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Adani port in Vizhinjam
Kerala, India

The tragedy looming over Kerala’s mussel fishers

Construction of the Vizhinjam International Multipurpose Deep-Sea Port is progressing. Overcoming objections, the government’s special purpose company, Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited (VISL), signed a contract with Adani Vizhinjam Port Private Limited for the Rs7,525 core-project on 17 Aug 2015.  Four years later, Jisha Elizabeth, a journalist at Madhyamam, visited the area to investigate the environmental problems in the Vizhinjam Port region and the resultant disasters traditional mussel collectors are facing.

The reefs beneath the steep rocky outcroppings of the Thiruvananthapuram coast store immense marine resources, earning this area the distinction as Kerala’s marine wealth repository. But these reefs have now been covered with sand for construction of berths for the Vizhinjam International Deep-Sea Port Project. The adjacent Vizhinjam Harbour is on the verge of destruction due to dredging. Extensive excavation of the Western Ghats will happen soon for the breakwater. And once the port is complete, the fishing harbour will be no more. With destruction on such a grand scale, researchers say a great tragedy lies in wait for the coastline and the state as a whole.

A Coveted Location

The breakwater
Two types of waves, inside the harbor and hitting against the breakwater / Credit: Jisha Elizabeth

Vizhinjam is located 18 km (10 nautical miles) from the Malacca Strait, the world’s busiest international shipping corridor. Within a nautical mile from the Vizhinjam coast, the sea here reaches a depth of 22 meters. But currently, 40% of India’s cargo ships transit through Colombo port in Sri Lanka. A 2013 report prepared for VISL by multinational engineering firm AECOM estimated that if Vizhinjam port is realized, it will bring big profits to the country in the form of taxes and customs duties.

Due to the nature of the land and rock groups in Vizhinjam, the area is also landslide-proof, which negates the need for permanent dredging. That makes Vizhinjam an ideal location for a port. On the flip side, say those who have researched the area’s marine ecology, port construction is causing permanent damage to the sea ecosystem, marine life and the livelihoods of the surrounding fishing community.

The port will eventually occupy a total land area of 142.46 hectares. Of that, 53 hectares have been acquired by filling the sea in with sand. The government of Kerala acquired 86.29 hectares of land from the coast at a cost of 548 crore rupees and handed it over to VISL for further land-based construction. In July, it acquired an additional 4.28 hectares. In addition, 36 hectares of sea has been filled, about 750m in length, to accommodate the port’s 800m-long wharf or jetty. 

Dredging for the sea lane began on Nov. 25, 2015, and continues today, pausing briefly only for a few months in November 2017 due to Cyclone Ockhi.

Yet India’s National Biodiversity Action plan for 2019 prepared by the central government refers to dredging as one of the causes of destruction of ocean ecosystems. Dredging at Vizhinjam Harbor has already led to erosion, causing a sand bank to form in the entrance between two breakwaters. As a result, boats entering the harbor have started capsizing.

Moreover, a bi-annual compliance report on conditions laid out in the environmental and CRZ clearance said that only 40% of the required filling has taken place along the coast, meaning large-scale dredging is still needed. The sand acquired through dredging is used for land filling the while Adani will be running 21 quarries to acquire the rock for the breakwaters, according to the Kerala government.  

Fishermen are also concerned about the damage that awaits a 12,000 square kilometer wedge bank, which contributes significantly to the country’s fish harvest. Just 40 km off the Vizhinjam coast, it plays a vital role in offering shelter to the bio-treasure of India’s southwest coast. Liquid discharge from ships set to arrive at Vizhinjam could damage this important ecosystem, according to fishermen.

Problems Mount

Mulloor area
Construction materials and cranes seen from Mulloor area / Credit: Jisha Elizabeth

Mulloor, where the first phase of port construction took place, is already a ghost-land. Once there was a sea there, with an abundant ocean ecosystem, expansive rock ranges and rare creatures. Today, everything is filled up, leaving not even a trace of the former ecosystem.

An environmental impact assessment prepared for the port project by L&T – Ramboll Consulting Engineers Limited has recorded that the loss of biodiversity in Mulloor is unrecoverable.

A study published in the Indian Journal of Geomarine Science in April 2013 recorded 147 marine species in the Vizhinjam region. It is also a place where endangered species like Olive Ridley turtles lay eggs. But the call for conservation has fallen on deaf ears.

Co-author Dr. A. Bijukumar, head of the Aquatic and Fisheries Department at Kerala University, says that the port is being built on the best mussel bed. The problems will mount when the port is completed, he says.

Treasure Trove of Mussels

Mussel collecting
A basket of mussels pictured in a traditional fishing boat / Credit: Jisha Elizabeth

Mussels are obtained from places like Kovalam, Vizhinjam, Karimbillikkara, ValiyaKadappuram, Mulloor, Pulinkudi, Aazhimala and Chovvara. The spread of rock groups in this belt is ideal for mussel growth. Vizhinjam is the region where the best mussels in the state are obtained Dr. Bijukumar attests. In the past, 4-5 mussel collectors would go in a boat and together they could collect 40-50 kgs of mussels in a day, earing Rs1,000-2,000 with lobster catches added on as bonuses. Now, they say they’re only able to collect 4-5 kgs.

