Port of Indian mega-entrepreneur Adani at stake as fishing community protests By Reuters

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Women from a fishing community attend a protest against the construction of the port of Vizhingam in India’s southern state of Kerala November 9, 2022. REUTERS/Monsif Vengatil

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Written by Munsif Vengatil, Urban Chaturvedi, and Aditya Kalra

VIZINJAM, India (Reuters) – On the main road to billionaire Gautam Adani’s mega-port of Vizhinjam on India’s southern tip, a sanctuary built by the coastal region’s Christian fishing community blocked the entrance, preventing further construction.

The simple 1,200-square-foot structure with a corrugated-iron roof has stood since August in the way of ambitions for the nation’s first container shipping port–a $900 million project that seeks to usher in the lucrative shipping business that flows between the East’s giant manufacturers and wealthy consumer markets. In the west.

The shelter festooned with signs saying “Protest day and night indefinitely” provides cover for about 100 plastic chairs, although the number of protesters involved 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 protester numbers are low, up to 300 police officers with batons will gather nearby each day to carefully monitor the situation. Despite repeated orders from the Kerala High Court that construction should proceed unimpeded, the police are unwilling to take action against the protesters, fearing it could inflame the social and religious tensions raging in the port.

For Adani, the third richest person in the world according to Forbes, it presents a very serious predicament with no apparent easy fix.

Reuters interviewed more than a dozen protesters, port supporters and police officials, and reviewed hundreds of pages of lawsuit files filed by the El Adani group against the Catholic priests leading the protests and against the state government. All of this points to an intractable division.

The protest leaders claim that the construction of the port since December 2015 has led to significant coastal erosion and further promises to wreak havoc on the livelihoods of the fishing community, which they say number about 56,000.

They want the government to order a halt to construction and conduct independent studies on the impact of port development on the marine ecosystem.

Adani Group plans to send heavy vehicles to the port on Friday after the court said this week that movement of vehicles should not be prevented. In October, vehicles trying to get out of the port had to turn back.

Eugene H. Pereira, the attorney general for the protesters’ diocese, said they would not remove the shelter despite the court order.

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

The Adani Group said in a statement that the project fully complies with all laws and that several studies conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology and other institutions in recent years have rejected claims regarding the project’s responsibility for coastal erosion.

“In light of these findings of independent experts and institutions, we feel that the ongoing protests are motivated and against the interests of the state and the development of the port,” she added.

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

Graphic: Adani Recharge Center in South India (https://graphics.reuters.com/ADANI-INDIA/PORT-PROTESTS/mypmonboypr/graphic.jpg)

Vedanta example

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

With transshipment, containers are moved from anchor vessels on major trade routes to smaller feeder vessels on other trade lanes – creating a hub network that is more economical and flexible than relying on point-to-point freight.

Eager to go ahead with plans to complete the first phase of construction by December 2024, the Adani Group has filed a lawsuit against the Kerala government over the inaction of the police.

But Prakash R, a senior police officer in charge of security outside the port, said his aim is to avoid a situation like the 2018 environmental protests against the Vedanta (NYSE:) smelter in neighboring Tamil Nadu, which left 13 people dead and the smelter damaged. ending.

“We refrain from using force to avoid any unwanted incidents. What if someone threatens or commits suicide? All hell breaks loose.”

“We cannot rule out the possibility of this escalating into sectarian tensions. We are in a strategic position between the two sides to prevent any such incident,” he added.

Every day, protesters and port supporters blast music from loudspeakers and chant slogans. Prakash R describes the situation as a confrontation between the “people of the sea”, who are mostly Christians and make a living from fishing, and the “people of the land”, who are predominantly Hindus.

The fishing community set up the refuge after years of unsuccessful efforts to get the Kerala government to intervene while watching the coastline steadily erode. The de-escalation of the pandemic has also made it easier to protest than in previous years.

Protesters say the construction has reduced their catch and if the port is completed, they will be forced to fish further out to sea.

A group of 128 residents of a fishing community near the port have filed a lawsuit against the Vizhinjam unit of Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited as well as the Kerala state government, alleging that dredging and other construction work has caused erosion that has destroyed their homes.

Following protesters’ demands, the state last month set up a committee to study coastal erosion at the site.

In its statement, the Adani Group said India’s National Green Court, which is monitoring the impact of the project, found no environmental or social violations.

For their part, supporters of building their own shelters accuse the protesters of obstructing progress.

“This is a matter of job creation for many localities here,” said Mukola G Prabhakaran, a Kerala state assembly member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Uday’s legal procedures

The Indian protests recall the backlash Adani faced in Australia over the Carmichael coal mine. There, activists concerned about carbon emissions and damage to the Great Barrier Reef forced the Adani to scale back production targets and delay the mine’s first shipment of coal by six years.

In Kerala, the Adani conglomerate bearing one third of the cost of the project with the remainder on the shoulders of the state and federal governments has repeatedly sought relief from the state court.

In the affidavits, it alleged that the protests had caused a “huge loss” and “significant delay” to the project, adding that the protesters had warned port officials of “dire consequences” and posed an “extreme and ongoing militant” threat.

A “land and sea demonstration” on 27 October saw protesters burn a fishing boat and more than 1,500 people stormed the port grounds, some carrying iron bars to the main gate, according to returns.

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

Accusing the Kerala police of being “dumb bystanders”, the Adani group also called for the federal police to be brought in. The next court hearing on Adani’s complaints is scheduled for Monday.

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

“We are prepared to go to great lengths to protect our livelihoods. It is a matter of do or die,” says Joseph Johnson, a protest fisherman.