Shanghumukham Beach, just outside the domestic terminal of Trivandrum International Airport in Kerala, no longer exists. Once among the most popular landmarks in the city, it now lies completely submerged in the Arabian Sea. Large, angry waves have also eaten away at the coastal stretch of the only road that connects the domestic terminal to the rest of the city. Vehicles bound for the airport now struggle to pass through the narrow stretch that remains of the once well-laid road. Still unsatiated, the sea has now started advancing towards the airport itself.
According to Vijayan Joseph, a former researcher with the International Ocean Institute, coastal erosion started in the region in the 1970s when a minor breakwater was constructed for the Vizhinjam fishing harbour. However, the advancement of the sea has accelerated alarmingly after construction began in 2015 on Thiruvananthapuram’s much-touted Vizhinjam International Deepwater Multipurpose Seaport.
The Rs 7,525-crore seaport is being built in a Public Private Partnership (PPP) between the Kerala government and the Adani Vizhinjam Port Private Ltd (AVPPL), a subsidiary of the Ahmedabad-based Adani Group’s Adani Ports and SEZ Ltd (APSEZ), which won a bid for the project five years ago. Initially slated for completion in 2018, the project has been plagued by delays, but promises to be India’s deepest port, capable of handling 80% of the country’s cargo trans-shipments.
The state government has contributed 360 acres of land to the project and permitted AVPPL to reclaim 130 acres from the sea. But some environmentalists, activists, and fish workers blame the upcoming seaport and the construction of its breakwater for large-scale coastal erosion that is wiping out more than three dozen fishing villages, threatening the very existence of areas such as Kovalam, Valiyathura, Beemapally, Vizhinjam, Veli, Kallumoodu and Muttathara.
Dr K.V. Thomas, a scientist with the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, told HuffPost India that the coastal erosion in the Vizhinjam-Shanghumukham Region will become worse in the coming years, even posing challenges to the airport and several establishments of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Veli and adjacent Thumba. “Unfortunately, neither the environmental nor livelihood impacts of the project have been assessed sufficiently or accurately. The port is irresponsibly sited in the erosion-prone coast of Thiruvananthapuram. Studies indicate that the coastline is not braced to subsume the potential impacts from construction and operation of the Vizhinjam port,” he said.
Pointing to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification of 2011, according to which the construction of ports is not permissible in coastal areas prone to high erosion, Joseph expressed concern about further deterioration. “Only 600 metres of the 3.1 kilometre breakwater has been completed so far. You can imagine the horrific situation once the work gets completed.” he said. One of the earliest opponents of the project, Thomas now heads the People’s Vigilance Forum, a civil society group that consolidates protests against the construction of the seaport.
According to T. Peter, general secretary of the National Fishworkers Forum and a resident of the coastal village of Veli, the project has started affecting the livelihood of fish workers in the entire area. He told HuffPost India that sea erosion has already left 172 families homeless and that fishing would be reduced due to the maritime traffic and associated risks of coastal pollution once the project is operational. Peter died of pneumonia and multiple organ failure induced by Covid-19 on October 8, a week after speaking to HuffPost India.
Environmental activist Thomas Lawrence also expressed concern about the rapidly deteriorating situation. “Thiruvananthapuram is famous for its beautiful beaches like Shankhumukham, Kovalam, Valiyathura, Beemapally, Vizhinjam, and Veli. They all are eroding because of coastal erosion. Last year alone, 603 people from 143 families in the coastal fishing villages were shifted to relief camps due to incursion of the sea,” he told HuffPost India.
Both AVPPL and the Kerala government vehemently deny charges of coastal erosion and ecological destruction. The compliance report of the seaport project for October 2019-March 2020, issued by AVPPL in consultation with the Kerala government, states that there is no shoreline degradation in the area as projected by those who oppose the project.
This denial comes a year after Kerala Fisheries Minister J. Mercykutty Amma had acknowledged that construction of the breakwater for the port had led to high tides and erosion of the Thiruvananthapuram coast. The minister declined to comment when asked about the issue and her earlier statement by HuffPost India.
While awarding the work to AVPPL five years ago, the state government had fixed September 2018 as the deadline for the completion of Phase I of the project. It has progressed at a slow pace however, which Adani blamed on a severe shortage of granite needed for the construction of the breakwater, and setbacks due to Cyclone Ockhi. The deadline was later shifted to December 3, 2019, which was also not met. With the Covid-19 lockdown putting a halt to construction work in 2020, the government has now extended the project deadline to October 2021.
