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Road to Ruin: How a New Port Threatens the Livelihood of 2,000 Fisherwomen

Road to Ruin: How a New Port Threatens the Livelihood of 2,000 Fisherwomen

The dry fish business employs nearly 15,000 people in Honnavar taluk. The stretch of land which is now the site of road construction is primarily used by over 2,000 women to dry their fish. Photo: Hagen Desa/Mongabay

  • A four-kilometre-long road under construction on a beach at Kasarkod-Tonka, a coastal village in Uttara Kannada, is threatening the livelihood of over 2,000 fisherwomen.
  • The road is part of the Honnavar port project and the site of road construction comes under the ‘no development zone’ of India’s coastal regulation.
  • It is unsurveyed land, part of the village coastal commons, and has been used by fishers for generations for drying fish.
  • A petition filed at the National Green Tribunal contends that the private company misguided authorities while seeking coastal regulation zone clearance.
  • Fishers are worried about their livelihood and their existence but are determined to keep fighting.

On January 24, 2022, at about 6 am, a group of approximately 70 men and women came together to protest the construction of a road on the beach at Kasarkod-Tonka, a coastal village in Honnavar, in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. They stated that the road was being constructed illegally, without requisite clearances, threatening their livelihood, and impacting the biodiversity of an eco-sensitive area.

By 8:30 am, there was a large police force, of about 600 people surrounding them, reveals a letter addressed to the National Human Rights Commission on May 6, by the Human Right Defenders’ Alert. They were roughed up, pushed and forced into two tempos. They were taken to the district police station, where they were detained till 8 pm. Several from the group sustained injuries. For the rest of the week, till January 30, the police imposed Section 144 on the residents of Kasarkod-Tonka, which prohibits the assembly of more than four people in an area. Work on the road construction, meanwhile, continued unabated.

A day after the incident, on January 25, and then, more recently, on July 2, the fishing community along with LEAF (Living Earth Foundation), a non-profit that works on environmental advocacy and particularly with people affected by major infrastructure projects, filed a complaint to the Karnataka State Coastal Zone Management Authority (KSCZMA) against the ongoing construction of the road.

The under-construction road will connect the Kasarkod-Tonka port and highway in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district. The road passes along the beach through a stretch that was used for fish drying. Photo: Hagen Desa/Mongabay

In addition, in July, it also filed a petition at the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against the Department of Public Works, Ports & Inland Water Transport of Karnataka, Honnavar Port Private Limited and several state authorities involved in providing clearances for the construction of the Honnavar port.

LEAF’s complaint is against a four-kilometre-long, 25-40 metres wide road that is being constructed on the beach at Kasarkod-Tonka, connecting the national highway (NH-66) to an upcoming port at the Sharavathi river mouth. The site of the road is unsurveyed land, an intertidal region, part of the coastal commons, and comes under Coastal Regulation Zone III, 1B, No Development Zone (NDZ). It is primarily used by over 2,000 women living in the area as a space for drying their fish. It is also a nesting space for olive ridley turtles. The fishing community contends that the road is being built illegally, and will cost them their livelihood and change the landscape of the region for the worse.

Their complaint, according to Sreeja Chakraborty, an environmental lawyer representing the community, states that the four-kilometre road does not have any valid CRZ clearances. “They have concealed that the chosen road corridor is on CRZ III NDZ area and an olive ridley turtle nesting ground, thereby securing clearances by misguiding the authorities on the location of the road and its environmental impact on the fishing community and the turtles,” she told Mongabay-India.

The site of the road, apart from being an important source of livelihood for the fishers, who use the space as coastal commons to dry their fish and park their boat equipment, is also an active turtle nesting site. The fishers say that their existence is being completely wiped out for the Honnavar project.

