VIZHINJAM, India, Nov 23 (Reuters) – On the main road to billionaire Gautam Adani’s proposed Vizhinjam megaport on India’s southern tip, a shelter built by the coastal region’s Christian fishing community blocks the entrance and prevents further construction.
The simple 1,200-square-foot structure with a corrugated iron roof has stood in the way since August of ambitions for the country’s first container terminal — a $900 million project that seeks to tap into the lucrative shipping trade between juggernaut manufacturers in the east and affluent consumer markets in the west .
Decorated with banners, the shelter has space for about 100 plastic chairs that proclaim “indefinite day and night protest,” though the number of protesters taking part in the sit-ins on any given day is usually much smaller.
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 if the number of protesters is small, up to 300 police officers with batons will gather nearby each day to carefully monitor the situation. Despite repeated orders from the Kerala State Supreme Court that construction should go ahead unhindered, police are unwilling to crack down on the protesters, fearing it could ignite social and sectarian tensions over the port.
For Adani, the third richest person in the world according to Forbes, it’s a high-stakes impasse with no seemingly easy fix.
Reuters interviewed more than a dozen protesters, as well as port advocates and police officers, and reviewed hundreds of pages of files in lawsuits filed by the Adani conglomerate against the Catholic priests who led the protests and against the state government. All point to an impassable gulf.
Protest leaders claim construction of the port since December 2015 has resulted in significant coastal erosion and promises of further construction would devastate the livelihood of a fishing community they say numbers about 56,000.
They are demanding that the government order a freeze on construction and independent studies into the impact of port development on the marine ecosystem.
The Adani conglomerate plans to send heavy vehicles to the port on Friday after the court said this week vehicle movement should not be blocked. In October, vehicles leaving the port had to turn back.
Eugine H. Pereira, the archdiocese’s vicar general, who led the protesters, said they would not remove the shelter despite the court order.
“We are prepared to be arrested in large numbers if necessary,” he told Reuters.
The Adani Group said in a statement that the project complies with all laws and that many studies conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology and other institutions in recent years have dismissed allegations regarding the project’s responsibility for coastal erosion.
“In view of these findings by independent experts and institutions, we believe that the ongoing protests are motivated and directed against the interests of the state and the development of the port,” it said.
The Kerala state government, which has spoken to protesters and argues that erosion has occurred due to hurricanes and other natural disasters, did not respond to a request for comment.
THE VEDANTA EXAMPLE
Adani, whose empire includes gas and power projects and a port and logistics company worth around $23.5 billion, has described Vizhinjam as an “unmatched location” on one of the world’s most important shipping routes. As a transhipment port, it would be well-positioned to attract business from Sri Lanka — where arch-rival China has invested heavily in port infrastructure — as well as Singapore and Dubai.
Transhipment involves transferring containers from mainline vessels on important 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 shipping.
Eager to move forward with plans to complete the first phase of construction by December 2024, the Adani conglomerate has sued the Kerala government for police inaction.
But Prakash R, a senior police officer in charge of security outside the port, said his goal is to avoid a situation like the 2018 environmental protests against a Vedanta (VDAN.NS) copper smelter in neighboring Tamil Nadu state, which to 13 deaths and closure of the smelter.
“We refrain from using armed forces to avoid unwanted incidents. What if someone threatens or commits suicide? All hell will break loose.”
“We cannot rule out the possibility that this will lead to community tensions. We are strategically positioned between the two sides to prevent such an incident,” he added.
Every day, the protesters and port advocates blare music from loudspeakers and chant slogans. Prakash R. describes the situation as a standoff between “people of the sea” who are mostly Christians and earn their living from fishing, and “people of the land” who are mostly Hindus.
The fishing community built the shelter after years of failed efforts to get the Kerala government to intervene while watching the coast steadily erode. A weakening of the pandemic also made it easier to protest than in previous years.
Protesters say the construction has reduced the size of their catch and when the port is completed 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 Kerala government, claiming dredging and other construction work caused destructive erosion on their Houses.
Following protesters’ demands, the state set up a panel last month to study coastal erosion at the site.
The Adani Group said in its statement that India’s National Green Tribunal, which has been monitoring the project’s impact, has found no environmental or social violations.
For their part, supporters of construction in their shelters accuse the demonstrators of impeding progress.
“This is about creating jobs for the many places here,” said Mukkola G. Prabhakaran, a member of Kerala’s State Council in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
LEGAL ACTION BY ADANI
The Indian protests are reminiscent of the backlash Adani faced in Australia over its Carmichael coal mine. There, activists concerned about carbon emissions and damage to the Great Barrier Reef forced Adani to scale back production targets and delayed the mine’s first coal shipment by six years.
In Kerala, the Adani conglomerate, which is paying a third of the project’s cost, with the rest being funded by the state and federal governments, has repeatedly petitioned the state court for legal aid.
The filing claimed the protests had inflicted “immense casualties” and “significant delays” on the project, adding that the protesters had warned port officials of “serious consequences” and posed a “constant and sustained militant” threat.
In a “land and sea protest” on October 27, protesters burned a fishing boat and more than 1,500 people broke into the port area, some carrying iron bars to the main gate, the filings say.
When asked about the allegation, Pereira said: “We do not support or encourage any form of violence. Our protests have been peaceful the whole time.”
The Adani conglomerate has accused Kerala’s state police of being “silent bystanders” and has also called for the federal police to be called in. The court’s next hearing on Adani’s complaints is scheduled for Monday.
For now, the tense standoff continues, with protesters saying they can rally quickly if police dismantle the shelter. The site has four CCTV cameras providing a live feed so protest leaders can keep tabs on the situation with their phones.
“We are willing to do whatever it takes to protect our livelihoods. It’s all or nothing,” says 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; Editing by Edwina Gibbs
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