Pulicat's fisherfolk are fighting against Adani group's port expansion, which will convert 1145 hectares of land and seawater to industrial real estate, possibly erasing close to 50 villages.

Fisherwomen from a Tamil Nadu town use food to fight Adanis port expansion
Delve Environment Friday, January 24, 2020 - 19:31

Uma peers into the iron tawa on the stove in front of her, giving it an occasional stir with the ladle. Inside the tawa, white shrimps quickly turn pink as the water they are soaked in disappears with the heat. She then tosses dried chillies and rock salt into the pan to add flavour to this shrimp dish that she calls ‘karkarthu.’ 

On the other end of the breezy cement hall overlooking the Pulicat lake, 30-year-old Amul stirs a dark crab claw soup. As each pincer plops into the boiling water, she explains the age-old recipe which is local to the people of Pazhaverkadu or Pulicat, which has the second largest brackish water lake in India, 55 kms north of Chennai.

"You must use the mud crabs or brackish water crabs for the soup. The mud crabs live for days after we catch them and saltwater crabs don't give the same taste. Who knows how long we have to enjoy these dishes made with our catch," she says.  

Across the tiny hall, at least 15 fisherwomen are busy cooking up a seafood storm for the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha, an annual festival which celebrates local artforms, people and spaces. This year, Theru Vizha will host a three-day seafood festival at Sea Salt, a Chennai restaurant, in collaboration with InSeason Fish, a sustainable seafood guide, where these women will co-create a seafood thaali named Pazhaverkadu Meen Virunthu, featuring classics from the age-old Pulicat cuisine. 

Fisherwomen cooking shrimp and crab at Pulicat 

The tie-up is an exercise in celebration of the local food and catch of Pulicat's rich wetland ecosystem, but also so much more than that, as these women cook up a storm to convey a damning message to the world. 

"These are our traditional recipes made with the species available in our water bodies. But with Pulicat wetlands facing imminent external threats, these prawns, crabs, our dishes and livelihoods will die in the near future," Rajalakshmi, one of the fisherwomen in the fest tells TNM. 

Meen puttu and shrimp vadas at Pulicat

Their words ring true as residents of 40 villages in and around the region (and 30 villages from Andhra Pradesh) will face imminent risk to life and livelihoods, with Adani Group's port expansion project set to turn these wetlands into industrial real estate. 

Adani vs Pulicat fishers 

The Adani Kattupalli port expansion project aims to expand the L&T port acquired by the company in the Kattupalli island here at a cost of Rs 53,031 crores, by converting 1145 hectares of land and sea in the critical Ennore-Pulicat wetland complex into industrial use. 

At present, the Kattupalli port located in Thiruvallur district is classified as a minor port by the Tamil Nadu Maritime Board and handles a capacity of 1.2 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) annually. It has two berths, a quay length of 710 meters, 6 Quay cranes, 15 RTG cranes, 2 no’s weigh bridge (one each at the In gate and Out gate), office cabins with EDI connectivity for Custom officials and canteen facility. 

After acquiring 97 percent stake of the port from Larsen and Toubro (L&T) in July 2018, the Adani group not only began construction of a third berth here, but also sought clearance for an additional quay length of 9567 meters and wants to develop barge berths for a quay length of 1,250 meters, 12 port crafts, and 2 SPMs (Single Point Mooring).

The Revised Master Plan for the expansion project states Adani Group would be developing trans loading facilities, backup facilities, independent port craft facilities, waste reception facilities, conveyor systems, drainage, water supply, electrical works, internal roads, railway works and other utilities, amenities and bunkering, for commercial and business requirements. 

According to Adani’s expansion proposal, the project will not displace any existing settlements and that vast stretches of “non-agricultural and highly saline barren land are available for development,” says a Hindu report.  

Even if their villages aren't displaced, the project will reclaim land from the wetlands and shallow seas surrounding the lake, not only impacting the Pulicat-Ennore ecosystem but also hogging the fishing grounds of Pulicat's residents and severely affecting their livelihood. The construction phase alone would require 0.8 MLD (Millions of Liters Per Day) of water per day which will be taken from the ocean and desalinated by constructing a 30 MLD capacity desalination plant. 

"Some days we enter the sea and catch live prawns and immediately make curry. With the Adani reclaiming land here, our movements will be restricted and our fishing areas usurped. We know we will eventually be removed from here. But apart from fishing, we do not know any other job," Rajalakshmi adds. 