Honnavar is a historical estuarine port town in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. It has a population of 23,500 fishers. The Sharavathi, a westward flowing river joins the Arabian sea at Honnavar, forming an ever-shifting river mouth in the region. The old port was constructed on the left side of the Sharavathi bank in Honnavar town. It was an active port town, once the trading headquarters for the Canara district. Over time, the Sharavathi estuary silted, and the port became commercially unviable. Locals say that a bridge construction changed the dynamics of the land, causing the river mouth to shift four kilometres north. Fish drying is big business here, and is an important source of livelihood for women.

Fishers say that in the last two years, a number of protests have erupted in the village to resist the construction work. The protests have often become violent.

Renuka Tandel, a fisherwoman living in the village narrated an incident that occurred on June 26, 2021. In the middle of the monsoon and the second wave of the pandemic, she said that a large police force arrived to supervise the demolishing of a shed, where fishers kept their boat equipment and nets. When fishers came out to protest they were pushed and shoved and shut down. “They made barricades in front of us, did not let us stop the work. We were standing in the rain for hours, helpless,” she recalled.

“They want to uproot us entirely,” Veevan Fernandes, a fisher based in Kasarkod told Mongabay-India. “They cannot offer us jobs because we are fishermen, we don’t have the skills to work in the port. We are self-made entrepreneurs, and we are happy with our work. They will turn us into contract workers, and will remove our dignity and our agency.”

According to the Honnavar project documents, about 500 jobs during the construction phase and 100 jobs during the operation phase are on the anvil even as the population of people affected by the project is about 5,000. The local people are not sure what kind of jobs they will get because they say that they are uneducated. They emphasise that dried fish is the only field they are experts in and interested in.

Why is this road being constructed?

The road is part of the ‘Honnavar barge/vessel loading facility’ that is meant to handle 4.9 MTPA (metric tonnes per annum) of cargo which includes a mix of coal, iron ore, sugar, and fertilisers. The area of construction is spread over 44 hectares of land, roughly the size of 65 football fields.

The land is essentially a coastal sand spit, an accreted formation at the mouth of river Sharavathi, which joins the Arabian Sea north of the village of Kasarkod-Tonka. A sand spit is a coastal landform, a long stretch of sand that projects out into the sea. It is connected to the mainland on one end and juts out into the sea at the other end. It is formed when the littoral drift strikes the beach at a certain angle. Sand spits can block the flow of the river, and cause them to migrate in the downdrift direction. Sand spits are also considered to be dynamic and unstable.

The total budget for this project is approximately Rs 600 crore (Rs 6 billion), and is being developed in a public-private partnership (PPP) between the port department of the government of Karnataka, and Honnavar Port Private Ltd (HPPL). The HPPL is a subsidiary of GVPR Engineers Limited, an infrastructure construction company with its head office in Hyderabad, Telangana.

In this project, the HPPL has taken up the mantle of building and maintaining the port, and the state port department is spending on building supporting infrastructure of the road and the railway network. The cost of the construction of the road alone is Rs 99.76 crore (Rs 997.6 million).

Honnavar Port

What: A barge/vessel loading facility to handle 4.9 MTPA cargo which includes 2.7 MTPA of coal, 1.0 MTPA of iron ore, and 1.2 MTPA of general cargo which would include granite, fertiliser, molasses with agro products, steel products, and sugar.

By Whom: Honnavar Port Private Limited – a subsidiary of GVPR Engineers Ltd, a private construction company based in Hyderabad, Telangana.

Where: Coastal sand spit in Kasarkod Tonka, Honnavar

Why is it being constructed: To increase coal and iron ore handling capacity in Karnataka, and for economically efficient connectivity to steel plants in the hinterland

Livelihoods tied to the land and the sea

Fishing is the main occupation of the people of Honnavar taluk. Dried fish is big business here. Sardines and anchovies are the most commonly sold dried fish. “The quality of dried fish in Honnavar is perhaps amongst the best in the country,” Ramachandra Bhatt, fisheries economist and an expert on dried fish, told Mongabay-India. Apart from being a nutritious and cheap source of protein, dry fish that is unfit for human consumption is used up in the fishmeal industry.

