Kochi: More than 80 people were wounded in India as villagers protesting to halt construction of the $900-million Vizhinjam port project clashed with police in Kerala state, the latest escalation in a months-long strike.
The protests against the project led by billionaire Gautam Adani’s $23-billion ports business, have forced the latter to stop work on the port, seen as a potential and lucrative rival to those in Singapore and Sri Lanka.
Building has been halted for more than three months after villagers blamed the port’s development for coastal erosion and depriving them of their livelihoods. They have blocked the entrance to the site by erecting a 1,200-square-foot shelter.
Over the weekend, police arrested some protesters who blocked construction vehicles from entering the port, despite a court order for work to resume.
The arrests prompted hundreds of protesters to march on the police station late on Sunday night, leading to clashes with personnel and leaving police vehicles damaged, according to a police document and footage on local television.
Joseph Johnson, one of the protest leaders, said at least 46 protesters were hurt. Senior local police official M R Ajith Kumar told Reuters 36 officers were wounded in the clashes.
Another police official who did not wish to be named said security was being beefed up after the incident, with more than 600 officers deployed across Vizhinjam.
Located on the southern tip of India, the port seeks to plug into lucrative East-West trade routes.
The Adani Group did not respond to a request for comment on the protests over the weekend. The company has said that the port complies with all laws and cited studies that show it is not linked to shoreline erosion. The state government has also said that any erosion was due to natural causes.
In the latest clashes, the police’s case document said the protesters “came with lethal weapons and barged into the station and held the police hostage, threatening that if people in custody were not released they would set the station on fire.” Eugine H. Pereira, the vicar general of the archdiocese and a protest leader, said police pelted the protesters with stones.
The Indian protests have continued despite repeated orders by Kerala state’s top court to allow construction to restart.
Police have largely been unwilling to take action, fearful that doing so will set off social and religious tensions, Reuters has previously reported.
On Monday, the court heard Adani’s concerns again and asked the state administration why its order of ensuring that port construction continues was not being enforced. The judge asked state officials to file a response by Friday.
The Adani conglomerate is shouldering a third of the project’s cost with the rest borne by the state and federal governments. It has a 40-year agreement to build and operate the port.