- 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 Honnavar port project and the site of road construction comes under the No Development Zone of India’s coastal regulation norms. It is an 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 (CRZ) clearance.
- Fishers are worried about their livelihood and their existence but are determined to keep fighting.
On January 24, 2022, at about 6 a.m., 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 a.m., 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 p.m. 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.
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.
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 crores (Rs. six 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 crores (Rs. 997.6 million).
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.