India Adani Ports
Photo Essay: COVID masks used in fightback against Adani
Sep 08, 2020

Just north of the huge eastern Indian city of Chennai is a complex of wetlands where Adani plans to create a huge new port. The ecological impact of this industrialisation threatens the way of life of thousands of local people who rely on these lagoons and adjacent lands for their livelihoods. Recently they began a unique campaign as part of their fightback against Adani.

Goat herders, women prawn pickers, fishermen, vendors and children from these communities have taken to wearing COVID masks that proclaim their opposition to the port proposal that will harm the environment, disrupt livelihoods and erode local cultures. The Tamil masks read ‘Adani Thuraimugam Vendam’ which translates to ‘We don’t want Adani Port’ while the English is direct: ‘Stop Adani. Save Pulicat’.

The Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone (APSEZ) company plans to create new port land next to its existing Kattupalli port by dumping earth on 800 ha of the near-shore waters, obliterating several important fishing grounds. More than 1600 ha, including grazing commons, agricultural lands, salt pans and tidal waters straddling the Pulicat and Ennore wetlands are slotted to be converted into industrial real-estate. People fear that the erosion triggered by the proposed massive breakwaters proposed will breach the thin strip of sand separating the Bay of Bengal from Pulicat lagoon. The lagoon is India’s second largest brackish waterbody, and home to a significant wildlife sanctuary for waterbirds.

The livelihoods of more than 50,000 people, including fisherfolk, cattle-herders, traders, farmers and saltpan workers in the region are at risk if the port materialises. Disrupting the wetlands will expose more than a million people in Chennai and Thiruvallur to increased risk of water scarcity, floods and cyclones.

Photographs: K. Saravanan, S. Palayam.

Commentary: Nityanand Jayaraman and Pooja Kumar, Chennai Solidarity Group

2. The stretches of the sea that Adani intends to convert into port lands are referred to as the Reserve Bank of India by local fishermen. It is a veritable cornucopia that supplies nets full of fish, shrimp and sea crab.


3. School-going children also learn the fishing trade by watching their elders and apprenticing with them. Fishing is an insurance. Even during the COVID lockdown, villages sent out communal boats to bring back fish for domestic consumption. As fishers are wont to reassuring themselves about uncertain economic times, ‘if all else fails, there is always the sea.’

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4. The edge of the Pulicat Lake is only a stone’s throw from this woman’s home. If port-induced erosion breaches the land separating the Bay of Bengal from the lake, the sea will merge with the lake and her home will be swallowed by the sea.

5. This fisherman’s forefathers were evicted from Sriharikota island inside the Pulicat lagoon when the island was acquired by the Government’s space program to build a rocket launching station. If the Adani port is built, he and others from his village of Arangankuppam will be footloose and vulnerable once again. Fishers are at the forefront of the resistance against the privatisation of coastal and marine commons.


6. The placid waters and mangrove thickets of the Ennore-Pulicat wetlands offer rich pickings of prawn for nearly 2000 people, including this fisherman from Sengenimedu village who sets stake nets to trap fish and prawn. The shallow waters that people like him depend on are being shown as ‘land’ by port developers to facilitate their easy conversion into a Multi-Product Special Economic Zone/Industrial Park.


7. The seemingly empty lands support myriad livelihoods with zero investment. This old woman is combing through dried coconut leaves gathered from the village commons. The midribs from the leaves are bundled together to make broomsticks. Many women make a living by crafting utilitarian items using the fronds from coconut and palmyra trees that flourish all along the coast.


8. Separated from the Bay of Bengal by an island and backwaters, the coastal lands to the west are freshwater zones where even paddy cultivation is practised. But farmers fear that degrading land-use change because of industrialisation, and climate-induced sea-level rise will aggravate seawater intrusion and harm farm economies.


9. Women fishers are the backbone of the region’s economy. They will be particularly affected if the fishing livelihoods collapse. Many women single-handedly raise children and support households by salting, drying and selling fish.


10. The lagoon and backwaters have something for everyone. An elderly fisher from Sengenimedu crouches in the water and uses his bare hands to pick prawns. A day’s work will fetch him anywhere from Rs. 250 to Rs. 1000 (AUD $5-10). It is estimated that handpicking is the mainstay for about 2000 people, mostly women from historically marginalised communities like dalits and the Irular tribe.


11. Where water ends and land begins lie acres of croplands and grazing commons. Goats are low-maintenance livestock that can be sold in a pinch for ready cash. The western edges of the Ennore-Pulicat wetlands boast a vibrant women-centred cattle economy.