For over 100 days, angry fishermen—backed by the Catholic diocese—have staged a blockade of a $900 million Adani project. The protests have made unlikely political allies of the ruling CPI(M) and BJP—and are in danger of sparking a religious divide.
First, tell me about the protests…
For months now, fishermen in Vizhinjam—with the backing of the Latin Archdiocese of Trivandrum—have been staging angry demonstrations to halt the construction of the $900 million (or Rs 7,525-crore) project of the Adani Group:
- The protesters constructed a simple 1,200 square-feet structure in August to block the main entrance—and construction activity of the seaport.
- The Adani Group has moved the Kerala courts, claiming the protests have caused "immense loss" and that protesters pose a "constant and continuous militant" threat. One executive estimated the loss at Rs 800 million ($9.8 million).
- In September, the High Court ordered the state government to provide police protection—and directed the union government to step in if it failed to maintain law and order.
- Things became ugly over the weekend when protesters blocked vehicles from entering the port—in defiance of court orders.
- The police arrested five of them—prompting the rest to march to the local police station on Sunday night. The officers claim protesters “came with lethal weapons and barged into the station and held the police hostage, threatening that if people in custody were not released they would set the station on fire.”
- As a result, the police have booked more than 3,000 people—including the archbishop and auxiliary bishop on conspiracy charges—while others were accused of crimes ranging from rioting to attempt to murder.
The religious divide: Vizhinjam is a communally sensitive area. In 1995, Christian-Muslim riots resulted in the deaths of seven fishermen. That divide flared up again in 2014 when the government evicted mostly Muslim fisherfolk and demolishing their homes—to make way for the construction of a harbour project.
But this time around, tensions have flared between Christian and Hindu groups. The local action committee cheerleading the project is dominated by upper caste and OBC communities. The Hindu United Front staged a march on Wednesday supporting the construction but were stopped by the police just short of the port site. The two sides have been facing off for weeks, staging counter-dharnas in the same location:
Each day, the protesters and port supporters blare music from loudspeakers and chant slogans. Prakash R describes the situation as a standoff between "people of the sea", who are mostly Christian and make their living from fishing and "people of the land" who are predominantly Hindu.
The fear of escalation has also made the police less enthusiastic about using force:
We are holding back from using forces to avoid any untoward incidents. What if someone threatens or commits suicide? All hell will break loose. We can't rule out the possibility of this spiralling into communal tensions. We are strategically positioned between the two sides to prevent any such incident.
Rare political unity: The Adani port marks a rare point of consensus between the ruling CPI(M) and BJP—whose members have been holding joint rallies. The BJP points to the Latin Catholic diocese’s involvement in protests that stalled the Kudankulam nuclear project in Tamil Nadu. The state government too is making noises about “outside forces”:
“Especially in a secular state like Kerala, we will not allow any kind of communal conflict,” the minister said, claiming that the mob had attacked houses and establishments of those not belonging to their community. “We will go to any extent to ensure communal harmony in the state.”
Key point to note: Congress has blamed the government for the violence—but not criticised the project. That may be because it was the Congress-led Kerala government under Oomen Chandy that inked the original agreement with Adani.
Ok, now tell me about this port…
The ‘mother ship’ port: This will be India’s first transshipment port—where cargo is shifted from massive ‘mother ships’ to smaller vessels that travel onwards on other sea trade lanes. This creates “a hub-and-spoke network that is more economical and flexible than relying on point-to-point shipping.” (Gateway ports, OTOH, move goods into or out of the country.)
The size: The port will be developed in three phases. In the first phase, it will have the capacity of 1 million TEU—a measure of how many twenty-foot long containers can be berthed at the port at any time. That number will go up by 6.2 million TEU. For perspective, the Chennai port in 2016-17 was around 1.5 million TEU. The entire port will span 450 hectares of land—and claim 120 hectares of ocean, including dredging the seabeds.
The location: According to the Adani Group, Vizhinjam has an "unmatched location" on one of the world's main shipping routes. It is just 10 nautical miles from the international sea route linking the Far-East with the Middle-East and Suez Canal. So Vizhinjam is well-positioned to compete with other transshipment hubs such as Colombo, Singapore and Dubai.
This is the Planet Labs satellite view taken in 2017 of the location which is near Thiruvananthapuram:
The big benefits: Supporters of the project cite a variety of reasons why the port will be a “game changer” for India and Kerala:
One: Right now, the mother ships carrying shipment for India go to Colombo, Singapore and Dubai. They annually divert 5 million TEUs (twenty-foot boxes) of cargo for lack of a such infrastructure in India:
Being able to handle the traffic in Vizhinjam can prevent huge time and cost overruns for businesses here, as one can move containers to the destination the same day by rail or road. Indian ports annually lose nearly $220 million of potential revenue on transshipment handling of cargo originating/destined for India.
Two: Vizhinjam will also boost India’s clout in commercial shipping:
Being developed as primarily a transshipment port, it stands to benefit from surging maritime traffic. The port would also have operational advantages thanks to its deep natural draft. Most importantly, it would potentially be able to put India on the global maritime map by stimulating gateway traffic from the hinterland and creating new supply-chain networks.
Point to note: The port lies next to the Gulf-to-Malacca shipping lane that carries almost a third of world sea freight.