According to an October 2020 report prepared by Sneha Kunja, a non-profit based in Honnavar, the region produces nearly 14,000 tons of dry fish every year, earning them an annual revenue of about Rs 350 crore (Rs 3.5 billion). Apart from being sent to neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and more, the dry fish is also exported to Sri Lanka, Thailand and several countries in southeast Asia. The business employs nearly 15,000 people in Honnavar taluk.

Fisherwomen dry fish at Roshan Mohalla in Honnavar. Dry fish from Honnavar is exported across India and many parts of Southeast Asia. Photo: Hagen Desa/Mongabay.

Vishalakshi Shantaram Tandel is a 41-year-old fisherwoman. Every day, she would buy small quantities of fish from the harbour, clean it, spread it outside her home at the beach, and leave it to dry for two days. She would then sell it locally. Together with her husband, who works as a fish-worker on boats, they would earn enough to feed a family of four.  But she has not worked since the road came up. “I can’t. I don’t have any space. These people don’t want us to do any work,” she told Mongabay-India.

Her home is in a hamlet called Tonka 1, part of Kasarkod village. There are about 300 houses in this hamlet alone. Every household is dependent on fishing. Men work on the boats, or at the harbour. Most women, after marriage, take up the work of selling dry fish. They would buy fish directly from the boat, sort it, dry it and sell it on their own. This made them more entrepreneurial but also meant that sales would be tied to the catch of the day. Some women would be employed by fish traders, who would give them a salary every month for doing the labour of sorting, salting, and drying the fish. Some would do both.

The process of drying fish can get tricky if not exposed to the right elements. It needs to be spread on nets or mats so that it doesn’t get dirty. It needs to retain the right amount of moisture (15-20%) and colour, which indicates good quality. The colour red indicates the presence of dust or high salt content and reduces the quality of the fish. “Even a speck of dust will reduce the rate of the fish by half. It needs to be completely white,” said Tandel. “And today we get nothing but dust thanks to the road,” she added.

Ever since the road came up, fishers say they have witnessed at least 15-20 trucks going up and down every day.

Chandrika, 26, lives right next to the upcoming road. “We can’t even wear clean clothes anymore. Every time we put them out for drying, they catch dust before they can dry,” she told Mongabay-India. “So many trucks pass by day and night. They carry mud, bring dust and noise into our lives,” she continued. Her mother, Bharti, used to dry fish out of their house but now has to travel to the harbour to do the same job.

“The road is coming up in the coastal commons, where the fishing community, especially the fisherwomen, uses the space as a fish drying area,” explained Chakraborty, “The whole fight behind the road is that you are encroaching into my coastal commons which is protected under the CRZ law, which gives me the rightful validity to exercise my livelihood,” Chakraborty told Mongabay-India.

Fisherwomen allege that the passing vehicles cause dust pollution affecting the quality of fish and their health. Photo: Hagen Desa/Mongabay

Whose land is it?

The area where the road is coming up is classified as “Kasarkod SeaShore land without any Sy number.” Sy number refers to the land survey number, which is a unique number assigned to a particular piece of land. Using this number, one can obtain information about the land’s size, location, ownership, etc. The total area of land being used for the construction of the approach road is about 8.26 hectares. Out of this, 0.76 ha is surveyed forest land, for which the authorities have obtained a forest clearance. The rest 7.4 ha is unsurveyed and has been used as coastal commons by fishers to dry their fish, park their boats and other equipment. “It belongs to nobody, and everybody,” Bhatt emphasised.

“There was a clear direction to state authorities under Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2011 that the common physical space used by the fishing unit for fishery-related activities should be earmarked and notified for their respective uses,” he said.

According to rules, in the CRZ areas, “the fishing villages, common properties of the fishermen communities, fishing jetties, fish drying yards, … shall be indicated in the cadastral maps.”

