A $900 million deep-water port being built by the Adani Group has become the focus of protests pitting a left-wing coalition state government backed by Hindu groups, Catholic priests and fishermen who oppose the development on environmental grounds.
Police have filed criminal charges against 15 Catholic priests and dozens of protesters after weekend violence erupted over the Vizhinjam port, which is under construction in the southern state of Kerala. A Kerala High Court judge ordered the protesters to remove the roadblocks and the work to continue.
The priests orchestrated 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 protested in support of the construction, fueling 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 centers. The billionaire businessman has previously faced opposition to his Carmichael coal mine in Australia, as well as from tribal communities in the southern Indian state of Odisha who oppose Adani’s coal mining operations and fishermen at Adani’s Katupalli port near the city of Chennai.
A Stop Adani campaign by environmental activists in Australia has “delayed the mine by about eight years so far,” said Pablo Breit, senior campaigner at Australian climate action group Market Forces. “As long as the Adani Group’s projects continue to impact the climate and people’s livelihoods, they will continue to face opposition to these projects.”
Fishermen blocked the entrance to Vizhinjam port for more than three months, blaming the project for eroding the banks and threatening their livelihood.
An Adani Group spokesperson said the Vizhinjam project is fully compliant with regulations and several independent institutions have cleared it of shoreline erosion. “We believe that the ongoing protests are motivated and against the interests of the state and the development of the port,” the spokesman added.
Current Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of the Communist Party is backing the construction of a container terminal that would create a shipping hub on India’s southern tip to rival the nearby port of Colombo in Sri Lanka, as well as logistics hubs in Dubai and Singapore.
The Government of Kerala is the main financier of the project. Kerala Fisheries Minister V. Abdurahiman on Tuesday denounced the protests as “anti-national”, warning that there was a “limit” to the government’s patience, according to the Press Trust of India.
The state government has paid 1 billion rupees ($12.3 million) in compensation to fishermen until March 2022, according to Adani’s financial filings.
The launch of the port, originally scheduled for August 2020, has been delayed for years.
Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone (APSEZ), the holding company for the port project, said work was hampered by adverse events, including a cyclone and the pandemic, and entered into arbitration with the Kerala government in 2021 over project delays.
In its 2022 annual report, APSEZ said it did not believe the arbitration would have a “significant financial impact” on the port.