The construction of a megaport in Tamil Nadu has sparked fears of rapid coastal erosion and provoked protests by locals | Artwork: Sriranjini Raman/ Adyasha Nayak

‘Megaport’ construction puts Tamil Nadu’s Kattupalli island at risk of largescale devastation

After the disaster in Uttarakhand, the lopsided evaluation of environmental risks of haphazard coastal development has come into focus 

Kattupalli Island on Tamil Nadu’s coast is 2626.50 km from Chamoli, the epicentre of the recent glacial disaster in Uttarakhand. The two places have little in common except for their breathtaking landscapes and the fact that decisions taken in Delhi have put climate change on a collision course with degrading land-use change in both areas. The Uttarakhand floods provide a case in point. In 2014, a year after the disastrous floods in the same river valley, an expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court warned against any further destablisation of the mountains by heavy construction, particularly of dams. But mega construction projects, including tunnels, highways and dams, continue to be pushed as solutions in the name of development, security and even religion.

Ports are to Kattupalli what dams are to Uttarakhand. On February 5, 2021, two days before the Himalayan tragedy, Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar openly defended an Adani subsidiary’s proposal for a megaport in Kattupalli in the Lok Sabha. He did not let legal prohibitions against such construction on Kattupalli’s fragile shoreline and categorical evidence that it will contribute to future disasters affect his judgement.

Two decades in the making

Kattupalli’s tryst with disasters began 22 years ago, when a coal port was constructed on the island. Ironically, the new Ennore Port, later renamed Kamarajar Port, was proposed as a solution to the problem of coal dust pollution from the centrally located Chennai Port. Book-ended by the Ennore estuary in North Chennai and the Pulicat Lagoon, India’s second-largest brackish water body, Kattupalli was a narrow undisturbed island surrounded by ecologically sensitive and valuable regions.

The Coastal Zone Management Plan prepared for the area in 1996 declared the island and the wetlands as eco-sensitive and off-limits for development. But this plan was given a quiet burial to facilitate conversion of these ecological treasure-troves into an industrial area, and a different map sans any protections for the island and wetlands was pushed as the official map purported to have been prepared and approved in 1997. A 22 February, 2021 order of the NGT established that the latter map was unapproved and illegal. But by then, substantial damage had already been done. The Central Government-owned Kamarajar Port, whose construction began in 1999, was the first to violate the No Development Zone. 

The Kattupalli shoreline is eroding at a rate of 8 m/year due to port-induced erosion north of the existing Adani Kattupalli Port. The black line is the original shoreline as of 2004.

Local communities and environmentalists warned even then that constructing a port on the fragile barrier island would trigger erosion to the north and expose communities and groundwater resources to heightened risk of cyclones and storm surges. Six years later, in 2006, a study titled “Shoreline Management Plan for Ennore Coast” by the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences confirmed these concerns. “Along the north coast of Ennore port, the beachfill area is undergoing severe erosion at the rate of 50m per annum,” the study reported. Other studies have confirmed that the area is already prone to salinity intrusion. 

Like Uttarakhand, which has had its fair share of landslides and flash floods triggered by reckless construction, Chennai knows only too well what ports can do to the coastline. The 2006 Ennore study reminds us that Chennai lost 1,580 acres of land to the sea due to erosion within just 100 years of the construction of the Madras harbour.

The study’s authors conclude with a dire warning against any further construction on the Ennore-Kattupalli coast: “Now with the construction of Ennore port, 16km north of Chennai port, another erosion problem was (sic) emerged and similar issues like Chennai port are on the way. If no intervention is planned, threat to ecologically sensitive Pulicat Lake is inevitable.” 

Geographical significance

The Pulicat is no ordinary lake. In the words of Professor S Kannaiyan, former chairman of the National Biodiversity Authority, which he wrote 15 years ago, “Pulicat lake supports the livelihood of about 44,000 fisher folk and an equal number of poor people. It is a vast nursery of about 12 species of prawns, 19 species of crabs and 168 species of finfish and harbours endemic, endangered and keystone species. During 1995-2003 an annual average of about 77,000 waterfowl belonging to 37 species sojourned on this lake during winter season, of which at least 25 species breed at the nearby areas.” The wetland stretching from Pulicat in the north to Ennore and Manali in the south are important shock absorbers that protect the densely populated Chennai city from flooding during heavy rains and water scarcity in years of deficit.

