A $900mn deepwater port being built by the Adani Group has become the focus of protests, pitting a leftist coalition state government supported by Hindu groups against Catholic priests and fishermen who oppose the development on environmental grounds.
Police have filed criminal complaints against 15 Catholic priests and scores of protesters after violence broke out over the Vizhinjam port, which is under construction in the southern state of Kerala over the weekend. A Keralan high court judge has ordered protesters to remove road blocks and let the work continue.
The priests have been organising months-long protests by mostly Christian fishermen in Kerala against the project, which was commissioned by the Congress-led state government in 2015. Hindu groups have protested in support of the construction, stoking concerns about communal tensions flaring in the area.
The protests are an example of the growing political risks facing Asia’s richest man Gautam Adani, as he rapidly expands his conglomerate from coal to data centres. The billionaire businessman has previously faced resistance against his Carmichael coal mine in Australia, as well as from tribal communities in the southern Indian state of Odisha objecting to Adani’s coal mining activity and fishermen at Adani’s Kattupalli port near the city of Chennai.
A “Stop Adani” campaign by environmental activists in Australia “has so far delayed the mine by around eight years”, said Pablo Brait, senior campaigner at Australian climate action group Market Forces. “While Adani Group’s projects continue to impact the climate and people’s livelihoods, then they will continue to face resistance to those projects.”
“All the protests . . . mentioned have local contexts,” said Adani Group. “These are independent protests with no nexus both temporal and spatial.”
Fishermen have been blocking the Vizhinjam port entrance for more than three months, blaming the project for coastal erosion and jeopardising their livelihoods.
An Adani Group spokesperson said the Vizhinjam project was in full compliance with regulations and several independent institutions had cleared it of shoreline erosion. “We feel that the ongoing protests are motivated and against the interests of the state and the development of the port,” the spokesperson added.
Kerala’s current chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, from the Communist Party, supports the container terminal construction, which would create a shipping hub at the southern tip of India to rival nearby Sri Lanka’s Colombo port, as well as logistics hubs in Dubai and Singapore.
Kerala’s government is the main financier of the project. Kerala’s fisheries minister V Abdurahiman on Tuesday slammed the protests as “anti-national”, warning there was a “limit” to the government’s patience, according to the Press Trust of India.
The state government had paid out Rs1bn ($12.3mn) in compensation to fishermen by March 2022, according to Adani’s financial filings.
The port’s launch, initially set for August 2020, has been delayed for years.
Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone (APSEZ), the holding company for the port project, said work had been held back by adverse events, including a cyclone and the pandemic, and went into arbitration with Kerala’s government in 2021 over the project’s delay.
In its 2022 annual report, APSEZ said it did not believe the arbitration would have “significant financial impact” on the port.