Over the past few years, the south-western Indian state of Kerala has witnesed a flurry of disasters exacerbated by climate change. Two floods, numerous landslides, hurricanes, rampant beach erosion and rising sea levels plus the severest droughts and forest fires in over 100 years – all these have devastated the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Kerala people. To these impacts can be added those caused by large-scale coastal developments. Here, a special correspondent for AdaniWatch describes how the Adani Group’s port re-development at Vizhinjam has been blamed for mayhem along the nearby coast.
‘He was the only bread-winner in the family and the sea claimed him,’ lamented Jeromi. The 71-year-old is blind. Her son Xavier (45) died after the boat he was in capsized in Vizhinjam Harbour on 25 May 2021. In the same incident, Joseph (54) and Davidson ‘Stellas’ (56) from Poonthura fisher village also died. Sorrow and hunger reside in their homes.
It was 7.30 in the evening on 25 May 2021. After fruitlessly toiling in the sea for hours, Joy Alukkoos and his crew from Poonthura decided to return to Vizhinjam Harbour, oblivious to the impending catastrophe. Though Cyclone Yaas had been wreaking havoc in eastern India, the government didn’t issue any warnings to the fisherfolk in the south-western state of Kerala.
It was assumed that the hurricane emanating from the Bay of Bengal on India’s eastern side would not impact the Arabian Sea to the west. Two weeks prior, the tropical disturbance that formed on 13 May turned into the extremely severe cyclonic storm Taukate and hit the Gujarat coast with devastating consequences. This cyclone also caused severe damage on the Kerala coast. Jose and his men ventured into the sea on 25 May because there were no warnings issued and because they hadn’t been able to find other work in prior weeks.
The men, who knew those waters well, were alerted to approaching trouble when they found no fish in a sea altered by the conditions. By the time they reached Vizhinjam Harbour Joy knew that something was seriously wrong. Fisherfolk in the area always regarded the harbour as a safe haven. Whenever the sea got rough, they knew that their lives would be safe if they could get into the harbour. This wasn’t such a day.
Joy and his companions were not immediately able to enter the harbour. Large waves swept from north to south, striking the large breakwaters of the Vizhinjam port and then rebounding. The mouth of the harbour had become a death trap. To make matters worse, the boat’s hull was hitting sand bars that had been deposited the opening to the harbour. In a brief lull, Joy steered the boat into the harbour.
Before they made it to their homes, the sad news came. Boats that tried to enter the harbour behind them had been destroyed. Men were missing. The Coast Guard and other fishermen were able to save 14 lives. But Davidson (Stellas) from Poonthura, who tried to swim towards the south to safety, didn’t make it. His body was found at Adimalathura beach on the south side of Vizhinjam Port the next day. Poonthura natives Joseph and Xavier also lost their lives. Their bodies were recovered on 27 May from Poovar, nine kilometres south of Vizhinjam Port.
According to the figures released by the district collector based on the reports from the Marine Fisheries department, there were 18 boats at sea that time. Six of these were totally destroyed and the engines were also lost.
State ministers and the opposition leader visited the homes of the bereaved and the accident spot. The government declared an ex gratia sum of Rs 10 lakh (about US $13,500) to each to the families of the deceased and distributed Rs 20,000 each (about US $270) as emergency funds. Fisheries Minister Saji Cherian gave an assurance that sand deposits would be removed from the mouth of the harbour. The Adani Group began removal of the sand on 3 June. The company claimed that the sand bank did not cause the incident.
Mishaps at the harbour mouth had been occurring for several months (see the AdaniWatch story of December 2020 – ‘Scientists to Assess Death Trap Harbour’). Despite this, in April 2021 the union government extended Adani’s environmental approval for the Vizhinjam port development until 2 January 2024.
The state Minister of Transportation Antony Raju, who won the elections from a coastal constituency, has asked the Fisheries department to deposit the sand removed from the harbour mouth at beaches impacted by coastal erosion. He described the villages on the northern side of the port as a ‘project-impacted region’.
‘Vizhinjam Port construction is causing beach erosion on the northern side of the project site. Sand deposition must be done at the project-impacted region. The Vizhinjam Port company is not willing to deposit sand at impacted areas. Issue emergency directives to ensure this happens,’ Minister Antony Raju said in his letter to the Fisheries Minister.
He also highlighted the fact that sand deposits at Vizhinjam Harbour began after the port-project works commenced.
The Adani Group denied any wrongdoing and the breakwaters built for its port were also damaged by strong waves. The Mathrubhumi newspaper had published this story on March 04 and May 17. The tempestuous sea washed away the cladding stones. Since the commencement of the project in 2016, only 900 meters of the breakwater had been completed. Half of it was destroyed by Cyclone Ockhi and associated floods in November 2017. In response to the latest incident, the government said it was studying the extent of damage to the accident-prone breakwaters.
