Chennai

Kattupalli port expansion plan: fishermen, farmers fear loss of livelihood

Size matters: The existing port, which began operations in 2012, was originally owned by Larsen and Toubro and bought over by MIDPL in 2018.  

A family of four standing ankle-deep in the receding waters of the Kosasthalaiyar in north Chennai wrests bloodworms out of the river bed and collects them in little buckets, to be sold as feed to shrimp farms. On the other side, the rising sun glances off the container cranes of the Kattupalli port, overlooking the Bay of Bengal.

A kilogram of prawn feed can fetch Laxmi and her family ₹600 to ₹900. They are members of the Irula community from Kattoor, 3 km upstream, who have been plucking bloodworms out of the river bed for the last two years. Before that, Laxmi’s husband worked as a coolie in the nearby villages. Her family were inland fishermen who were forced to abandon their line of work when the ports and industries in the vicinity muddied their waters.

If the Gautam Adani-owned Marine Infrastructure Developer Private Ltd. (MIDPL) has its way, Laxmi and her family risk losing their livelihood again. She is unaware of the company’s ₹53,031 crore expansion plan which could eat into the river and the surrounding land.

The proposal

MIDPL’s revised Master Plan submitted to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in November 2018 proposes a roughly ten-fold expansion of the existing cargo handling capacity of the port.

The port will be developed on a total area of 2,472.85 hectares (ha) which includes 133.50 ha of the existing port’s area, 761.8 ha of government land, 781.4 ha of private land, and the proposed sea reclamation of 796.15 ha.

More trouble: According to villagers in the Ennore-Pulicat region, allowing expansion of the port will mean destruction of an already precarious ecology around the area. File

More trouble: According to villagers in the Ennore-Pulicat region, allowing expansion of the port will mean destruction of an already precarious ecology around the area. File   | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

 

A three-member sub-committee of the MoEFCC visited the site in early June. The sub-committee recommended that the Terms of Reference (ToR) be granted to MIDPL, based on the opinion of the Expert Appraisal Committee of the MoEFCC, according to the minutes of its meeting in July which was recently made public.

Although the committee did take into account the sensitive ecology of the area, besides the recommendation of a few detailed studies and general conditions required for the Environment Impact Assessment, the committee’s report did not raise any major concerns about the project, said representatives of NGOs working with the people in the area.

The existing port, which began operations in 2012, was originally owned by L&T (Larsen and Toubro) and bought over by MIDPL in 2018. Since the port was already operational, no other site was considered. The proposal also claims that it does not displace any existing settlements and that large stretches of “non-agricultural and highly saline barren land are available for development.”

According to MIDPL, the land identified for the project belongs either to TIDCO and the department of salt, the transfer of which will be done duly. On the other hand, private land will be purchased directly from the owners.

Villages threatened

MIDPL’s plan does not take into account the surrounding villages, both on the western banks of the Kosasthalaiyar river and the coastal villages on the seaward side that depend on the land for their livelihood, activists claimed.

Kattupalli port expansion plan: fishermen, farmers fear loss of livelihood
 

Going by the 2011 Census, the Voyalur panchayat, of which Urnambedu, Segenimedu and five other villages are a part, has a population of 6,080. Over 3,400 residents of the neighbouring village of Kattoor also depend on fishing in the Kosasthalaiyar for their livelihood. Another 10 fishing villages along the coast, including Kattupalli, are also likely to be threatened by the proposed port expansion, according to a study undertaken by the Coastal Resource Centre, a Chennai-based NGO.

The impact of the project could affect many more. At a press conference held last week, representatives from different villages around the project Master Plan publicly opposed it. Allowing the expansion to take place would mean the destruction of an ecology that sustains the livelihood of around 50,000 fisherfolk in and around the Ennore-Pulicat region, they said.

People living around the port stand to lose the most as the majority of residents in these villages comprise marginal farmers, cattle-rearers, in-land fish workers, salt-pan and agricultural labourers, they pointed out.

A polluted eco-system

Back in the waters of the Kosasthalaiyar, 60-year-old Menamma and four other fisherwomen from Kattoor are neck-deep in the basin looking for fish, unmindful of the fierce midday sun. “The entire village comes here to fish and we’re all dependent on the river,” she says, her hands black with sludge from the river. “The chemicals from the thermal power plants and the waste from the factories have made the river black. However hard I try to wash it away, it remains on my hands.”