Apart from environmental concerns, the project has been assailed with questions about its economic viability since inception. A report submitted in 2013 by consulting firm Deloitte, which had put the total expenditure of all three phases of the project at Rs 14, 283 crore, concluded that the port was not “financially very attractive”.
Rubin D’Cruz, an activist from the region, says that the economic viability of the project has to be viewed in conjunction with environmental and livelihood issues. “Earlier, Kerala government authorities said Vizhinjam can send and receive huge amounts of cargo to different parts of the world without routing them through neighbouring hub ports such as Colombo, Singapore and Dubai. However, now experts in the cargo handling sector say Sri Lanka’s Colombo port will pose a tough challenge to Vizhinjam. At present, Colombo is handling around 35% of the cargo movement in the region, and is more easily accessible even from India’s eastern coast. Kerala’s own Vallarpadam container terminal, commissioned a decade ago, is acumulating losses due to lack of business and underutilisation of its capacities,’ he told HuffPost India.
Of the total project cost of Rs 7,525 crore, Adani’s investment is Rs 2,454 crore, with the Union Government giving Rs 1,635 crore as a viability gap fund, and the state government’s share being Rs 3,436 crore. As per the agreement, AVPPL will operate the port for 40 years, extendable by 20 more years, while the state government will get a portion of the revenue from the port after 15 years.
When the project was launched by the then Congress government in Kerala led by Oommen Chandy, in alliance with Adani Group in 2015, the CPI(M) had alleged that the project involved corruption worth Rs 6,000 crore. However, the party changed its stand after coming to power in 2016. Meanwhile, a Controller and Auditor General (CAG) report of 2017 found several inaccuracies in the project and observed that at the end of the concession period of 40 years, the project would cause a substantial loss of Rs 5,608 crore. The CAG had also found that the total project cost compared to similar ports in other states was highly unreasonable.
“The project has already deposited 6 lakh tonnes of granite into the sea to construct the port, and most of it came from sensitive portions of Western Ghats. It will require one crore tonnes of granite to complete the rest of the work. A lot of public money is getting wasted,” Joseph said.
Even as the sea port’s financial viability remains in question, Peter warned that this is only the beginning of the project’s impact on the environment and the livelihood of locals. “The port is coming up just 250 metres south of the ever-busy Vizhinjam fishing harbour. Both the fishing industry and the marine biodiversity of the region have been affected. Tourism in Kovalam and Shanghumukham beaches has already been affected. The situation will turn murkier by the time construction of the breakwater and quay walls for the port is completed,” he said.
He added that the construction is posing a threat to the rich marine biodiversity of the Wadge bank off the coast of Thiruvananthapuram, which is a breeding ground for over 200 varieties of fish and is the largest coral reef of the Indian Ocean. “It is home to more than 60 species of ornamental fish and other oceanic animals. Commercially important fish such as squids, cuttlefish, carangids, tuna, anchovies and lobsters are available in abundance there. Despite the bank’s status as a Marine Protected Area, the state government decided to go ahead with the project,” he explained.
Dr Thomas said that over 50,000 fish workers are being affected by the project as it has resulted in the destruction of breeding grounds, reduction in fish catch, loss of beaches, loss of access to fishing grounds and increased conflict with shipping vessels.“The increased turbidity of water as a result of reclamation and dredging has started reducing the fish catch as it destroys fish spawning and habitat site,” he said. Fish workers say the dredging work has caused habitat loss for several aquatic organisms, especially mussels and lobsters. According to Thiruvananthapuram-based geologist V. Nandakumar, 15 of the 33 reefs located close to Vizhinjam have been utterly destroyed, and 17 of them heavily damaged as a result of sand deposition from dredging.
And yet, even amid the controversy, the seaport is not the only big infrastructure project in the area that has fallen into the lap of the Adani Group. In August this year, Adani Enterprises secured a 50-year lease to operate, manage and develop the 88-year-old Thiruvananthapuram International Airport following a Union Cabinet decision that was strongly opposed by the Kerala government.
“If the coastal erosion continues unabated, the sea will reach the airport and Adani can integrate both the seaport and airport here, perhaps the first time in the world,” Richens Morais, a fisherman in Vizhinjam, said sardonically.