Why a proposed private port in Karnataka’s Honnavara faces stiff resistance from fisherfolk

The port’s construction threatens the livelihood of the fishing community and the nesting sites of olive ridley turtles in a fragile ecosystem.

Published : Mar 21, 2024 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

Purse Seine fishing boats and trawlers docked at the Tonka Dock.

Purse Seine fishing boats and trawlers docked at the Tonka Dock. | Photo Credit: WENCY MENDES

On January 31, Rajesh Govind Tandel, a 42-year-old fisherman who lives in Tonka 1, a seaside village in Honnavara taluk of Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka, was getting ready to begin his day. Tandel, who heads two organisations, the Konkani Kharvi Samaj in Tonka and the Karavali Meenugaarara Karmikara Sangha (Coastal Fishermen Workers’ Union), was aware that there was some talk of a “survey” to be conducted by the district authorities as part of the process for the construction of a port in Honnavara. Considering the stiff opposition to the port by fishermen residing in villages on this sandspit known as Kasarkod, Tandel believed that it was merely an intimidation tactic to subdue the fishermen’s protest.

He was surprised when officials of Uttara Kannada district barged into Tonka 1 at noon. Around 500 fisherfolk protested this action, and the officials withdrew, only to return along with a posse of police. Tandel said: “We informed the officials that a subterfuge had taken place. In administrative maps, the area of the village was shown as empty but there are many families residing here. We requested them not to carry out the survey, but the officials said that this was required to demarcate the CRZ [Coastal Regulation Zone].” What shocked Tandel and other protesters was that this survey was being carried out only in their village, not across the coastline of Karnataka. The protesters’ request that an official order regarding the survey be provided was also ignored.

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After this, the police lathi-charged and arrested 18 fisherfolk, including seven women. Sunita Santosh Tandel, one of those arrested, said: “Initially, they kept us in a school after which they held us in judicial custody in Kumta. We managed to secure bail only after six days as we had to hunt for lawyers and spend money. We have become criminals because we don’t want a port to come up here as it will destroy our livelihood.” A copy of the FIR shared by Tandel revealed that he and the others who were arrested have been charged under 11 sections of the Indian Penal Code, including Section 353, pertaining to impeding a public servant from discharging their duty.

Nesting sites

The picturesque fishing village of Tonka 1 is the last settlement along the sandy beach that leads to an area of around 93 acres that has been acquired for the construction of a private port by the Honnavara Port Pvt. Ltd (HPPL) to export iron ore. A lone security guard manned the entrance to the port’s area. Further ahead, several small netted enclosures could be seen on Kasarkod beach. On closer inspection, these turned out to be the nesting sites of olive ridley Turtles.

Vestiges of the construction that began over 10 years ago at the site of the proposed port at Honnavara.

Vestiges of the construction that began over 10 years ago at the site of the proposed port at Honnavara. | Photo Credit: WENCY MENDES

Mahmood Koya, a fisherman who lives in Tonka 1, said: “The villagers keep track of the olive ridleys that visit this site annually. You can see the marks left by the flippers as the turtle makes its way to and from the sea.” Koya pointed out the path of the turtle that was clearly discernible on the beach. Whenever they see this trail, the fishermen alert officials of the forest department, who then visit the location and make a netted shelter over the site both to mark the turtle’s location and to protect the eggs from predators.

An Olive Ridley turtle nesting site on Kasarkod Beach.

An Olive Ridley turtle nesting site on Kasarkod Beach. | Photo Credit: WENCY MENDES

Walking along the beach within the proposed port’s area, this correspondent counted 31 nesting sites with a printed notice on each that stated the date on which the eggs were laid and the number of eggs in each site. With around 140 eggs in each nesting site, there were several thousand eggs laid so far in this strip of land that was around a kilometre long. Tandel said: “When the turtle eggs hatch, we conduct a puja as the baby hatchlings crawl to the sea. Generations of my family have fished in these waters. How can they build a port on this spot?”

Netted enclosures marking the sites where Olive Ridley turtles have laid their eggs on Kasarkod Beach.

