India Adani Ports
Outrage over ‘death trucks’ at Adani Vizhinjam port
May 03, 2024
Young dentistry student Ananthu Ajikumar was killed in March 2024 when a rock fell from a tip-truck headed for the construction site of Adani's Vizhinjam port in Kerala, India.

Controversy has plagued Adani’s Vizhinjam port project since the contract was signed with the Kerala government to build it. When a 26-year-old man died after being struck by a rock that fell from a tip truck headed for the construction site, conflict broke out anew. Money and a job have been offered to the victim’s family by the Adani Group as a result of the Kerala government's peace-making efforts. However, the hazard from overloaded trucks travelling at unsafe speeds from quarries in the hinterland to the Vizhinjam construction site appears to be a chronic one.

The Adani Group's Vizhinjam port project in the Indian state of Kerala.

At the start of 2024, Ananthu B Ajikumar, only 26 years old, was a young man with many dreams. He was a fourth-year student doing a Bachelor of Dental Science in a private medical institution. The family was looking forward to hanging the board 'Dr. Ananthu B Ajikumar' in front of the house to celebrate their son's achievement. But on Tuesday, 19 March 2024, at eight o'clock in the morning, death in the form of a heavy rock came crashing down on his dreams.

Ananthu, a scooter rider, was killed when the 20-kg rock fell from a tip truck during its journey to the Vizhinjam construction site. He was on his way to college, only half a kilometre from home, when the tip truck came from the opposite direction. The accident occurred in front of the Tetrapod manufacturing facility for Adani’s Vizhinjam Port. The truck hit a pothole in the road, causing the rock to fall. Ananthu‘s helmet was broken. It appears that the impact collapsed his thorax, injuring vital internal organs. Locals took Ananthu to the hospital. He was taken to NIMS MediCity Hospital, where he had been studying. His death was confirmed at noon.

It was allegedly from this (impounded) truck from which the rock that killed Ananthu Ajikumar fell. Photo courtesy Mathrubhumi

Protests erupt

At around 10 am on 19 March, in response to the accident, various political parties and locals protested at the site of the port project. It had already been argued publicly that tip trucks should not operate during school/college commuting hours. The police struggled to control the situation; an attempt to move the offending truck to the port project area was blocked by locals. Locals ended the protest after police assured them that the restriction on the use of trucks during commuting times would be strictly implemented.

After Ananthu‘s death became known during that afternoon, Vizhinjam witnessed renewed protests. The police allowed the tip truck that caused the accident to leave the scene. However, the locals chased the vehicle and caught up to it in the port project area. Fearing crowd trouble, the police, instead of removing the tip truck to the closest police station, moved it to a police station removed from the immediate area.

A street protest in response to the death of Ananthu Ajikumar.

Jithin (32), the tip truck's owner and driver, was arrested on the day of the death and released on bail. However, locals claim that the police filed the case only on trivial matters. This was cited by protesters as evidence of a strong 'top-level' intervention on behalf of the driver. When the public's anger intensified the following evening, Jithin was charged with additional offences. According to media reports, the police added section 304 A of the Indian Penal Code ('Culpable Homicide by Negligence'), which is not bailable. According to another media report, an investigation by the Motor Vehicle Department found that alleged careless driving and a bad road were the causes of the accident.

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Mother of sorrows

PS Bindu, Ananthu's mother, suffers from heart disease. Ananthu's father, Ajikumar, had been working in a restaurant in Muscat, earning money to support his son’s dentistry studies. On 1 April, he was scheduled to return home for his wife's heart surgery.

‘This is the port I fought for and won. My son was sacrificed for it.’ This was Ananthu's mother's cry when the body of her son was brought home.

Ananthu Ajikumar with his mother, Bindu, before the tragic accident that ended his life.

Bindu, Ananthu's mother, is a member of the Communist Party of Marxism (India)-CPIM, Kerala's ruling party. She is also a state office-bearer of the Lottery Agents Association. In the wake of her son’s death, the party accepted a moral responsibility to support the family of its party member. As a result, the parties of the left protested at the death of Ananthu.

A minister from the Kerala Cabinet, V Sivankutty, came to console Ananthu's family. He asked the Adani Group to assist Ananthu's family by compensating financially not just for the loss of their son, but also the loss of the family’s financial future.

