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Ground Report: Why Fishers Are Opposing Adani’s Kattupalli Port Expansion

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In 2008, the people living in the Kattupalli seaside village were forcefully evicted to make way for the L&T shipping yard com port. The L&T port was bifurcated in 2018. While the southern portion remains with L&T, the northern breakwater and the land associated with that was handed over to Adani.

The proposed expansion of the Kattupalli port is hence sought by Marine Infrastructure Development and Private Limited, a subsidiary of Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd (APSEZ). The expansion of the port is envisioned as going 6 kms north, building a wall and then a breakwater. Almost 2,000 acres of sea and 4,000 acres of land are expected to be taken over.

In December last year, Marine Infrastructure Developer Private Limited had detailed its plans to expand the 136.28-hectare Kattupalli port facility in a Draft Comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment Report for the Revised Master Plan submitted to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.

As per the executive summary of the plan, the expansion of the Kattupalli port is envisioned to be carried out on 2,472.85 ha of land. Apart from the existing port area, it will include 927.11 ha of government land and 613.31 ha of private land. It also proposes to reclaim 796.15 hectares from the sea.

Almost 500 people reside in Kattupalli Kuppam. The demands of the Kattupalli residents have been to secure permanent jobs in the existing company and an increase in their salaries. These demands are parallel to the need of the Kattupalli residents to secure their existing livelihoods.

Demand For Permanent Jobs

“The L&T company had told us that they would give us jobs and they stole our lands for development. The 10,000 bucks that the company gives us is not enough for us. We are not able to educate our children or run our families. When we use our catamarans to go into the sea and fish, we earn anywhere from Rs 5,000 and Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 1 lakh per day,” says Sembavagavalli, a resident of Kattupalli Kuppam.

The salary for working-class labourers at the L&T shipping yard ranges from Rs 3,000 to Rs 15,000. These jobs are purely contractual. “When L&T had approached us in 2008, we thought we would get permanent jobs in the company within a year. It has been over 12 years and we are still fighting for our jobs,” says Kala, another resident of Kattupalli Kuppam.

 

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Threat To The Fishing Community

The company has also approached the GoI to declare the 7.7 sq km of the sea around the Kattupalli port as a “no fishing zone”. The reason cited for the same was that there was a “safety concern” as the fishing boats and nets were hazardous to the ships. “Does the sea belong to the Adani group for them to buy it off? Since the time of our ancestors, we have depended on the sea. The sea is ours,” says Yasodha, a resident of the area.

Apart from getting prawns and fish, the fisher community members also collect seashells from the shore, in order to sell them or for self-consumption. “Women, who are aged 60-70 years, collect and handpick prawns and shells from the lakes in and around Kattupalli and Pulicat. It is a serious concern on how this port expansion will completely hamper their livelihood and affect their source of income,” says Durai Mahendran, State President of Tamil Nadu Fishman Association.

Elaborating further on how these industries destroy the complete ecosystem of the local community members, Yasodha from Kattupalli Kuppam, says “It is a destruction of our livelihoods, families and our lives. We take our nets and go 7 kms into the sea to fish. Now a compound has been constructed around the water, restricting our access to the sea.” She adds, “If a fisherperson is not allowed to go to the sea and fish, what are we expected to do?”

Freshly handpicked fishes and prawns from near Minjur and Pulicat
Freshly handpicked fishes and prawns from near Minjur and Pulicat

Threats Of Displacement And Coastal Flooding

One of the major threats that this port expansion exhibit is the possibility of forcibly migrating and displacing the fisherpersons elsewhere once again. “When a fisherperson migrates from one place to another, the traditional knowledge that they have acquired and that they possess for generations goes away. This also strips away the culture and identity of the community members,” says Prasanth Jack, a volunteer at Chennai Climate Action Group.

According to Prasanth, these industries are neither people-centric nor are they scientific. “If Madras has to sustain, we need to protect the two wetlands of Pallikaranai and Pulicat. These landscapes protect us from floods and droughts. They act as natural barricades,” he says.

The proliferation of the industries in the Ennore-Manali industrial corridor and near Kattupalli has also resulted in the reduction in the availability of fish. “In recent times, we have been finding it difficult to fish. Over the course of these years, the catch of the fish has gone down drastically. We worry that if the port is expanded, our livelihoods would be put further at stake and completely wiped out,” says Kala.

According to experts, the expansion of the port, if followed through, will completely destroy the coastline as the situation of the port is in a high-eroding zone. In an article, social activist Nityanand Jayaraman explains that according to a study by Climate Central, there is a strong possibility of the submersion of the portions of Kamarajar Port Ltd (KPL), L&T port and its proposed infrastructure due to coastal flooding by 2030.

