Posted on November 30, 2022
A $900-million port has become a bone of contention between a local fishing community in India and one of the world’s richest men.
Hundreds of locals in India’s Kerala state are defying court orders to block the construction of a lucrative Vizhinjam port project, which is being built by India’s richest person Gautam Adani.
The local fishing community have laid siege to one of Adani’s most ambitious projects since July, citing coastal erosion and destruction of their livelihoods. With a net worth of $150 billion, Adani owns some of India’s biggest ports and logistics businesses.
The port is envisioned to transform India into a global transhipment hub that would compete with international ports in Sri Lanka, Singapore and Dubai. But the port is also seen as playing a strategic role given China’s influential development projects in other South Asian countries.
Things escalated over the weekend when people stormed a police station, injuring 36 officers and 46 protesters, as well as damaging police vehicles. Sunday’s violence followed the arrests of dozens of protesters on Saturday too. Police documents accessed by Reuters stated that the protesters were armed with “lethal weapons” when they barged into the station and held police hostage while demanding the release of those arrested.
Eugene H Pereira, one of the organisers of the protest, told VICE World News that the protest was always intended to be peaceful. He alleged that the Sunday violence followed a series of events where protesters were mistreated and manhandled by the police. Many protesters, Pereira added, were arbitrarily arrested or charged.
“Hundreds of women and youth members of our protest were badly beaten up on Sunday. The police also used water cannons and tear gas on them,” said Pereira.
Pereira claims that a few protesters did go to the police station to get their peers released but “things got out of control” after that when hundreds turned up. He alleged that the violence was orchestrated by “external groups” and that peaceful protesters got caught up in police’s crowd control measures.
The current movement in Kerala mirrors the pushback against Adani’s Carmichael coal mine project in Australia, which was accused of being environmentally detrimental to the Great Barrier Reef.
In Kerala, the protest is led by the fishing folks who are mostly Christians, and are being supported by their church. The movement doesn’t want authorities to abandon the port, but rather take steps to protect the communities around it. Among the demands listed by Pereira, who is also the vicar general of the district archdiocese, are rehabilitation and compensation for fishing families who lost their jobs to the disruption of fishing activities, which they link to the construction of the port.
Public government documents shared on the port’s website states that construction started after the government gave environmental clearances. In multiple media statements, Adani has maintained that the port complies with all laws and is not responsible for shoreline erosion.
The state government, too, refused claims of coastal erosion and rejected demands of the fishermen to suspend the work on the port. In October, though, they appointed a four-member expert committee to investigate coastal erosion and its links with the port.
Last week, the Kerala High Court ordered the protesters to allow the “unhindered” entry and exit to the port site. An Adani official told the BBC that the company has suffered damages of around $9.8 million due to the blockade.
India’s opposition party, The Indian National Congress, whose government was in power when the port project was approved in 2015, has alleged that the current state government “ignored” a rehabilitation package for displacing people that was originally a part of the plan.
Pereira said the local communities who have been suffering the ecological damage the most aren’t being consulted at all—and that needs to change.
“Kerala is an environmentally sensitive state and the port has wreaked havoc on families here,” he said. “The last four years have been especially difficult for us. We don’t want to stop the port but all we demand are mitigation measures. So far, nothing’s been done.”