The sea has always incited great passions in people’s lives, beliefs and legends, myths, literature, and cinema. The coastal areas of Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, is the setting for a modern-day upheaval, with the fishing community, led by the Latin Catholic church, protesting against the Adani Group’s Rs.7,525 crore Vizhinjam International Transhipment Deepwater Multipurpose Seaport.
The fishing community in Thiruvananthapuram has about 10,000 families, and for some years now they have been battered by the vagaries of nature. For four years some 350 families from Valiyathura and surrounding areas north of Vizhinjam have been living in relief camps without basic facilities after their homes were destroyed by coastal erosion; 150 fishermen have died in the past five years in accidents at sea.
For the fisher families, the idea of a deepwater port, even if it is “the country’s first mega transshipment container terminal”, means little when they live with the constant fear of displacement and have to bring newborns into camps that do not even have proper toilet facilities.
The crux of the anti-port protests, which started on August 16, is that the construction work must be stopped until an expert committee, which must include a representative from the community, conducts a coastal impact study. The protesters claim that the port breakwaters have caused higher tides and that the work, which began in 2015, is aggravating coastal erosion and threatening livelihoods and biodiversity in their areas. The government has appointed a four-member committee, but work on the port has continued and so has the strike.
According to Dr Jayakumar, CEO of Vizhinjam International Seaport Ltd, the State government’s implementing agency for the project, the erosion is unrelated to the construction work, and the work cannot be stopped.
He said: “The beach has started coming back in Valiyathura and Vizhinjam. Studies were carried out before the port construction and the situation is being monitored. Work on the breakwaters started in April 2016, but the Shankumugham road has been washed away at various times in 2006, 2011, and 2013. It is a seasonal pattern along these coasts; from October to May there is beach accretion, and in the monsoon season, from June to September, high intensity waves carve out the beaches.”
When cyclone Ockhi hit in November 2017, Jayakumar said, the beach was carved out further but rebuilding did not happen to the same extent. The coast was battered by nine other cyclones after Ockhi, which affected the natural beach creation process. “But now, it is calm again, and the beaches have started forming again. And there is no way that the port construction work is affecting the Shankumugham and Valiyathura coasts, located about 15 km away,” he said.
A Singapore-Dubai dream
The idea for the port project, like most infrastructure ventures in Kerala, brewed for decades before it was commissioned in 2016. Elias John, who heads the Vizhinjam Motherport Action Council, an NGO, has championed the cause of the port for over three decades. As a journalist in the 1990s, he introduced the public to the idea of the port city becoming a Singapore or a Dubai.
And why not, asks John, explaining the economic gains of the port, which will be the largest in the country. Of the world’s top 10 ‘mother ports’ that handle 20-foot equivalent container units (TEUs), seven are in China. In phase 1, Vizhinjam port is projected to handle 1 million TEUs and in subsequent phases another 6.2 million TEUs will be added, which makes up 80 per cent of the country’s transshipment.
“India’s cargo shipment is 1.6 crore units, of which 25 per cent is transshipment cargo. That means 40 lakh TEUs are being shipped through Colombo, which does 50 per cent of the trade, and the rest through Singapore, Dubai, and Salalah,” said John. “Rs.2,400 crore is being lost in foreign exchange. So, why can’t we have a transshipment port?”
According to government studies, Vizhinjam’s natural undredged draft, which is not found anywhere else in India, and its close proximity of 10 nautical miles to international cargo routes make it an ideal location for a deepwater port. “Cochin port spends Rs.100 crore a year in dredging to maintain a 15m draft,” said John.
Trawling is not possible in Vizhinjam because of its rocky beaches, and traditionally the region has had mussel fishers. Compensation for them, for the region’s farmers, and the tourism businesses has been patchy at best, said Venganoor Gopakumar, Vizhinjam native and vice president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kisan Morcha in the State. But compensation for residential plots and houses were completed in 2010.
‘Protests without basis’
He criticised the Latin Catholic fisher community’s protests at Vizhinjam. “The community has no connection to Vizhinjam and has faced no losses here, and is protesting without basis. We consider this an anti-development protest by a union set up by their priests. The people here support the port development. The 80 km ring road encompassing Navaikulam, Nedumangad, Kattakada, and Vizhinjam is being envisioned as a growth corridor, which will provide direct and indirect employment for up to 1 lakh people,” he said. Curiously, the fisher community’s strike saw two opposing forces, the BJP and the ruling Left Democratic Front, joining hands in a long march against the protesters in early November.
In response, Fr Eugene H. Pereira, vicar general of the Latin Archdiocese, Thiruvananthapuram, said: “Whatever happens does not affect the ‘local people’ of Vizhinjam alone. Already, a 10 km area around the construction has been affected. Erosion and loss of biodiversity are things that affect the livelihoods of those who are dependent on the sea, and the effects on both can be seen even as the first phase work is going on.”