In May 2021, the new state Minister of Ports, Ahamed Devarkovil, visited the project site and assured the Adani Group that the government would provide all kinds of assistance to enable successful completion of the port. A Group spokesperson commented that the minister’s assurance had provided confidence. Nevertheless, the company suspended works on 19 June citing rough seas as the reason. It says works can resume only in the October-November period. In the interim, the company said it will store rocks at Muthalappozhi, Kollam Harbour and Tamil Nadu.
The Ports Minister had earlier provided a public assurance that the rock required to complete the 3.1-km breakwater would be delivered via barge. The accidents happened soon after the minister’s visit. It was estimated that 700,000 tonnes of rock are required for the project.
Meanwhile, an unofficial meeting between Ports Minister Ahamed Devarkovil and the Adani Group in June 2021 has become notorious. The meeting occurred without the knowledge of the Chief Minister. There were several media reports that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan reprimanded the minister for his actions.
The fishing community had earlier claimed that after dredging works began for the port, sand had been eroded from the beaches and deposited at the mouth of the harbour. The harbour mouth had historically been 93 metres wide and 10 metres deep. Fishermen now claim that the depth has decreased to a mere 3-4 metres. The Adani Group and the Vizhinjam International Seaport Ltd authorities said their studies show that the depth is eight metres and added that they will increase it to 10 metres.
The state government had earlier conceded that sand has deposited across a considerable distance just outside the harbour opening. In 2020, the government claimed that no major incidents had occurred as a result of this. But the government has also accepted that the tidal flow has been altered and that wave collisions have become common at the harbour.
On 18 November 2020, scientists from Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS) visited the project area under the directions of the state government. The team was supposed to determine whether the tidal flow had changed and whether a sand bank had formed according to the claims made by the fisherfolk. This was reported by AdaniWatch in December 2020. The expert team’s report was to be filed within six months but has been delayed due to the impacts of the pandemic.
Last year, Adani had put forth a plea to the state government invoking force majeure to argue in favour of relaxing clauses in the contract that pertain to the continual delays in completion of the Vizhinjam project. Since there was no consensus, the dispute has been under arbitration since April.
The harbour has been used as a safe haven during the monsoon by local fisherfolk since 1970. Up to 2016-17 there had been no incidents, according to A J Vijayan, an expert on ocean ecology and governance.
‘Fisherfolk claim that accidents started happening after the beginning of construction works on the berth and breakwater. I had warned about such disastrous consequences earlier. And it’s not my finding. The Expert Appraisal Committee, formed by the former Central Environment Ministry before approving the environmental impact study of the project, had highlighted this point in its 2011 meeting,’ said Vijayan.
‘They had recorded in the minutes of the meeting that the commercial port will lead to rough waves at the Vizhinjam harbour opening, which in turn will lead to accidents and loss of livelihoods for thousands of fisherfolk. The meeting also recommended shifting the project location based on these findings,’ he added.
‘If the Vizhinjam commercial port construction is allowed to continue, the fishing harbour will go defunct. Areas to the north of the project location will face rampant sea incursions, coastal erosion and the resulting destruction of hundreds of homes,’ Vijayan warned.
Former national under-12 football player Preetha Jerald comes from Vettukad, Thiruvananthapuram. Born in a fisherfolk family, Preetha faced severe odds to become the pride of Kerala. Yet her dream of a family home remained unfulfilled until 2011. She was able to build a house using a government grant of Rs. 200,000/- [approximately US $2700] and her family’s savings. But now this dwelling – the family home – is on the verge of destruction.
In May 2021, the house’s kitchen area collapsed into the sea. Photos of Preetha and her family propping up the damaged wall was published by major newspapers. Netizen journalist Ajith Shanghumukham, who brings the issues of the coastal people to the wider public through Facebook live, was the first to break the story of Preetha’s plight.
Preetha’s father and husband are fishermen. Preetha has stayed at a rented house since 2016 in order to be close to her place of work. However, her parents have been living in the seaside home she constructed. Her sister Vineetha and her husband Saju live nearby. Saju is also a fisherman. And he is unable to work due COVID lockdowns and adverse weather. It was amid this severe financial crisis that the house started to collapse.
This is not just the situation of Preetha and Vineetha. Many houses along the Thiruvananthapuram Coast had been destroyed before the monsoon. Seventy homes were destroyed at Vettukad. Two homes were partially destroyed at Shanghumukham.
Meanwhile, there are news reports that 600 people from Panathura village, near the internationally acclaimed Kovalam beach which lies adjacent to Vizhinjam port, have fled the area, fearing incursion by the waves.
Many locals complain that the same government officials who side with environmentally destructive projects in the name of ‘progress’ also adorn the garb of ‘protectors of fisherfolk’. They say the Adani Group is the primary ‘culprit’ behind coastal disruption at Vizhinjam.
In the next story…
Adani, the ‘saviour’ of Muthalappozhi estuary harbour is the biggest exploiter, say the people. This is the location earmarked to store the breakwater rocks sourced from the hinterland. But fisherfolk spokespeople say that breakwater construction has led to the deaths of many fishermen. The company promised the government that it will redress the issues in the area in return for permission to turn the beach into a storage area for rocks. But many are concerned that this is just the thin edge of the wedge.