Three: From a geostrategic point of view, Vizhinjam also counters China—which has , which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in ports at Colombo and Hambantota:
India is worried about China’s expanding reach in the region through port investments in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives. China is also developing Pakistan’s Gwadar seaport as part of a $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
FYI: China had also wanted to partner with an Indian company to build the Vizhinjam port, but was rejected on grounds of national security. And that’s because this will be a “dual use” port—also berthing navy and coast guard ships,
And what’s wrong with any of that?
First, let’s separate the issues with the port. There are the grievances of the fishing community—which is spearheading the protests. And then there are deeper and more serious questions about its viability—and the terms of agreement signed with Adani.
Why the protesters are angry: Church leaders have made it clear that they do not want to abandon the port—but temporarily halt construction until their demands are met. Their biggest concern is coastal erosion:
The ongoing construction of breakwaters has altered the direction of sea currents, causing coastal erosion across the entire coast of the project area… The city of Thiruvananthapuram has lost its famed Shanghumukham beach entirely to sea erosion over the last few years. In fishing villages including Valiyathura and Muttathara, around 600 people have already been shifted to relief camps after their houses were lost to sea erosion.
Fisherfolk are also losing access to beaches, and their livelihoods are at risk as well. The more turbulent sea now endangers the lives of fishermen as well, who are unable to manoeuvre their crafts due to the rough sea. Accidents have become more frequent.
The compromise: The government says that it has ceded most of the seven demands of the protesters. But church leaders claims that the government’s so-called compromise is inadequate:
- The announced rental subsidy of Rs 5,500 is far too low. And the housing built to rehome those in relief camps is uninhabitable.
- The protesters demanded a fresh scientific study to investigate coastal erosion. But the newly constituted committee does not include any representative from the protesters.
- The fishermen want an increased subsidy for kerosene—used to fuel their boats—since they have to go further out to the sea to fish. The government has flatly refused to do so. The price per litre is Rs 130, and the current subsidy is Rs 25.
Environmental issues: Quite apart from the impact on the fishing community, environmental activists have their own concerns:
- Dredging and sand mining is a common cause of coastal erosion. These can be avoided with careful planning—but the environmental clearances for Vizhinjam did not assess or require mitigation.
- Completing construction will require more mining from quarries. The government has given the Adani Group almost two hectares of land within eco-sensitive zones in nearby wildlife sanctuaries.
- This is an added problem since quarries have been identified as the primary cause for catastrophic landslides in the area.
- And some activists claim that these quarries can affect Thiruvanthapuram’s drinking water supply.
- Dredging will also threaten marine habitats—especially breeding grounds for mussels and lobsters.
Viability issues: The bigger question about Vizhinjam is this: is it even worth building? Colombo accounts for 35% of the transshipment traffic in the region. While the Adani Group is confident, it too admits that the Indian port will have to offer heavy discounts to undercut its rivals. Industry experts, however, say that Colombo is a “low cost and highly efficient” port—and most container shipping lines are unlikely to easily switch to India.
Point to note: Many of the Southern states are on a port-building spree. The Karnataka government has submitted a Rs 77.99 billion (7,799 crore) proposal to build or renovate smaller ports in 12 locations—often within 40 km of each other. The plan is especially bemusing since existing ports are already under-utilised. For example, the Karwar port—which has a capacity to handle 3 million tonnes of cargo per year—has rarely hit 50% of its capacity since 1985.
Who’s paying for it? This may be the thorniest issue with the Vizhinjam port. A damning 2017 report of the CAG—the auditing arm of the government—concluded that the deal unfairly benefitted Adani. As per the agreement, the Kerala government will be responsible for land procurement, external infrastructure and construction of breakwaters—and bear 67% of the costs. The Adani Group, OTOH, will only pay 33%—and will bear the burden of building and operating the actual port.
But the devil is in the details:
- Concession agreements—that give companies the right to operate and profit from a public infrastructure project—are capped at 30 years. The Adanis’ tenure was extended to 40 after the deal was inked.
- For the first 15 years after the port begins operations, Adani will not pay a dime to the government. Thereafter, the group will pay a minuscule concession fee of Rs 1 per year—plus 1% of the gross revenue.
- The company can also utilise 30% of the land acquired for the project by the Kerala government for “Port Estate Development”, which may include residential and commercial buildings.
Numbers to note: According to Ernst & Young, Adani Ports will recoup its investment of Rs 24.54 billion (2,454 crore) within 11 years. But Vizhinjam may turn out to be a bum deal for Kerala. The same E&Y reports that the Net Present Value (NPV)—difference between a project's financial benefits and costs—for the government will be (minus) Rs 38.66 billion (3,866 crore). The NPV for Adani: Rs 6.07 billion (607 crore).
The icing on this cake: This year, the union and state governments approved an additional Rs 16.35 billion (1,635 crore) in “viability” funding for the Adani Group.
Key point to note: The Adani Group was the sole bidder for the Vizhinjam contract.
The bottomline: The problem in India is that our most ambitious plans are marred by bad decision-making, netagiri and callousness. We may or may not need a megaport. But this isn’t the way to build one.
The Wire and Devex offer good pieces laying out the concerns of the fishing community and environmentalists. Malayala Manorama has a detailed breakdown of just how much Kerala is paying for the privilege of hosting this port—and where the negotiations between the two sides have stalled. This Caravan magazine (paywalled) analysis lays out the CAG’s damning report on “undue benefits” to Adani. The Diplomat lays out why the port may not be worth building. OTOH, Hindu Businessline lays out the benefits. Deccan Herald has more on the ports planned in Karnataka. Reuters has more on worries over religious tensions.