Netted enclosures marking the sites where Olive Ridley turtles have laid their eggs on Kasarkod Beach. | Photo Credit: WENCY MENDES

The site of the proposed port was first identified in 2010. At the time, the Deputy Commissioner conducted a public hearing, but residents of villages in the area, including Tonka 1 and 2 and Hiremath, alleged that the opposition from the residents was not recorded. Chandrakant Kochrekar, Karnataka State Secretary of the National Association of Fishermen (NAF), said: “The fisherfolk were unaware of the consequences of the port coming up, so many did not attend but even the objections of those who attended were not recorded.”

Gautam R. Chaudhary, vice president of the NAF, said: “Local villagers have been opposing the port from 2010 when the Karnataka government and a private company entered into an agreement. Around 6,000 families residing in the area, and a total of around 23,500 individuals, will be affected by this development. In this year’s Budget, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah stated that several schemes have been launched for the fishing community. Is this what he meant?”

Highlights
  • The proposed construction of a private port on Kasarkod beach by the Honnavara Port Private Limited (HPPL) has met with sustained opposition from thousands of fisherfolk and environmental activists.
  • The area is home to about 6,000 families who depend on fishing and stand to lose their livelihoods if the port comes up. The coast, which is part of a fragile ecosystem that is prone to erosion, is also the nesting site of olive ridley turtles.
  • Despite setbacks, the fishermen remain hopeful of finding legal support to stop the construction of the port. 

Endangered livelihoods

Among the reasons why the fisher community is resisting the proposed port are the destruction of the critically endangered olive ridley sites where turtles lay their eggs annually and the construction of a four-lane road leading to the port, which will endanger the livelihood of fishermen who fish both in the sea and the river. Besides, the dried-fish industry that used to operate on the land stopped functioning after the port authorities took over the land.

Anchovies being dried near Tonka 1 village. Local people claim that the dried-fish industry in the area is on its last legs after the port authorities took over this land.

Anchovies being dried near Tonka 1 village. Local people claim that the dried-fish industry in the area is on its last legs after the port authorities took over this land. | Photo Credit: WENCY MENDES

Prakash Mesta, a marine biologist based in Honnavara, said: “The sanctions for the port were based on a major geospatial crime. The village of Mallukuruva was shifted to the north in the CRZ maps. Villagers lost lands because of this, and their revenue records are still available, which means that the port is coming up on private land and not on government land. There have been three attempts to build a port at Honnavara in the past century, but all of these were abandoned because the coast here is part of a fragile ecosystem that is prone to erosion. In scientific studies, this coastal stretch is designated as a highly erosive beach, so how can a port be built here?”

Rajani Rao, an activist who works with Karavali Karnataka Janabhivraddhi Vedike (Coastal Karnataka People’s Development Forum) and Growthwatch, said: “Whenever villagers have asked questions, they have, at best, been ignored, and, at worst, been labelled as troublemakers. When they protest peacefully, cases are filed against them, which is a tactic to break the back of the leadership.”

Fishermen get ready to set sail on a Purse Seine fishing boat from the Tonka Dock. 

Fishermen get ready to set sail on a Purse Seine fishing boat from the Tonka Dock.  | Photo Credit: WENCY MENDES

Lara Jesani, a Mumbai-based advocate who was part of a fact-finding team to the location, said: “The port project has been pushed forward without addressing the concerns of the coastal community whose lives and livelihood will be destroyed if the port comes up. Even peaceful democratic protesters have been met with brute force and slapped with multiple criminal cases for raising their voices to protect their coasts, environment and dignity. Protests being criminalised in this fashion is anti-constitutional.”

In 2021, a fishermen’s body filed a writ petition in the Karnataka High Court challenging the proposed port on the grounds that it posed a threat to local ecology and that it was coming up on a sensitive environmental site where olive ridleys nested. Relying on a report from the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management (NCSCM) that stated that there were no turtle nesting sites, the High Court disposed of the petition. However, the NCSCM’s fieldwork was done in August, whereas nesting sites are present only for the five-month period between December and April.

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The fisherfolk suffered a further setback when their application to the National Green Tribunal against the construction of the four-lane, four-kilometre-long road along Kasarkod beach to the port site on the grounds that it violated CRZ norms was rejected. Despite these reversals, the fisherfolk remain hopeful of finding legal support to stop the construction of the port. Mahmood Koya of Tonka 1 said: “We are planning to file a petition in the Supreme Court soon and will win the case. Anyone can see clearly that the port will destroy the turtle nesting sites and is also violating CRZ norms.” 

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