Indian tycoon Adani’s mega port hangs in the balance as a fishing community protests

VIZHINJAM, India, Nov 23 (Reuters) – On the main road to billionaire Gautam Adani’s planned Vizhinjam megaport on the southern tip of India, a shelter built by the coastal region’s Christian fishing community is blocking the entrance, preventing further construction.

The simple 1,200-square-foot structure with a corrugated iron roof has been thwarting ambitions since August for the country’s first container transshipment port — a $900 million project that seeks to tap into the lucrative shipping that flows between juggernaut manufacturers in the East and wealthy consumer markets in the West.

Adorned with banners proclaiming “indefinite day and night protest,” the shelter provides cover for about 100 plastic chairs, though the number of protesters participating in the sit-ins on any given day is usually much lower.

Across the street, supporters of the port, including members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party and Hindu groups, have set up their own shelters.

Even when the number of demonstrators is low, as many as 300 police officers with batons gather nearby every day to keep a close eye on the situation. Despite repeated orders from the Kerala State Supreme Court that construction should go ahead unhindered, the police are unwilling to take any action against the protesters, fearing it will inflame social and religious tensions in the port.

For Adani, the third-richest person in the world according to Forbes, it’s a high-stakes deadlock with no clear easy fix.

Reuters interviewed more than a dozen protesters, as well as port supporters, police officials and reviewed hundreds of pages of charges in legal proceedings brought by the Adani conglomerate against the Catholic priests leading the protests and the state government. Everything points to a persistent gap.

Protest leaders claim construction of the port since December 2015 has resulted in significant coastal erosion and further construction promises to wreak havoc on the livelihoods of a fishing community they say number some 56,000.

They want the government to halt construction and conduct independent research into the impact of the development of the port on the marine ecosystem.

The Adani conglomerate plans to send heavy vehicles to the port on Friday after the court this week said vehicle movements should not be blocked. In October, vehicles attempting to leave the port had to turn back.

Eugine H. Pereira, the archdiocese’s vicar general who is leading the protesters, said they would not remove the shelter despite the court order.

“We are ready to be arrested in large numbers if necessary,” he told Reuters.

Adani Group said in a statement that the project is in full compliance with all laws and that many studies conducted in recent years by the Indian Institute of Technology and other institutions have rejected allegations regarding the project’s responsibility for coastline erosion.

“In light of these findings from independent experts and institutions, we believe that the ongoing protests are motivated and against the interests of the state and the development of the port,” it said.

The Kerala state government, which has been in talks with protesters and says erosion has occurred due to cyclones and other natural disasters, did not respond to a request for comment.

A $900 million project to build India’s first container transhipment port has stalled amid protests from the region’s fishing community, who believe it will destroy their livelihoods.

THE VEDANTA EXAMPLE

Adani, whose empire includes gas and energy projects as well as a port and logistics company worth about $23.5 billion, has described Vizhinjam as an “unparalleled location” on one of the world’s major shipping lanes. As a transshipment port, it would be well positioned to draw business from Sri Lanka – where arch-rival China has invested heavily in port infrastructure – as well as Singapore and Dubai.

Transshipment transfers containers from mainline vessels on major trade routes to smaller feeder vessels on other trade routes, creating a hub-and-spoke network that is more economical and flexible than relying on point-to-point transportation.

The Adani conglomerate is eager to move ahead with plans to complete the first phase of construction by December 2024 and has sued the Kerala government for police negligence.

But Prakash R, a senior police officer in charge of security outside the port, said his goal is to prevent a situation like the 2018 environmental protests against a Vedanta. (VDAN.NS) copper smelter in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, which killed 13 and shut down the smelter.

“We are hesitant to use force to prevent untoward incidents. What if someone threatens or kills themselves? All hell will break loose.”

“We cannot rule out the possibility that this will turn into common tensions. We are strategically positioned between the two sides to avoid such incidents,” he added.

Every day the demonstrators and port supporters blast music from loudspeakers and chant slogans. Prakash R describes the situation as a deadlock between “people of the sea”, who are predominantly Christian and make their living from fishing, and “people of the land”, who are predominantly Hindu.

The fishing community built the shelter after years of failed attempts to get the Kerala government to intervene while watching the coast steadily eroded. An easing of the pandemic also made it easier than previous years to protest.

Protesters say construction has reduced their catches and once the port is complete they will be forced to fish much further out to sea.

A group of 128 residents of the fishing community near the port have also sued the Vizhinjam unit of Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd. (APSE.NS) as well as the government of Kerala, who claim that dredging and other construction work has caused erosion that destroys their homes.

In response to protesters’ demands, the state last month established a panel to study coastal erosion at the site.

Adani Group said in its statement that India’s National Green Tribunal, which has been monitoring the impact of the project, has not found any environmental or social violations.

In turn, pro-construction supporters in their shelters accuse the protesters of hindering progress.

“This is a matter of providing employment to the many places here,” said Mukkola G Prabhakaran, a Kerala state council member in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party.

ADANI’S LEGAL ACTIONS

The Indian protests are a reminder of the backlash Adani faced in Australia over his Carmichael coal mine. There, activists concerned about carbon emissions and damage to the Great Barrier Reef forced Adani to lower production targets and delayed the mine’s first coal shipment by six years.

In Kerala, the Adani conglomerate, which accounts for a third of the cost of the project and the rest is borne by the state and federal governments, has repeatedly sought help from the state court.

In documents, it claims the protests have caused “massive loss” and “significant delay” to the project, adding that protesters have warned port officials of “serious consequences” and pose a “constant and ongoing militant” threat.

A “land and sea protest” on Oct. 27 saw protesters set fire to a fishing boat and more than 1,500 people broke into the port area with some carrying iron bars to the main gate, according to the documents.

Asked about the allegation, Pereira said: “We do not endorse or promote any form of violence. Our protests have been peaceful throughout.”

The Adani Conglomerate accuses the Kerala State Police of being “stupid bystanders” and has also called for the federal police to be called in. The next court hearing on Adani’s complaints is scheduled for Monday.

For now, the tense standoff continues, with protesters saying they could assemble quickly if police dismantle the shelter. The site has four CCTV cameras that provide a live feed so protest leaders can monitor the situation from their phones.

“We are willing to go to any lengths to protect our livelihoods. It’s a matter of do or die,” said Joseph Johnson, a protesting fisherman.

Reporting by Munsif Vengattil in Vizhinjam, Arpan Chaturvedi and Aditya Kalra in New Delhi; Additional reporting by Melanie Burton in Melbourne; Edited by Edwina Gibbs

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Principles of Trust.

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