Three spot swimmer crabs, Mackerel (top left and right), Lady fish, mud crabs (bottom left and right) 

The impact of Adani's port expansion could mean that Pulicat's ecosystem could change from fishing to an industrial ecosystem, with fishers eventually having to give up this space, explains Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based writer and environmental activist. 

Presently, the entire economy around the Pulicat wetland is dependent on one thing - fish. 

"Most residents here earn their bread through fishing. The others have ancillary businesses such as ice sales, fish sales, labour, truck contracts to transport fish, tea and coffee shops etc which have cropped up with fishing money. If Adani's proposal gets cleared, all these businesses could vanish, leaving thousands without livelihoods. We are talking about 30,000 families here," he adds. 

Development could lead to Pulicat lake merging with Bay of Bengal 

Beyond the threat of losing their fishing grounds, the Kattupalli port's expansion could pose a big environmental hazard, eroding the sandy islands which separate Pulicat with Bay of Bengal.

In August 2019, a 3-member expert sub-committee of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), appointed by an Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), surveyed the proposed area for port expansion and stated that the 'majority of the proposed development falls under the erosion zone'. This report also highlighted that “The entire Pulicat system, along with Buckingham Canal and Ennore Creek, has been designated as ecologically-sensitive areas and placed under Coastal Regulations Zone -1.”  

In October 2019, despite protests and evidence of the environmental hazard, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) granted Terms of Reference (ToR) for Adani Group's expansion proposal. ToR document issued by the MoEF for a project set guidelines for preparing draft Environmental Impact Assessment or EIA which will then be submitted to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) for a public hearing.

The EAC accepted the committee's findings that the Pulicat system to the north, Buckingham canal to the west and the Ennore creek to the south are classified as eco-sensitive zones and issued 39 Terms of reference for preparing the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). This issuance of ToR by the Environment Ministry came despite resistance from local fishers sparked fresh protests in the region.

The breakwaters created for the port could stop the flow of sand and aid soil erosion, destroying the island villages that separate the Pulicat lake with the sea. Six seaside villages - namely Kattupalli, Korakuppam, Bhairavan kuppam, Karangan kuppam, Lighthouse kuppam and Goonangkuppam in Pulicat - will become the direct casualties of the erosion.

And if the lake merges with the Bay of Bengal, the sea would swallow the entire area, shifting the region from a wetland ecosystem to a marine ecosystem, Nityanand adds. 

A satellite view of Pulicat fishing town, located 55 kms north of Chennai 

"Not only would this drastically alter India's map, it will wipe away the species in these wetlands, and then proceed to destroy the fishers, their livelihoods and the economy in Pulicat. The destruction will come in waves, with the seaside villages being directly affected and the others later," he adds.  

With the wetlands and islands gone, the Ennore-Pulicat complex will no longer act as a buffer during heavy rains and cyclonic storms of the South West monsoon, potentially paving the way for a natural disaster such as flooding in Chennai and the state's hinterlands.  

By highlighting the importance of the Ennore-Pulicat wetlands, the Pulicat Seafood Festival tries to show how its fate in terms of water and flood security is inevitably tied to the existence of this ecosystem. To celebrate the World Wetlands Day on February 2, the Pazhaverkadu menu curated by the Pulicat fisherwomen will be on offer for three days from January 31 - 2, at Sea Salt in Nungambakkam, Chennai.  

Cooking for survival 

Back in the hall, the women finish cooking the entire menu for the Pazhaverkadu Meen Virunthu, within a matter of 2 hours, to teach the chefs and cooks who have arrived from Chennai.

Mud crab soup, shrimp Karkathu, shrimp vadas, Kaanan Keluthi puttu (made using mackerels), crispy fried lady fish, a thokku (gravy) made with three spot swimmer crabs, meen mitta, meen curry and a prawn biriyani with accompaniments are carefully spread on a green banana leaf for display. 

Pazhaverkadu Meen Virunthu or Pulicat Seafood thali

The lunch begins and the mood turns festive, but not without a tinge of dread at the long fight that lies ahead for Pulicat's fishers. 

"The food here always tastes better a day later. That's because the species here are fresh and resilient. The crabs and shrimp squirm with life even when you drop them into the pot. Try it sometime with kanji (rice gruel). It will all be destroyed soon and you won't get to miss it," Amul drifts off.  

The Pazhaverkadu Meen Virunthu will be on offer from January 31, February 1 and 2 at Nungambakkam's Sea Salt restaurant, as part of the Pulicat Seafood Festival. The thaali will be priced at Rs 545. 

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