Shooja S, who runs an electric shop in Chappath, which is 4 km from the port site, and who is part of the regional Kottukal Samrakshana Samiti, gave 10 cents [1 cent is 0.004 hectare] for the project, which stands on 360 acres. “While we support the development and appreciate the economic growth that the port will bring, the benefits of the latter will be enjoyed by Adani and the government; so there should be a plan to create a budget for those who have suffered with the port’s arrival. But once they start reaping profits, they don’t think of the people. And it is not just the fishers who have not received compensation, but those in the hospitality industry and unorganised labour, such as coconut tree climbers. They should have been considered too.”
Shooja noted that studies had fallen short in other areas, too. For example, there were seven wells that the Kerala Water Authority depended on to provide water to six nearby panchayats. “They are set to be levelled in the course of the construction work, but no alternative has been suggested,” he said.
K.V. Thomas, former dean of Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies, heads the seven-member panel set up by the protest committee to study the impact of the port on coastal erosion. He said that the Thiruvananthupuram coast had been eroding for some time and was on the brink; any small change could accelerate the situation.
Speaking to Frontline, he said: “The construction of these mega structures disturbs the dynamic equilibrium of the sea-sediment movement towards north, south, offshore, and onshore. A small change to this dynamic equilibrium can affect the area that is on the brink. That is what is happening. There are holes and gaps in the environmental impact studies that have been done. They don’t address the changes brought on by climate change. The port studies say that the Vizhinjam-Kovalam headland stands as a barrier and the impact won’t be felt further north. A reassessment is needed, particularly during the monsoon.”
The protesters filed a writ petition in October listing out the hardships they have experienced through loss of habitat, livelihoods and biodiversity, and why the work must be stopped until further studies are done. Lawyers Prashant Bhushan, Ajit Joy and Harish Vasudevan are fighting their corner.
“There are several grounds and grievances,” said Fr Eugene. “We are also challenging the locus standi of the port, because according to the 2015 agreement with the government, work should have been completed in December 2019. The dangers at fishing harbours are more than we expected, with more than 50 people dying in various accidents. Fishermen say the depth of the mouths of the fishing harbours has reduced by 2.5m, so if the sea gets rough, there could be fatal accidents happening regularly as it does in Muthalapozhi, where 11 fishermen have died in the past five years.”
Elias John alleged that foreign funding was supporting the protest leaders and other community leaders in order to scuttle the port. Another study panel was unnecessary, he claimed. “The demand for another study is just a ploy to put a stop to the work. Five agencies, including four national agencies, the National Institute of Ocean Technology, the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, the National Centre for Earth Science Studies [NCESS], and L&T, have studied this since 2016 under the direction of the National Green Tribunal. They have not concluded that the erosion is due to the port work,” he said.
Supporters of the port maintain that science does not support the claims of erosion. Satheesh Gopi, retired deputy hydrographer who worked on the Vizhinjam project as senior manager (planning) in 2005, said: “The port stands in a strategic location. There is a 40m-high rock formation at Kovalam and Vizhinjam, which K.V. Thomas noted in a research paper he published in 2010. This is called a subsidiary sub-cell. Sediment transportation happens only within this space, according to a study by the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management in 2002. This is now being studied by NCESS too. Also, the net effect of dredging or construction will not be felt as the area is a bay with rock formations on either side.”
Beach as buffer
For K.V. Thomas the beach is a community asset. “It is an asset that is cultural, livelihood-related, and of the public. About 15 km of this beach, north of Vizhinjam, has been lost. This acts as a buffer, but it is depleting now and the damages to habitat will increase,” he said.
Gopi said that development work cannot be stopped citing adverse environmental effects. “Engineering offers solutions to counter it. Artificial beach nourishment is being used to replenish and protect coasts with dredged sea sand. This has been done in Visakhapatnam and Puducherry. I have told the protesters numerous times to demand that the government protect our beaches using this method,” he said.
While the battle among scientists, fishing communities, lobbyists, and government officials throw up arguments for community on the one side and country on the other, some activists are of the view that development should go hand in hand with environmental protection.
S. Unnikrishnan heads the environmental NGO Thanalvedhi, which won a court order to stop quarrying in Pandavan Para in Kollam. He said that large-scale and illegal sand mining and quarrying was taking place under the pretext of port construction. “We need more such orders. According to information received through the Right to Information process, the government has given Adani quarrying permits for 72,000 MT in Nagaroor and 42,000 MT in Manikkal. The government is unable to produce documents to show how much MT of rock has already been used from Kerala for the port or how much more will be needed. They have also not responded to my questions about the environmental damage this can cause.”
He added: “What is the point if the government that opposed it earlier now calls it a dream project? They don’t care whether a container comes to Vizhinjam or kadala (chickpeas) is sold on the beach, they are only after huge commissions.”
Anna Mathews is a Kochi-based journalist.
- Fishermen are protesting against Adani Group’s Rs.7,525 crore Vizhinjam port project.
- The Latin Catholic church is supporting the protest.
- Vizhinjam’s natural undredged draft makes it an ideal location for a deepwater port.
- Protesters say the project is causing loss of habitat, livelihoods, and biodiversity.
- Supporters of the port maintain that science does not support the claims of erosion.