Ground report: Why Pulicat residents are opposing Adani port expansion in TN

Several residents in Pulicat are opposing the Kattupalli port, which is proposed to be expanded from 330 acres to 6,111 acres.
Migratory Flamingos fly from Pulicat lake
Migratory Flamingos fly from Pulicat lake
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It is 3.30 pm on Thursday and after working for hours at the construction sites at Karimanal Kuppam in Pulicat in Thiruvallur district, few women gather together to begin their next job. The women clad in colourful sarees carry a sack on their shoulder and walk towards Kosasthalaiyar River. As the sun moves towards the west, Selvi along with the other women get into the warm water.  Looking for prawns, she moves her hands underwater, continuing the motion until she finds one. She then puts them into a sack on her shoulder. 

“This is the beauty of our river. It is already rich with natural resources and we share them with the people of Pulicat. We do not want to lose this at any cost,” Selvi says. The fear of losing the natural wealth is not something new to Selvi or the people of Pulicat, with the threat of losing their livelihood and their homes looming over them for decades. 

Factories, ports and power plants have cropped up one after the other over the years, posing a threat to the natural resources and the livelihood of the people in Pulicat. Adding to their list of woes is the proposed expansion of the Kattupalli port by Marine Infrastructure Development and Private Limited, a subsidiary of Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd (APSEZ). The Gautam Adani-led APSEZ is the largest commercial ports operator in India.

According to the December 2020 Kattupalli Port Revised Master Plan, the port will be expanded to a total area of 2472.85 hectares. The proposed expansion will include 136.28 hectares of existing area, 927.11 hectares of government land, and 613.31 hectares of private land. In addition to this, the plan envisages reclaiming 796.15 hectares of land from the sea following dredging. The expansion would cover an environmentally sensitive area that has mangroves, wetlands, water bodies like the Ennore Creek, Pulicat Lake, Kosasthalaiyar River, Buckingham Canal within a 15km radius. 

APSEZ has sought environmental clearance for a Rs 4000 crore port, reports The Wire. However, this port is only a part of its 20-year development project, which includes setting up of industries and an industrial area and entails an overall investment of over Rs 53,000 crore. It has received a nod from the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

The proposed expansion, the residents of Kattupalli fear, is likely to affect not only them,  but could also affect Pulicat or Pazhaverkadu, located 18 kms away. Several hamlets, which depend on fishing for a living fear that their lives may not be the same again. They fear losing their land, facing evictions and not being able to find another source of livelihood. 

People and Pulicat

Traveling 54.3 kms north of Chennai, Pulicat is scenic with the seashore on one side and Kosasthalaiyar River on the other, merging just at the tip. Pulicat is home to fishermen who venture into the sea and into the river. 

The sprawling Kosasthalaiyar is the biggest river in the region. But unlike three decades ago, depleting fish stock has recently posed a problem for residents in over 10 villages in Pulicat. Arokiya Meri, who belongs to a kuppam with Dalit majority, says residents have taken to sustainable fishing to preserve the depleting resource. “We take turns every month and only the boats of a particular village can enter the river each month. We also meet every year and decide on a schedule so that everyone gets their equal share of seafood for sales,” she says.

Residents also take up daily wage jobs like but always return to the waters when their time to fish comes. “Everyone makes sure to go fishing whenever their turn comes. We would love to take this brotherhood to the next generation,” explains Arokiya, who has been a resident of Pulicat for 20 years. “We may not be rich or wealthy but we are happy and healthy. This is all that we wish for ourselves even in the future.” 

While several marine businesses like the prawn industry thrive in Pulicat, people fear that the situation may not be the same anymore once the Adani Ports are expanded.

Sea erosion, flooding and other risks 

The port expansion will come up at the cost of sand dunes and wetlands that will increase sea intrusion in the region, say environmentalists, who also fear that the project will also shrink the land and pose a risk to the islands and Pulicat. 

G Sundarrajan, coordinator of Poovulagin Nanbargal, an environmental group based in Tamil Nadu says, “Sand dunes reduce sea erosion. However, once the sea is dredged, the sea will intrude into the Pulicat lagoon.” Sea erosion would pose a threat to the Pulicat Lake Bird Sanctuary, which is home to migratory birds, he alleges. 

It could also pose a threat to the barrier island of Sriharikota, which not only separates the lagoon from the Bay of Bengal, but also houses the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, says Sundarrajan. 

The company’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report dated December 2020 submitted for environment clearance, however, points to a modelling simulation, which “explicitly shows that the circulation pattern remains the same at the Ennore shoal and at Pulicat mouth area, and there are minor variations in the direction of current flow in front of the proposed master plan configuration and there is no impact to the Ennore shoal area.” 

The report states that while Pulicat Lake is situated 10 km away from the proposed project site, the model “found that there is no effect to Pulicat lake circulation after implementing the layout in the hydrodynamic model. The model simulation shows that, in both the baseline and layout conditions, the position of the barrier island in the Pulicat lake mouth is unchanged.”

