADMK promised to scrap the project if elected to power in the April 2021 polls. Ottakarathevar Panneerselvam, the state’s former Deputy Chief Minister belonging to the AIADMK, told the public at an election rally in March 2021 that the port expansion will be scrapped altogether. Panneerselvam, popularly known by the initials OPS, made this promise notwithstanding the fact that the port’s concessionaire agreement had been signed with the Adani Group during a previous government formed by his political party in Tamil Nadu when former AIADMK supremo Jayaram Jayalalithaa was the chief minister.
The total area which has been identified for the proposed expansion is more than 2472 hectares, including the 134 ha covered by the port at present. The proponent will not only use inter-tidal areas, beaches, mangroves and salt pans, but will also convert a massive 796 ha from the sea – equivalent of nearly 1500 football fields. In addition, the company will take over 762 ha of government land and 781 hectares of private land. In order to provide connectivity of the seaport with the hinterland, the company has proposed external roads, a railway network and a utility corridor over an area of around 30 ha.
Lingappan, a 32-year-old farmer from Kattur village, told this correspondent that his family members are bracing for job losses because a large patch of land which they have cultivated for over 50 years is likely to be taken over for the project. This land has been identified in revenue records as Peramboke, or government-owned common village land.
‘We have been cultivating rice for six months every year on this patch of land in an organic manner without the use of fertilisers', said Lingappan. ‘It provides us with a decent amount of income every year. In the past, though a number of coal-power stations were established in the region with the promise of employment generation, we never got jobs in those industries.
‘There are a number of salt pans in this area. It remains to be seen how those employed in the salt pans will be affected by the port expansion. In the past, hundreds of salt pan workers have lost jobs when other industries were established here.’
Local communities of coastal villages of this district have faced livelihood impacts ever since coal-power stations were first established here in the early 90s. Hundreds of workers engaged in salt manufacturing were rendered jobless when pollution caused by coal-power plants contaminated more than 150 hectares of salt pans stretching south to Puzhuthivakkam village. A significant number of the abandoned salt pans, which have been earmarked for takeover by Adani’s project, are at present being used for traditional shrimp farming, inland fishing and bloodworm collection during monsoons months. (Bloodworms are used as fodder in fish farming and as bait on fish hooks.)
Another village, Urnambedu, lost nearly 65 hectares of irrigated agricultural land for the construction and expansion of North Chennai Thermal Power Station’s fly ash pond. It has been pointed out there would be further loss of livelihood in Urnambedu if the port is expanded. The Adani-owned company has, however, claimed that after the project is fully operational it is expected to generate direct employment for around 1500 persons and around 4500 indirect jobs.
Fears that coastal erosion will be exacerbated in north Tamil Nadu, which began with the construction of the Ennore Port in 2006 and continued with the Kattupalli Port project in 2012, is another issue writ large amongst people of the coastal villages. It has been alleged that construction of the existing breakwater in Kattupalli village has eroded more than 300 metres of the beach towards the north of the port and consequently affected the livelihoods of fish workers. G Sundararajan of a Chennai-based environmental organization Poovulgin Nanbargal (Tamil for ‘Friends of the Earth’) told this correspondent that the livelihoods of at least 100,000 fish workers are threatened by the proposed port expansion project.
‘The north side of the existing Kattupalli Port has witnessed very fast erosion in the recent past,’ said Sundararajan.
‘If the expansion takes place, there is a great possibility that the Barrier Island, which lies between Pulicat Lake and the Bay of Bengal, will completely be eroded from the face of the Earth. There are nearly a dozen fishing hamlets on this island whose fate hangs in balance.’
Further, it has been pointed out by local communities that it is important to protect the wetland ecology of the estuary of Kosasthalaiyar River in order to maintain freshwater recharge and to counter saltwater intrusion into coastal villages. This naturally evolved system is allegedly at risk of being obliterated if the expansion proceeds. Mangroves along Kosasthalaiyar estuary, if cleared, will expose the region’s natural barriers to seawater intrusion and cyclonic storms.
Along the 1076-km coastline of Tamil Nadu, there exist three major ports – Chennai, Ennore and Toothukudi – and at least 15 minor ports including the one at Kattupalli. Once expanded, the Kattupalli Port will be the biggest port in the state. It is located within a radius of 10 km of the Ennore Port and is also roughly 35 km from Chennai port. In the past, experts have questioned the logic of developing a mammoth port in such close proximity to other operational ports.
The Adani Group owns 97% of MIDPL. The state-owned government company, Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation, which owns the remaining 3% stake in Kattupalli Port, has allotted back-up land near the seaport for industrial development for a lease period of 99 years. MIDPL has demanded that this policy be implemented uniformly, applying to the port as well as to other lessees. Experts have advised against extending the lease period of the port on the grounds that it will lead to huge loss for the state exchequer.
In response to the massive number of representations that farming and fishing communities sent to the ministry against the expansion project, an expert panel was appointed by the central government in March 2019 to study the local environmental and livelihood issues. The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), which assesses potential ecological impacts of industrial projects for the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (‘the ministry’), sent a three-member delegation to the Kattupalli area for a site visit. In its report to the EAC, following a field survey in June 2019, the panel corroborated most of the concerns raised by local communities, confirming that the project is likely to result in further coastal erosion and cause job losses for farmers and fish workers.
‘After construction of Ennore port, the north coast near Kattupalli village was under severe erosion and the southern coast of Ennore is witnessing accretion (attributable to breakwater) and, a tidal creek some 2.8 km away is silting up rapidly causing concern to nearby Power Plants drawing cooling water from it. The Kattupalli Port was constructed 1.8 km north of Ennore Port and is functional from January 2012,’ stated the expert panel in its report.
Furthermore, as far as ecological issues are concerned, environmentalists have pointed out the close proximity of the project to Pulicat Lake which is 13 km from the north breakwater of the port. The Pulicat Bird Sanctuary, home to several rare species of bird, is located to the north of Kattupalli Port. The bird sanctuary has been designated under India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and the port project falls within its 10-km default eco-sensitive zone (ESZ). Prohibitions and regulations upon certain construction and industrial activities are automatically applicable for a project that is proposed within the ESZ of any protected area.
‘The majority of the proposed development falls under the erosion zone,’ the committee said. ‘The project is surrounded by an estuary named Kosattalaiyar [(sic) the estuary belongs to the 136-km-long Kosasthalaiyar River] … the western part of the estuary has a patch of mangroves. The estuarine opening at the northern boundary of the proposed site is closed due to sedimentation. The company is proposing to reclaim some water bodies present along the Kosattalaiyar estuary.’
Environmental activists are alarmed at the possible impact of the construction of new breakwaters for the bigger port. Two new breakwaters with a total length of 12.1 kilometers length have been proposed: the two new northern breakwaters will be 9.0 km and 1.2 km long while the new southern breakwater will be 1.9 km long. Comparisons have been drawn with the devastating impact of the new breakwater of Adani Group’s Vizhinjam seaport project on Kerala’s coastal villages and hamlets.