Fishers blame the port project for destroying the mussel habitat and subsequently the livelihoods of the people in the area. In its 2018 report, the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, a government agency that publishes annual reports with data on fish and mussel catch, attributed the destruction of the mussel habitat to Cyclone Ockhi.

As of 2018, there were around 400 traditional mussel collectors in Vizhinjam Harbor, more than 350 in Mulloor and another 100 in Kovalam, according to local fishers. They estimate that around 200 mussel collectors, small-scale vendors and other fishermen have been compensated by the government under a scheme aimed at compensating them for the loss of livelihood stemming from port construction. Compensation has ranged from Rs10,000 to Rs200,000, but many fishers say they don’t have official documentation that would make them eligible for the compensation. The majority of fishers this reporter spoke to said they have stopped mussel collection and are now working as painting or construction labourers.

“Only if the dredging stops, the sea will become calm,” says V Sudhikumar of Muttakkad Kovalam. “Conch, mussels, etc. stuck to the rocks gets swamped in the mud upon which they are not able to survive. If the dust becomes dense like this, they will die in large numbers. When they die a group of mussel collectors and their families become destitute.”

Fishermen of Vizhinjam
Fishermen of Vizhinjam / Credit: Jisha Elizabeth

Inadequate Compensation

At first, mussel collectors were offered 25 lakh rupees (Rs2,500,000) as compensation. But only half the amount was given as single-term compensation. Fishermen of the Vizhinjam area say they are not included in the compensation package. The package includes amenities, such as a park for their children, roads and toilets. Many elderly fisherwomen said were not given compensation as they did not have enough documents to prove their identity as labourers.

According to the latest environmental compliance report prepared by Adani Vizhinjam Port Private Limited for the government of Kerala and published in late November, 271 mussel collectors had received compensation. It said that 12.65 crore rupees was distributed to compensate for the loss of work. Those documents also state that mussel collectors are promised cage-fishing facilities as an alternate livelihood generator during the retribution.

From March 2016 to date, Rs83.11 crores have been disbursed to a total of 2,621 people identified as having their livelihoods affected by the port construction (including mussel collectors), according to the environmental compliance report. 

Dredger in Vizhinham harbor
A dredger used by Adani group now anchored in Vizhinham harbor / Credit: Jisha Elizabeth

Friends of Marine Life chief coordinator Robert Panippilla says that those officers who prepare the rehabilitation package do not know about the sea, which is not like compensating people for acquiring farmland. He says that if a paddy farmer is compensated for his farm area,  he can buy another piece of land for farming. But mussel collectors can collect mussels only from the sea. Even if they get some money as compensation, they can’t continue their mussel collection somewhere else.

In the environmental impact assessment, VISL said that after the port was constructed mussel beds would grow in the breakwaters and fishers would be able to cultivate them. It estimates that mussels would return seven years after port construction is completed and be ready for harvesting.

The 2013 study by Biju Kumar and R. Ravinesh, however, found it took much longer for the ecosystem to regenerate. The study – conducted 40 years after Vizhinjam Harbor was built – found 128 species of mussels living among the rocks in the sea and only 73 on the port breakwater, or seawall. That means only half of the species had returned after 40 years.

Dr K V Thomas from the Centre for Earth System Studies says that a new coastal protection law and a new environmental impact assessment are needed.

Sea walls and breakwaters increase the intensity of sea turbulence, he said. The government should understand that a sand beach is the most effective guard of the coast. He suggested that artificial coastal sand dunes be crafted and organic plant fences grown. Artificial fish ecosystems of 3-4 m should also be made, he said, noting the need for coast-friendly protection projects.

Vizhinjam harbor and fishing village
Vizhinjam harbor and fishing village / Credit: Jisha Elizabeth

Murky Future

Even if those measures are taken, however, the fishermen of Mullor and their families may not benefit, having been made to vacate the coast for the port’s development. As part of the package under which fishers received compensation for having to relocate to allow for port construction, the government stipulated that they would be required to hand over their fishing equipment to VISL for a public auction. But many say they feel cheated.

“The government underpaid for our equipment,” said Mulloor native Manoharan. “We had no other ways than surrendering all our equipment because this is a dream project of the Kerala government, and all the Keralites believed that this port will bring development to the state. But we are suffering.”

Many people who have taken their cases to the livelihood appeal committee have been rejected so some of them have filed a petition with the high court in Kerala for a better compensation package and a speedy delivery of that sum. That case is ongoing. 

This story was produced with the support of EJN's Asia-Pacific project. Another version of it was first published in Malayalam in the Madhayamam Weekly.

Banner image: Adani port in Vizhinjam / Credit: Jisha Elizabeth