This brackishwater lagoon is held together by a flimsy barrier offered by the Kattupalli island, separating the Bay of Bengal from the Kosasthalai River. All along India’s coast, the defence against the vicious ocean is offered by such fragile coastlines fortified by sandy beaches and vegetation-covered dunes. Weakening these defences is asking for trouble.

Government flip-flops

In November 2009, the Ministry of Environment & Forests clarified that under the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, ports and harbours are prohibited in high erosion coasts, and defined coasts eroding at more than 1 metre/year as ‘highly eroding’. Ignoring its own advice, in May 2010, barely six months later, the same ministry accorded environmental and CRZ clearance to the L&T port-cum-shipbuilding yard on the high-eroding Kattupalli coastline.

In 2011 and 2019, the environment ministry’s earlier clarification was written into law. The CRZ Notifications, 2011 and 2019 list ports and harbours as prohibited activity in high eroding stretches of the coastline. But that has not stopped the reckless from teasing the oceans.

In 2018, Adani-owned Marine Infrastructure Development Private Ltd (MIDPL) acquired a 330-acre area of the L&T Port, and applied to construct a ‘megaport’ on the island by expanding on its acquisition. In its application, it withheld information about the eroding nature of the coastline by responding in the negative to a question whether the location is characterised by erosion. The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) dealing with ‘Ports and Harbours’ was alerted to the threat of erosion by several citizen groups, with citations of Government of India papers that warned of erosion. But the EAC ignored the rule of law. Instead of rejecting MIDPL’s application at this stage, citing the highly eroding nature of the location, the ‘experts’ issued Terms of Reference for an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of the prohibited activity.

In January this year, after vocal public protests against the port forced the state government to indefinitely postpone the public hearing, South Chennai Member of Parliament Dr Thamizhachi Thangapandian raised a question in Lok Sabha seeking to know “whether the expansion of Kattupalli port is prohibited under Coastal Regulation Zone Notification as ports are not permitted to be set up in high erosion zone.”

Javadekar’s response, delivered on February 5, two days before the Uttarakhand disaster, is curious: “Construction of ports, harbours and allied facilities are permissible under Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, 2011, however, port and harbour projects in high eroding stretches of the coast are prohibited. The proposal is for expansion of an existing port project.” The response makes it appear as though expansion of ports will not aggravate erosion and that the law exempts expansions. That is illogical, especially as MIDPL’s expansion is not within the footprint of its existing port.

Adani MIDPL’s existing acquisition occupies a coastline of around 1km, with a meagre footprint of 330 acres. The proposed expansion will create new land by reclaiming 2,000 acres of the sea and 3200 acres of tidal and freshwater wetlands, and extend the port’s northern limits by paving over an additional 6km of beach.

Doubling the damage

The MIDPL’s EIA confirms that building the port will nearly double the rate of erosion of the shoreline to the north of the proposed expansion. While the shore is already eroding at 8.6 metres per year – i.e. 8.6 times faster than the erosion threshold prescribed under law – the proposed development will erode the coast to the north of the port at a rate of 16 metres/year. At that rate, it will take less than seven years for the narrow island to be breached and for the Bay of Bengal to merge with the Pulicat lagoon.

Thus far, the erosion has led to loss of land but not of life. However, the proposed construction will push erosion further north and that will harm homes and lives. At least 6,000 people in seven seaside fishing villages, and 1,800 people in the two villages of Pasiyavaram and Sathankuppam in Pulicat lagoon will be placed directly in harm’s way. At erosion rates predicted in Adani’s own EIA, the threat of losing entire villages to the sea within a decade of construction of the port is real. Even without climate-induced sea level rise and super cyclones, these villages will be at high risk if the shore-eroding port is built.

Name of VillagePopulation
Lighthouse Kuppam288
Sembasipalli Kuppam798
Thirumalai Nagar1,036
Vairavan Kuppam799
Source: Marine Fisheries Census, 2010. Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute
*The unstarred villages are seaside villages located on the eastern shore of the Kattupalli Island. The starred villages are in the lagoon and directly in harm’s way if the island were to be breached by erosion.

In the case of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak disaster, Union Carbide Corporation’s CEO Warren Anderson was charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder. A person that commits an act knowing fully well that its consequences could include the illegal death of people, even if the intent of the act is not to kill, is guilty of culpable homicide. By these standards, one cannot help but wonder about the culpability of those who clear these dams and ports – the central and state ministers, and the coterie of experts populating appraisal committees.

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