The threat of coastal flooding in parts of North Chennai will be detrimental to the welfare of the local community. The working-class population living in the Ennore-Pulicat region comprises mostly Dalit, Adivasi and fishing community members.

“Caste has changed into a form of modern untouchability. If we look towards the southern side of Madras, we don’t find industries. If such industries were to come up in places like that of Besant Nagar, people would stop its proliferation in a single day,” says Prasanth. Apart from the loss of livelihoods, displacement of local community members and coastal flooding, the port expansion is also expected to affect the salinity of the groundwater.

Freshly handpicked fishes and prawns from near Minjur and Pulicat
Crabs and prawns are brought to the Pulicat market from the Pulicat lake and sea and sold.

What The Government Is Saying

Despite protests on the ground from those affected, activists say that the union government has continued to support the extension of the Kattupalli port. Ex-union minister of environment Prakash Javadekar had in February this year defended the expansion in Parliament saying that even though the construction of port and harbour related projects was prohibited in high-eroding zones under the CRZ notification, the current proposal of Kattupalli port expansion was for an already existing port.

He had further added that environmental and CRZ clearance for the port was provided in 2009 with “due diligence”.

In a reply submitted by Marine Infrastructure Developer Pvt Ltd to the Union Ministry of Environment in response to a representation made by Citizen Consumer And Civic Action Group ( CAG), the company claims that the project is not located in “any declared critically polluted area”.

It further claims that port expansion was planned mostly towards the North, Northwest & Westward sides of the existing port area and will not have a direct impact on Ennore creek. Experts and activists disagree with the claim, saying that the Ennore-Manali industrial corridor presently houses 34 red category industries – and therefore stands at tremendous risk from further anthropogenic activities.

In another statement released as a response to the Fisherman Panchayat Sabha, Kattupalli; the company has claimed that “no activity of fishing, salt farming, fish farming, hand-picking of shells has been observed”. While the EIA makes no mention of the danger to fishing villages due to erosion triggered by the proposed port, a study conducted by the Institute of Ocean Management, Anna University, as part of the project EIA, predicts that port construction will cause the Pulicat lake’s shore to erode at 16 metres/year – almost double the existing rate.

Freshly handpicked fishes and prawns from near Minjur and Pulicat
Freshly handpicked fishes and prawns from near Minjur and Pulicat

What Is The Way Forward?

M Vetri Selvan, from the environmental organization Poovulagin Nanbargal (Friends of the Earth), lays down that the news about the expansion of the Kattupalli port needs to be seen alongside other such projects which are coming up in the country. “The idea is to completely strengthen the production system based on the market economy. This involves collecting the raw materials from one place, refining it and changing it into a final product in order to export it,” says Vetri Selvan.

The demands of the Kattupalli residents have been to secure permanent jobs in the existing company and an increase in their salaries. Photo: Newsclick

According to him, the intent of the union government is to further the idea of “Make in India”, by intensifying both the Bharatmala project (connecting highways and old roadways) and the Sagar Mala project (which involves setting up of new private-sector handled ports).

“In order to connect all the ports, the Bharatmala project needs to ensure a total infrastructural change. Be it the Salem-Chennai Highway project, the extraction of hydrocarbons in the Cauvery Delta region or the setting up of a petrochemical refinery in Nagapattinam, all these infrastructural changes fall within in the ambit of the production system based on strengthening the market economy,” says Vetri Selvan.

Recently, in a press release dated June 13 2021, M K Stalin, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, urged the GoI to cancel the bid and auction process for the extraction of hydrocarbon in Vadatheru of the Cauvery Basin. This is a refreshing step to take forward the conversation surrounding political ecology in the state of Tamil Nadu.

In the words of Vetri Selvan, “Only when we speak about political ecology, do we take an eco-centric approach to preserve the environment. We need to accept science and challenge the technocratic approach towards development. There is, hence a need to convert our understanding of science into political thought.”

Before the state elections in April, most of the progressive political parties in Tamil Nadu, including DMK and VCK, had extended their support to the people of Kattupalli and stood with them in their fight against the port expansion.

Recently, on October 16th, the fisherwomen of Pulicat had hosted a traditional seafood festival, to thank M K Stalin and his government for their reassurance that the port expansion will not be permitted. The decisions that the elected state government is to take on the matter of Kattupalli port expansion, will only solidify the eco-centric approach taken by the government.

 

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Jayaraman, in his latest article, says that the Tamil political culture has always been shaped by protests and agitations. He goes on to say that the emergence of environmental youth wings in some political parties like that of DMK, and the efforts of the environmental groups, need to understand the “caste hierarchies” and the “history of progressive Tamil movements”. Otherwise, according to Jayaraman, environmentalism in the state would be “at the risk of elite oppressions”, while being rooted in notions of “cleanliness, purity and meritocracy”.

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