K. Sudhir, an architect and one of the founding members of Concerned Youth for People (CYP), a group assessing the environmental and social impact of the projects in the area, claims the release of hot water from the power plants and brine from the desalination plant into the Ennore Creek and Kosasthalaiyar river has already damaged the fragile ecosystem.

According to Nagaraj, a fisherman from Sengenimedu, inland fishing used to bring them ₹500 to ₹1,000 per day. Now, dredging of the river and creek has reduced the catch. “There are sections of the river with no water at all. The river bed is so polluted with sludge that when we take our cows out for grazing, they get stuck and need to be tied and dragged,” he says.

K. Mani, a 60-year-old fisherman of Urnambedu, says, “We lost the salt pans when the first power plant was constructed 30 years ago. Now the waters are not fit for fishing and the size of the catch has reduced. The fish taste of oil,” he said.

Industrial development

With the onslaught of industrial development in the area in the last three decades, many locals have had to depend on the companies to make a living. Adjoining the existing Kattupalli port are the L&T shipyard and the 18-year-old Kamarajar port. The North Chennai Thermal Power Station phases one, two and three and the upcoming fourth are also within a 10-km radius. The coal fly ash from the power plants is deposited in two ponds.

Kattupalli port expansion plan: fishermen, farmers fear loss of livelihood
 

In the pre-feasibility report for the port expansion plan submitted to the MoEFCC, MIDPL promised direct employment to 1,500 people in the area and “indirect” employment to another 4,500 people.

Nagaraj complains that even the existing projects in the area do not employ locals and prefer cheap labour from outside the State. “I was working at the power plant, but a few months back, they asked 50 of us from this panchayat to leave saying that there is no work.”

L&T’s draft Environmental Impact Assessment report in June 2008 claimed that the shipyard and port complex would create 10,000 jobs in total. Kannan, president of the fishermen’s cooperative society in Kattupalli Kuppam, says that they were given jobs in the port initially. “But, after a few years, we were asked to leave,” he adds.

He is among the group that is convinced that MIDPL reclaiming the sea will only exacerbate the existing crisis. “When L&T bought the land, we were asked to move to Kalanji village in 2009. Now, with the new master plan we will have to move again as this village will also be walled in by the project and we will have to travel farther to get to the sea,” he explains.

Agriculture is another important component of the lives of the locals. “Since the groundwater is saline, the Mamuni eri [lake] is the only method of irrigation available. Water supply is assured for at least one harvest cycle. The port expansion plan cuts into the irrigation channels from the eri to the fields,” says Abhijith Suresh, a member of CYP.

After the harvest, the fields are used as grazing lands in the summer. “Around 342 acres of common grazing land are used by the villages. The expansion plan will build over roughly half of this grazing area,” adds Rahul Sridharan, another member of CYP.

Reclamation plan

The port expansion plan involves reclaiming 796.15 ha of the sea.

“The 2011 CRZ regulations did not allow for land reclamation but under the 2019 notification this is allowed for four types of projects - strategic, tourism, defence and public utilities. What projects fall under any of these categories is unclear,” remarks Pooja Kumar at the Coastal Resource Centre.

During the monsoons, the river basin gets inundated, she explains.

“Most of the area is low-lying so the expansion will lead to raising the height of the land. This may not allow the water to drain and can flood the nearby farms. Sand dunes and mangroves near the coast act as a sponge to decrease salt water intrusion and mitigate the impact of storms. This project will build over the sand dunes and could increase ground water salinity,” Ms. Kumar lists out.

According to her, the project is being pushed as an expansion of the existing port and not a greenfield project. “This is easier to do as most of the permission needed has already been taken. If it is considered a new project, the company has to look at multiple sites and justify why they picked this area.”

‘Committed to environment’

A spokesperson of Adani Ports, MIDPL’s parent company, in a release, says: “The proposed construction to expand Kattupalli port in North Chennai will potentially increase the handling capacity from 24.64 million to 320 million tonnes.

Adani Group is committed to building a robust logistics and trade infrastructure for India. The group focuses on operating as per global standards, including initiatives towards environmental protection.

It also strongly believes in ‘Growth with Goodness’ and will continue to undertake initiatives for environmental sustainability, and local community development, for nation building.”

As night sets in, on one side of the unlit potholed road to Urnambedu lie barren fields and a now dry irrigation canal. On the other, the sea of lights of the Kamarajar and Kattupalli ports illuminate the horizon.


Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 5:46:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/muddying-the-waters/article28811402.ece

Next Story