“Therefore, states and urban and rural local bodies are mandated to prepare detailed maps for long-term needs of the fishing communities in view of the expansion needs,” Bhatt said.

In August 2013, the Karnataka Port department notified the port limits which declared that all land notified under the limits comes under the jurisdiction of the port, except private land. In a regular situation, even the unsurveyed land would belong to the state. But this is where things get complicated.

In the 1970s, huge swathes of private land, with survey numbers, were submerged in the flood and to coastal erosion. At least 300 families lost their homes and their land. The revenue department cancelled their survey numbers so that they don’t have to pay land tax, and regularised the land that they had migrated to, which includes large parts of present-day Kasarkod-Tonka. The lost land has re-emerged over time and parts of it remain unsurveyed. Experts note that in such a scenario, the Honnavar port cannot just assume ownership of land, and must follow a due procedure to find out the history behind this land.

Queries sent to the Karnataka government, Honnavar Port Private Limited and Karnataka State Coastal Zone Management Authority regarding the road project and its impact were unanswered at the time of publishing.

The site of the road, apart from being an important source of livelihood for the fishers, who use the space as coastal commons to dry their fish and park their boat equipment, is also an active turtle nesting site. Photo: Hagen Desa/Mongabay

Why is the road illegal?

Every infrastructural project, depending upon its scope, needs to get clearances from relevant authorities. In this particular case, the project, under EIA Notification 2006, was required to prepare a detailed Environment Impact Assessment report, and seek environmental clearance (EC) from the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA), the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC), Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) clearance from the Karnataka State Coastal Zone Management Authority (KSCZMA), and forest clearance (FC) from the state’s Forest Department (FD).

The clearances require the project proponents to provide a detailed report of the project and a map depicting the entire project in CRZ areas. But Chakraborty says, “If you go through the documents, it will seem like they have an environmental clearance and CRZ clearance for the port project only, but the location of the port connectivity road through CRZ areas was completely hidden, and the complete project depicted on a CRZ map was never placed before the authorities that were granting them clearances.”

For instance, according to the minutes of the 54th meeting of SEIAA held on August 6, 2012, the project proponents mentioned that the construction activity includes road and railway network development, but did not provide any details.

“When you embed information in such a way, you deliberately blindside the authorities. The question was indeed raised on the ecological and social impact of the road by the SEIAA sub-committee in May 2012 as clarification on the final EIA report submitted in February 2012. But HPPL in their response did not disclose the fact that the port connectivity road will be built in CRZ areas. Therefore, even when they were specifically asked to study the impact, they willfully avoided it,” Chakraborty explained.

According to experts, the road connecting the port and the highway is being constructed in the No Development Zone (NDZ) under the CRZ III rules. Under this rule, an NDZ is an area up to 200 metres from the High Tide Line (HTL) on the landward side. Photo: Supriya Vohra/Mongabay

In addition, as per the Coastal Zone Management Plan map, the area where the road is being constructed comes under CRZ III – No Development Zone (NDZ). Under this rule, an NDZ is an area up to 200 metres from the High Tide Line (HTL) on the landward side. No commercial road can be permitted in this area. “A road is absolutely not allowed here. This area is reserved for the use of the fishing community. They completely hid the fact that the road was coming up in the CRZ area. They only spoke about the CRZ clearances for the port construction site, which falls under CRZ I,” said Chakraborty.

In the month of June alone, the port authorities have come to the site with machinery at least twice, putting mud and stones to expand the road. Members of the community told us that the authorities are always accompanied by state police. When fishers protest, they are silenced.

Since the beginning of July, the western coast of India has been experiencing non-stop rain due to the southwest monsoon. The under-construction road at Kasarkod-Tonka is already crumbling.

National Fishworkers Forum, the country’s largest union for fish workers has criticised the project, asking “Who is this development for?”

This article was originally published on Mongabay India and is republished under a Creative Commons license.

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