The minister also said that safety standards should be strictly enforced, and that the Adani Group was legally required to do so. He said the government will not allow activities that may endanger the lives and property of local people. He said that labour laws should be followed and that action would be taken as soon as the report of the district’s highest public official was received.

Kerala education minister V Sivankutti addresses a stakeholders' meeting about the matter of compensation for the family of Ananthu. Image courtesy Kerala Government

Initially rejected, then millions offered

The Adani Group initially denied responsibility for Ananthu's death (because the accident occurred outside the port construction area) but eventually bowed to government pressure. The government's moves were in recognition of the political significance of this tragedy in the run-up to elections for the national parliament (the Lok Sabha) that were scheduled to take place in Kerala on 26 April. There have been numerous rowdy protests against the Vizhinjam port in the past, one of which was on the verge of riot after some heavy-handed actions by the police. Such protests have frequently blocked trucks from entering the port's construction site.

These anti-port protests have caused severe repercussions for the protesters, for the Adani Port and for the government. The government was concerned that protests following Ananthu's death might trigger a resurgence of anti-port protests. Also, the ruling party feared that its political fortunes would suffer during the Lok Sabha elections of 26 April.

Poster displayed by the Indian National Congress on a busy thoroughfare says: 'Another life lost as a result of the lorry carrying excessive loads to Adani Port! A street dog has more worth than human life. The dream of a family crashed on the road'.

Youth Congress party workers and other organisations protested at Adani port on the day of Ananthu's death, and the police attempted to calm them.  Protesters blocked the road so that lorries could not enter the port project area. Some protesters were arrested. On 20 March, under the leadership of Vizhinjam International Port Protection Council, an additional protest was held on the port road to demand the safety of the public during port construction. 

In a huge irony, the British Safety Council announced that its International Safety Award for 2023 had been awarded to Adani Vizhinjam Port Private Limited (AVPPL) for its commitment to workplace safety. This occurred simultaneously with the news of Ananthu’s death. In a media release, Ashwini Gupta, CEO of Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone, said the award ‘reaffirms our position in building the safest port in the country’.

On 21 March 21, two days after Ananthu's death, Congress members boycotted a stakeholders’ meeting convened by the government. A ten-million-rupee payment was demanded by the Congress members. At the meeting, the government ordered a tightening of safety checks to help prevent tip-truck accidents in the future. It ordered the Adani Group to submit a list of vehicles used for port construction to the police.

A stakeholders' meeting about the Vizhinjam port is addressed by state official Geromic George regarding compensation for the family of Ananthu. Image courtesy Kerala Government.

The Motor Vehicle Department assigned a special squad to check whether trucks are carrying excess weight, with inspections at loading and unloading points. In addition, the Adani Group was instructed not to pay the contractor if tip trucks were to arrive at the site loaded with excess weight. As part of that meeting, guidelines were also issued regarding police and district-administration security arrangements. 

Geromic George, the collector (the highest-ranking public official in the administration), said the government would decide on compensation.

Agitation and pressure on the government appear to have had results. Ananthu's parents were assured that the compensation would be delivered immediately by Adani Group officials on 24 March 2024. In response, Ananthu's father said his son's life was priceless, a similar tragedy should not occur to any family again, and that the government should take steps to prevent it.

A licensed tip-truck  legally loaded travels past the family home of Ananthu, killed earlier bu a rock falling from another truck. (Licence number of truck pictured has been blacked out) The accident occurred only 500 metres from here.

Many victims

Ananthu always left the house by kissing his mother, Bindu, goodbye. Normally, he would return home immediately after college classes. Ananthu cared for his mother while she was ill, while his father was abroad, and while his sister was studying in another district. His relatives remember him as a good son who knew his mother was alone at home. Even on the day of her death, the son hugged his mother before setting off on his scooter. Sadly, he returned home dead. It has been too much for his mother. Mentally, she is shattered. Their relationship was very close. As soon as anyone mentions Ananthu, Bindu bursts into tears. Now she talks to herself and never leaves the house. As a result, Ajikumar does not want to leave his wife alone and go abroad to work.

The parents of Ananthu, Ajikumar and Bindu, with a portrait of their son after the accident.

According to Ajikumar, he has many debts (including a loan taken to pay for the education of his now-deceased son). If he is unable to return abroad, repayment of these loans will cease. In the meantime, Bindu's surgery and the studies of his daughter Aruna must be completed. Bindu’s daughter said that her mother’s condition prevents her from working.

