Actions by fishing communities against Adani’s Vizhinjam port project on the coast of Kerala have continued for years. In late 2022, following months of a successful blockade of Adani’s port works, tensions escalated, as did organised hostility to the fisherfolk. They have been labelled terrorists, rioters, Chinese spies, agitators funded by Sri Lanka, and traitors. In November, violence broke out. In the first of a two-part series, a special correspondent explains the conflict over Adani’s colossal port expansion at Vizhinjam.
During the 2018 floods, Kerala’s fisherfolk were praised for devoting their time and precious vessels to saving lives. Despite losing many boats, they refused to receive payment for those selfless rescue operations. Now they are being demonised by the very government that relied on them in 2018. Regardless of this, the fishing people of Thiruvananthapuram remain determined to protect the sea and the coast from the impacts of Adani’s port expansion.
Why this struggle?
Since construction began in 2015 on Adani's port expansion, coastal residents have faced major problems. On the northern side of the project, more and more houses are being destroyed by the sea each year. Several scientists say that Adani’s breakwater construction and sea dredging are causing this erosion of the coast. Several families are living as refugees in the fishing villages of Panathura and Veli.
The old fishing harbour at Vizhinjam, which was thought to be very safe, now suffers deadly boat capsizes that many say are the result of waves ricocheting off Adani’s huge new breakwater.
Despite the protests, the length of Adani’s breakwater recently exceeded 1.8 km. The planned length of this colossal structure is 3.1 km. Its construction has been troubled by collapses. Huge excavations have disrupted the marine ecology, and great shoals of fish have fled these disturbances.
The habitats of mussels, sea turtles and lobsters that inhabited coastal rock formations have been destroyed, severely impacting the livelihoods of fishermen in the area.
In Kottapuram village, which is adjacent to the project, 243 houses have been destroyed. Kerala’s famous Kovalam Beach has been swept away. Thousands of jobs have been lost in the tourism industry as a result. At another celebrated beach, Shankhummugam, sand has disappeared almost up to the beachside road. A historic jetty, the Valiyathura sea bridge, is in danger of collapsing. Seven rows of coastal houses have collapsed, 500 in total.
Only US $13,000 has been allocated for compensatory housing for those made homeless by the government. By comparison, the cattle shed at the residence of the Chief Minister was allocated US $49,000.
As the fishermen know, artificial coastal structures can contribute significantly to the impacts of hurricanes on land. To reduce the force of the waves, a sandy beach and foreshore are necessary. Now, in many areas, there is no sandbank.
‘Thiruvananthapuram has experienced soil erosion in the past as well,’ says marine scientist Dr KV Thomas. ‘The sea flows strongly southward during the rainy season, carrying away the sand. For the remaining nine months it flows north, redepositing the sand taken south. This cyclical process has now been interrupted.’
According to the country's Coastal Management Act, ports should not be built on highly erodible coasts. Deep-sea dredging at Vizhinjam has been a significant contributor to the loss of beaches in the district. In a report, an expert committee appointed by the central government concluded that Vizhinjam is a sensitive area that is heavily prone to erosion, and if ports were built there, the coasts in the surrounding areas would gradually erode.
As a result of these impacts on both the marine and coastal environments, the fishermen began their long protest.
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Allegations of corruption in signing the Vizhinjam contract
An agreement on the Vizhinjam port project was signed between then-chief minister Oommen Chandy and the Adani Group on 17 August 2015. Pinarayi Vijayan, the current Chief Minister, was then in opposition and accused the then government of corruption in this project.
On 23 May 2017, the Comptroller and Auditor General tabled a report in the state legislature. The report stated that parts of the port deal were detrimental to the state's interests and would cause financial losses to the state. According to the CAG report, while the standard tenure for such projects is 30 years, Adani's contract was for 40 years. This allowed the Adani Group company to earn additional revenue of US $3.5 billion. The total project cost is approximately US $900 million.
In its response to the CAG report, the first Pinarayi government appointed Justice CN Ramachandran to head a commission of inquiry. In its report, the commission found no evidence of corruption and cleared former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. The Commission, however, found that some provisions of the agreement were against the state's interests. Among these were allowing Adani to use state assets as collateral and changing the project plan after the contractor was selected.
In 2020, the state government sought legal advice from the Advocate General on how to proceed based on the commission's findings. A clause allowing the Adani Group to secure loans was then written into the agreement. After winning an election and becoming Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan changed his tune, becoming a keen supporter of the port expansion, saying, ‘this is Kerala's pride project.
Meanwhile, an investigation by the state’s anti-corruption and vigilance bureau was announced but has dragged on.
In accordance with the contract, the first phase of construction work was to be completed by 3 December 2019, but this milestone was not met. According to the current Minister of Ports, only 33% of sea dredging and embankment construction has been completed. (On 14 December 2022, the same minister claimed that 70% of the work had been completed. He claimed 80% of the work was done during the protest). 7.1 million cubic meters of dredging and ‘reclamation’ are to be carried out. Of this, only 2.3 million cubic meters have been completed.