A satellite image of route between the existing Adani Port at Kattupalli and Pulicat 

Sunddarajan, however, explains that the port has already reported sea erosion. He says, “Firstly, sea erosion is already reported on the northern side of Kattupalli port. Currently sea erosion is reported at a rate of 8 meters per year. Once the port is set up they'll erode at an increased rate.”

According to data released by Poovulagin Nanbargal, the sea has eroded by 300 meters in the past 30 years.

The company’s EIA report states that model results indicate that the proposed project without any shoreline protection measures could cause “shoreline erosion up to 2 km on the northern side of the port with an erosion rate of 16 meters per year.” In order to prevent such soil erosion, the report recommends “artificial nourishment combined with groyne field on the northern side of the proposed master plan” to minimise the impact.

Pooja Kumar, Program Coordinator of Coastal Resource Centre, also raises the issue of sea erosion. "There is no opposition to the port as such but the problem here is that the ports are going to expand in highly eroding areas and close to the bird sanctuary in Pulicat. No one is saying to stop constructing ports but they need to be constructed or expanded in relatively stable areas," she says, adding, “ "No state in the country has three ports in a city. Hence it's open for discussion whether we need more ports or if we need to optimise the existing ports.” Chennai already has two other ports- Chennai Port Trust and Kamarajar Port. 

Pointing out that Ennore and Pulicat wetlands are an essential part of the ecosystem, Sunddarajan says, “This is a natural ecosystem and Pulicat is the second largest lagoon in India. The ecosystem helps fish to thrive in both wetland and the seas. Many new species of fish have come to life due to the ecosystem. So, the port expansion will affect the marine ecosystem and it will also lead to loss of livelihood for 1 lakh people.”

Incidentally, in its EIA report, the Marine Infrastructure Development and Private Limited on behalf of Adani Ports proposes artificial fish habitats to increase biodiversity, fish production and sustained livelihoods. 

Sundarrajan points out that one of the reasons for the 2015 floods in Chennai was because the outlet in Ennore was allegedly encroached by the Kattupalli Port. “So 50,000 cusecs of water could not be let out in 2015, which was one of the causes for flooding. So now if the port is extended then Chennai will be affected," he says. 

The city's drinking water source will also be affected since there will be no space for recharging groundwater, says Sundarrajan. The Minjur desalination plant may also face issues due to the expansion. Pooja says, "The Adani Ports & SEZ have said that the intake pipeline of Minjur desalination part will have to be relocated. So, it is not clear as to how many months it will take for relocation and if it’s feasible. The questions remain unanswered."

‘Don’t want anymore private players in our land’

Several industries dot the coastline from Royapuram to Pulicat including Kamarajar Port, North Chennai Thermal Power Station, Adani Ports and SEZ at Kattupalli and L&T’s shipping yard. Several residents blame these big projects for flooding in Pulicat as well as sea erosion. 

Kupiyan, a resident of Karimanal Kuppam says, "We are already facing flooding in Pulicat every year. We are shifted to camps during the monsoon. If Adani Port is extended then we do not know what will happen to our place." He adds, "Already few fishing hamlets have swept into the sea and the people have been given alternate government houses where it is difficult to find jobs. We don't want to face a similar issue." 

A satellite image of the development projects undertaken to the south of Adani Ports at Kattupalli

When private industries began setting up shop near Pulicat decades ago, residents say they were initially happy and offered no resistance. “We just definitely thought that we need this balance since fishing doesn't give us a profit always and our population is swelling as days go by. But, soon things changed and we were proved wrong,” says Cheziyan*, a resident of Pulicat.

“The private companies only hire us through contractors on a contract basis for a bare Rs 10,000 per month and without any benefits. Once the contract ends, then we return to the sea,” he says, “Instead of more industries coming up, we all can at least depend on the sea throughout the year to earn a living if the ecosystem is not polluted.”

While Adani Ports promises to provide direct and indirect employment to 6000 people in the region, residents like Kupiyan says, “We do not want any more private players to enter into our land. We are already tired of shifting from place to place. I settled in Pulicat a few decades back when the government moved us from Sriharikota (for setting up the space centre). But I cannot be shifting from place to place all my life.”

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board earlier announced a public hearing for Revised Master Plan Development of Kattupalli Port on January 22. However, the event was postponed by Thiruvallur District Collector P Ponniah citing the gathering of a large crowd amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, the people of Pulicat are not giving up their protests. Many say they are ready to fight till the expansion plans are dropped.“This is our land and we want to pass this on to the next generation. We won’t leave this place and we do not want the job opportunities created by them. We will protest for this till the end,” says Arokiya.

Sarath, a young activist in Pulicat, says, “From the outside, I am confused about how the project received a nod from Central agencies. I earnestly feel that the state government should support us during the movement.”

Instead of allowing the port expansion, Sarath says the government can encourage tourism in the area, which would be a source of employment for residents as well. But he remains firm on any move that will threaten Pulicat. “We don't want to become refugees in our own land. So we will oppose any move that proves detrimental to the landscape of Pulicat." 

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