Ajikumar says Adani Group officials came to his house and handed him a bank draft for ten million Indian rupees. In addition, the Kerala government has promised Aruna a job based on her qualifications as a Bachelor of Forensic Science student.

Aruna (right) comforts her parents after the death of her brother, Ananthu.

Traffic accidents associated with the Vizhinjam construction have affected other people.

On 19 December 2023, Sandhya Rani, a teacher, was struck by a truck while travelling on a scooter. She had been returning home with her five-year-old son Rio from the local primary health centre. The tip truck hit her scooter from behind. Fortunately, Rio did not suffer any physical injuries. However, Sandhya had her right leg amputated below the waist two months ago. The tip truck had been headed to Vizhinjam port. Currently, Sandhya, 37, is suffering from severe physical, mental and financial problems. She says that her child is now afraid of vehicles and cannot leave the house.

Sandhya Rani, 37, a schoolteacher and mother, had her right leg amputated and suffered other injuries after an accident involving another tip-truck engaged to carry materials for Adani's Vizhinjam port project.

Additionally, Sandhya’s internal organs were damaged. So far, 20 lakh Indian rupees (US $24,000) have been spent on treatment. In order to get a prosthetic leg, she will need at least ten lakh rupees more for a basic model. Expenses will continue year in, year out. It's unclear how her family will obtain this money. During the conflicts following Ananthu's death, the government listened to Sandhya Rani's plight. There had been only neglect until then. On 21 March, Sandhya Rani was assured by Education Minister V Sivankutty that he would help her get the leave from work that she needs. Adani Group officials expressed their willingness to assist. The two groups, however, have not yet helped, Sandhyarani says.

In light of that, the public is questioning the sincerity of the government and the Adani Group.

There have been other victims. In 2016, Bipin (17) and Balu (20), natives of Marayamuttam, Thiruvananthapuram, died when a speeding tip-truck hit their bike. A total of INR 35 lakh (US $42,000) has been paid to the two families by the Adani Group and contractors.

Small businesses are also at risk. Sunil runs a studio and photocopying business in Mukola Junction. When a rock fell from a passing truck in August 2023, his establishment's glass walls were broken and his photocopy machine and studio were damaged. Luckily, Sunil himself suffered no injuries. As of today, he has not received any compensation.

Sunil at his studio and photocopying business at Mukola Junction. His property and business were damaged by a rock falling from a passing truck. Luckily, no one was injured.

Chronic offenders

The truck that caused the death of Ananthu had received more than 20 notices to pay fines for violating traffic rules prior to the accident of 19 March. The truck has 10 wheels and is permitted to carry 16 tonnes. However, the motor vehicle department states that the vehicle was loaded with 32 tonnes. It is illegal to load rocks above the body of the tipper. A large amount of rock was loaded onto the vehicle's body, which caused the accident. Although a mandatory tarpaulin had been attached, this was not enough to prevent the rock from being dislodged.

The movement of tip trucks has now been banned during the school/college commuting hours of 8 am - 10 am and 3 pm - 5 pm. Despite this ban, tip trucks have been seen rushing headlong to Vizhinjam port.

Travel within the port project area is restricted to 10 kilometres per hour, and drivers strictly adhere to this rule. When outside the project areas, however, tip trucks have been observed travelling in excess of this speed.

The Indian state of Tamil Nadu provides most of the quarried rock carried by these trucks. The state of Kerala, in which Vizhinjam is located, also has many quarries. The material is delivered by many contractors and sub-contractors. Despite objections raised in 2018, the Tamil Nadu government accepted the request of then Kerala Ports Minister Ahmed Devarkovil to allow rock quarries in 2021. As a result of the quarries being granted in Tamil Nadu, various regional protests took place. Quarries in Kerala have been the scene of several protests. The Kerala government sanctioned 11 quarries in 2022.

Various restrictions have been imposed on tip trucks by the Tamil Nadu government. In 2023, Tamil Nadu's transport commissioner ordered ten-wheeled multi-axle vehicles to carry no more than 28 tonnes of stone. In response, Ahmed Devarkovil, who was then Kerala Ports Minister, wrote to Tamil Nadu's Ministers and obtained favorable concessions.

It has been alleged that many of the trucks from Tamil Nadu were unfit to be on public roads and carried more rock than allowed.