The Adani Group and the Government of Kerala are currently engaged in legal proceedings over the project’s failure to meet the above milestone. The government issued a notice in March 2020 to collect the penalty amount, as previously reported by AdaniWatch.
The Adani Group claimed construction could not be completed due to unforeseen events such as natural calamities and the covid pandemic. It sought a five-year extension of the contract. In the meantime, the Adani Group is required to pay a fine of US $14,500 per day. The arbitration court is currently adjudicating this dispute.
The contract can be terminated if the port project is not completed within the specified timeframe. The government, however, fears reputational damage if it terminates this much-touted 'pride project'.
Meanwhile, the National Wildlife Board has granted permission for an Adani Group quarry near the Neyyar-Pepara Wildlife Sanctuary, despite protests. According to the report submitted by Kerala, the proposed quarry is not in an environmentally sensitive area and will not adversely affect the wildlife sanctuary or protected forests. The total length of the port’s breakwater in the first phase is 3.1 km – that makes for a lot of quarrying.
Farmers and fishermen started the protest
Adani’s Vizhinjam port was blockaded on 5 June (World Environment Day) 2022. The protest was coordinated by the Kerala Independent Fishermen Federation, Rashtriya Kisan Maha Sangh, Seva Union, Coastal Watch, TMF Union, Coastal Students Cultural Forum, Tree Walk, AICUF, Stree Niket Vanita Federation, the Western Ghats Conservation Samiti, SUCI, Ekta Parishad and VOICE.
This 2022 protest started on 5 June (World Environment Day) 2022. During the protest, the venue moved to Adani’s Vizhinjam port gate on August 16. The port gate is located 16 kilometres from the city center.
An indefinite hunger strike also began in front of Thiruvananthapuram airport, owned and operated by Adani. The protesters had three demands: stopping the destructive Adani port immediately, compensating those who had lost their homes, and restoring the fishermen's workplaces and beaches.
While the blockade occurred, the Latin Church organised another protest on 20 July 2022, issuing seven demands.
Karan Adani, CEO of Adani Vizhinjam Port and son of Gautam Adani, arrived in Kerala on 23 July. He met the Chief Minister and the port minister, intending to reach a settlement in the arbitration case between the government and the Adani Group. Protesters outside shouted slogans of 'Adani Go Back'.
Karan Adani and ports minister Ahmed Devarkovil held a discussion and reached an agreement to complete the Vizhinjam Port as soon as possible. They both completely ignored the protesters. The minister proclaimed that the port will be commissioned in December 2023.
Various accusations have been levelled at the protest. They are answered below.
1. Is this just a fight started by Christians?
Those opposing the protest say that it is the work of the Christian church. Nine coastal districts in Kerala have a total coastline of 595 km, out of which Thiruvananthapuram district has 78 km. Thiruvananthapuram is the largest coastal district, accounting for 13% of the total. According to Kerala State Coastal Area Development Corporation Limited, there are 182,875 fishermen in 42 fishing villages in Thiruvananthapuram. 95% of them are Latin Catholics. Naturally, the protesting fishermen reflect this ratio. 99% of the Latino priests now at the forefront of the struggle are sons of fishers. Most of the Latin priests in Thiruvananthapuram are those who went to the sea as children and ran along the seashore. Compared with other Catholic church leadership in Kerala, the Latin Catholics are implementing a more decentralised policy. The fishermen in the Latin Church are among the poorest in society and are often looked down upon by other parts of the community.
2. Isn’t the protest just the work of outsiders?
The protesters overwhelmingly come from the 42 fishing villages in the Thiruvananthapuram district.
3. Isn’t the coastal erosion caused by global warming and associated sea-level rise?
This alternative explanation does not explain why the coastal erosion occurs predominantly to the north of the port project. To the south, sand is deposited. This asymmetry is explained by the existence of a massive disturbance, not by sea-level rise, which is the same all along the coast.
Scientific reports have been published by various ministries and marine ecologists that explain the situation. Recommended reading includes ‘Planning Of Coastal Protection Measures Along Kerala Coast’ prepared by the Department of Ocean Engineering Indian Institute of Technology Madras Chennai in 2007; ‘Status Report on Coastal Protection & Development in India’ prepared by the Central Water Commission in 2016 and the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management (NCSCM); ‘Society of Shoreline change assessment for Kerala coast’ published by integrated Coastal Management (SICOM) and the Ministry of Environment and Forest.
4. Why were houses built so close to the sea?
Kerala is densely populated, including in the coastal areas. The number of people living within ten to fifty metres of the high tide line is high.
5. Why do the fisherfolk refuse to move to government-provided flats?
Flats have been provided in many places. However, the demand is twice the supply. In addition, many fisherfolk do not wish to move to houses distant from their place of work – the sea. Representatives of fishing communities say that people should receive fair compensation for the loss of their houses and lands.