The fishing community in the coastal town of Karwar in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka has steadfastly opposed the expansion of the port in the town.
On Thursday, January 16, the community spilled out onto the streets to agitate against the construction of a breakwater, a barrier built out into the sea to protect a coast from the force of waves. The construction on the breakwater started on Monday and the fishing community fears that this is the first step in the proposed expansion of the port which they say will wipe out traditional fishing families, irreversibly damage Rabindranath Tagore beach and affect the movement of fishing boats in and out of Aligadda and Baithkoli beaches.
"The construction of the breakwater and the expansion of the port will adversely affect the lives of traditional fishermen who practice fishing in Karwar. There are traditional fishing families who practice fishing in Baithkoli, Tagore Beach and Aligadda beach in Karwar. Over the years, the construction of tourism initiatives, a naval base, and coast guard buildings has seen the spaces for traditional fishermen shrink to just these three spots," Mahabaleshwar Hegde, an environmental researcher from Karwar, who is currently working as a visiting faculty at the University of Winnipeg, Canada, told TNM.
"We want the construction of the breakwater, which was started in the sea on Tagore beach, to be stopped immediately," KT Tandel, a member of the fishing community said.
The expansion of the port in Karwar was taken up under the Sagarmala Project of the Union government. It received an environmental clearance from the State Level Environmental Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) of Karnataka in January 2019. The project also received a provisional Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) clearance in the same month.
The clearances were granted for the construction of five additional berths, reclaiming the sea behind the berth to make a stockyard, a petroleum oil jetty, and â€˜dolphinsâ€™ â€“ berthing and mooring structures. The clearances also mentioned the construction of an additional breakwater of 238 metres in the sea.
The Uttara Kannada District Fishermen Association Forum, which opposes the expansion project, wrote to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) stating that the SEIAA was not authorised to grant environmental clearance in cases "where a project is either partly or wholly located within 10 kilometers of an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA)".
The forum, in its letter, pointed out that the Kali river, considered a Critically Vulnerable Coastal Area (CVCA), which is an ESA as per the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, is located within 5 km of the project site.
Taking note of the concerns raised by the forum, Vinod K Singh, an MoEFCC scientist wrote to the SEIAA in July 2019 asking the state-level body to take action based on the forum's letter. The SEIAA in turn asked the Uttara Kannada Deputy Commissioner Harish Kumar to file a report after inspecting the site. In December 2019, the SEIAA gave 15 days time to the port authority constructing the project to show-cause on why the clearances should not be cancelled.
Eventually, CRZ and environmental clearances were granted on December 30, 2019 but protesters say that their concerns were not taken into consideration. Following this, the Union government decided to go ahead with the construction of the breakwater but were stopped by protesting fishers on January 14.
In the past week, fishers from Bhatkal and Karwar have protested against the construction of the breakwater near Rabindranath Tagore beach. On Thursday, shops in Karwar remained closed and public transport was shut down after the protests intensified and the fishermen called for a bandh to be enforced in the town.
Uttara Kannada DC Harish Kumar told the protesting fishermen in a meeting called at the DCâ€™s office that officials, both in Karwar and Bengaluru, will re-examine the expansion project. "The district administration is with you (protesters). Peaceful protests were held in Karwar today. There is no question of ego here and the district administration is working to resolve the issue through discussions. So far, this has not happened and you (protesters) have taken to the streets," Harish Kumar said.
The DC added that the construction of the breakwater will be halted temporarily till the issue is resolved. He said that protesters have changed their stance on the issue and are now open to the project going ahead as long as Rabindranath Tagore beach is preserved. "Now, the protesters are changing their demand and are allowing for the expansion project to go ahead as long as Tagore beach is preserved. I have requested officials to have another round of discussion with those opposing the expansion," the DC added.
However, protesters leading the opposition against the expansion of the port stated that they will not go back on their demand and want the entire project to be scrapped. "We want the lives of traditional fishermen in Karwar to go on uninterrupted," says KT Tandel, a member of the fishing community.