‘A Fight for Justice and Survival’ in India: Catholic Church Spearheads Protests for Fishing Families Harmed by Indian Port Project

The project, which has disrupted the lives of thousands of members of the fishing community in the Christian heartland of Kerala, is being operated by one of the world’s richest men.

Clockwise from upper left: Amid protests, Archbishop Thomas Neto addresses gathering. Rows of damaged houses at Valiathura. Police keeping pro-port protesters away from massive church-led protest venue.
Clockwise from upper left: Amid protests, Archbishop Thomas Neto addresses gathering. Rows of damaged houses at Valiathura. Police keeping pro-port protesters away from massive church-led protest venue. (photo: National Catholic Register / Anto Akkara)

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India — The Church is leading an unprecedented protest against a controversial port project run by one of the world’s richest men, which is playing havoc with the lives of thousands of fisher people in the Archdiocese of Trivandrum in southern Kerala state.

More than 25,000 fisher people and others led by bishops, priests, nuns and delegates from other dioceses marched on Sept. 18 to the site of 62 days of nonstop protest near the entrance of the construction site of the port at Vizhinjam near Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala.

The serene and historic fishing harbor of Vizhinjam along the Arabian Sea coast is being converted to a massive commercial port costing more than $1 billion. The port is now leased to the powerful Adani Corp., led by Gautam Adani — who last month replaced Jeff Bezos as the world’s second-richest man, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index.

“More than 50 people have died in fishing accidents due to disturbance of the sea since the construction began. We will continue the protest until our just demands are met,” Father Eugene Pereira, vicar general of the archdiocese and convener of the fisher people’s protest, told the Register Sept. 27.

The seven core demands of the fisher people — addressing equitable compensation, rehabilitation for devastation caused by the project and protection of the coastal areas — have been displayed on a giant billboard at the protest venue. 

“The government has yet to give us a written assurance to address our demands,” said Father Pereira, who has led several delegations of striking fisher people to key government officials, including one on Sept. 26.

More than 90% of the Trivandrum Archdiocese’s quarter-million Catholics hail from a fishing background, based on a legacy of hamlets strewn along the Arabian Sea coast that were evangelized by St. Francis Xavier in the 16th century.

“We are not against development. But this is not a development project, but a destructive one. The houses and livelihood of our people are being destroyed along with the coasts,” Archbishop Thomas Neto of Trivandrum told the Sept. 18 rally.

“We have nothing to lose. Ours is a protest for livelihood and survival. We are not prepared to bow before this destructive project. We are prepared to pay any price and continue the protests until our just demands are met,” said Archbishop Neto. 

While this declaration drew thunderous applause from the crowd, elderly women could be seen in tears and in prayer with folded hands as Archbishop Neto made the passionate speech.

At the same time, hundreds of police had a tough time keeping “pro-port” protesters who tried to break into the massive church protests at bay. The clout of the Adani Corp. over the media was also evident, after more than a dozen TV channels crowded a news conference on the eve of the Sept. 18 protest at the Trivandrum archbishop’s house. However, the news coverage that was actually aired afterward remained minimal. 

“We have no option but to raise voices for our suffering people,” Archbishop Neto told the Register, when asked if the local Church is worried about repressive action from the government, as Adani is a close friend of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, under whose regime Adani’s fortunes have multiplied more than 20 times in eight years. 


Church Intervention Applauded

“I congratulate the Church for this noble act of speaking up for the fisher people and environment destruction with the unscientific port construction,” said Prashant Bhushan, a federal Supreme Court lawyer who was a featured guest at the Sept. 18 protest.

“It has led to the destruction of the coast and lives of the [fisher] people. The sea has eroded the coast, destroyed houses and vanished beaches,” said Bhushan, a prominent activist lawyer who has repeatedly visited Vizhinjam over the last eight years, documenting the devastation caused by the construction of the port.

“The [2-mile]-long wall built in the sea is leading to this destruction, and it is obvious that the port is causing the problem,” Bhushan said. 

The entire Church in Kerala has rallied behind the protests, led by the Archdiocese of Trivandrum, beginning with a procession that started from Moonampally at Kochi, 140 miles to the north, on Sept. 14, and traversing through coastal townships and parishes to spread awareness before concluding at Vizhinjam.

“This is a fight for justice and survival. It is undemocratic to implement major projects like Vizhinjam Port without proper scientific study and assessment of the possible impact,” said Cardinal George Alencherry, major archbishop of India’s Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the president of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, while inaugurating the flag march. 

“Even those who were evicted here at Moolampally [to build a container terminal in 2007] have not been rehabilitated properly,” Cardinal Alencherry, whose vibrant Syro-Malabar Church traces its legacy to St. Thomas the Apostle, commented.


Accounts of the Devastation

A visit to St. Antony’s Valiathura deanery parish on the seashore, home to  2,300 Catholic families, provided a picture of the devastation caused by the Vizhinjam Port being constructed 10 miles to the south.

Since port construction began, rough surges from the sea have broken the key transportation lifeline of Valiathura — a nearly-300-meter-long concrete sea bridge in front of the church — that enabled small ships to unload cargo and fishermen to bring their catch to market, thereby depriving hundreds of their livelihoods. 

More pathetic was the sight of rows of broken and devastated houses, besides hundreds of houses completely swallowed by the sea along the Valiathura coast.

Jessy Antony, a fisherman’s wife, lives with her family in a crammed cubicle in one of the four huge warehouses (unused since the bridge was broken) that are sheltering nearly 100 displaced Catholic families near the church. 

 “Our house had never suffered any damage until the work on the port began. But we have not received any compensation nor any support from government,” Antony told the Register.

“Our troubles started six years ago, when our house was swallowed by the sea. Since then, we have been living in this [dilapidated] school. Look at our surroundings,” Jacinta Christopher, the widow of a fisherman who died in the “shabby camp,” told the Register.

“In my 60 years of life, our house was never damaged, though we lived on the coast. Now, the government is trying to push us out from this [school] camp, as it is an embarrassment for the port project,” said Christopher, who shares a single classroom with four families.

“Our people have been suffering from the devastating effect of the port construction,” Father Sabbas Ignatius, the parish priest, told the Register.

“The government has a list of more than 200 Catholic families who have lost their houses and have been displaced from our parish. Many more are living in broken and damaged houses, as they have nowhere to go,” said Father Ignatius, the former social-service director of Trivandrum Archdiocese.

“My house on the coast was swallowed by the sea in 2017. More than 20 houses in my parish have gone under the sea, which has encroached a kilometer since the port construction began,” recounted Patrick Michael, the president of the lay forum of the archdiocese, who lives in nearby Valithope parish.

“Even going to fish in the sea now is dangerous, due to sudden surges after the port construction,” said Michael, who used to accompany his fisherman father to the sea in his younger days.


Money Talks?

C.R. Neelankandan, a leading environmental and social activist in Kerala who was on the podium during the Sept 18 protest, told the Register: “This [Vizhinjam] port construction is destroying the lives of the fisher people, the environment and pristine beaches.”

“If the port is allowed to be completed, thousands of fisherfolk will be thrown out of their profession,” said Neelakandan, convener of the Kerala chapter of the National Alliance of People’s Movements.

“The popular Kovalam Beach has been damaged for good,” Neelakandan said, referencing a local attraction that is advertised internationally by the Kerala state government’s tourism department. “But government bodies that should object to such flagrant destruction of environment are keeping quiet due to the money power of Adani Corp.”