Protests reshaping cities: Islanders defending the shores in Kochi

Blog 21st December 2022

In this guest post Dr Carmel Christy Kattithara Joseph writes about her research on displacement and urban space-making in Kochi, India. Carmel has been supported by the USF with an International Fellowship award, including grant funding towards knowledge mobilisation activities.

In India, urban spaces are also sites of many protests for rights, livelihood and rehabilitation. In port cities, the shores have been the site of intense changes due to the construction of various enterprises. This has led to the displacement of shore communities and disruption of the ecological balance of marine elements and seashores. The resistance against the Sterlite Copper plant in the South Indian port city of Thoothukkudi (1999- present) is an example of an ongoing protest to resist environmental hazards caused by big industries.

Many of these protests against displacement caused by development, as well as against dams and mining companies destroying the environment and habitat, have been waged by the affected marginalised people. Such mostly lower-caste communities, who are dependent on natural resources like the shore communities and Adivasis (widely used English terms are tribals/indigenous people), are at the receiving end of destruction of the environment and uneven development in cities (caste discrimination is outlawed in India, but explicit and implicit forms of violence based on caste are an everyday occurrence in the country). Protests against displacement gained momentum, from the 1980s, throughout different parts of India. Till then, Nadine Walicki and Marita Swain in their 2016 report Pushed Aside: Displaced for Development, note that displacement was considered as a necessary sacrifice for development. The protests in the cities also reshaped urban spaces in many ways.

Outer wall of IOC, Kochi, India.
Outer wall of IOC-LPG (gas terminal), Kochi, India.

One such ongoing protest is the struggle to protect the seashores from further pollution and also to protect the livelihood of the shore-communities at Puthuvype, an island in Kochi. The islands, including Puthuvype, which is mostly populated by lower-class, lower-caste Hindu and Christian shore-communities, are a crucial geographical cluster that were formed after major floods in the 14th century. These geographical changes also led to the formation of the natural port in Kochi in its present location. The ships enter through the channel between the islands and Fort Kochi in the current port. Despite their centrality in the creation and sustenance of Kochi, the islands faced a long lag in the development of infrastructure, connectivity to the city and other basic facilities. Development of the city is replete with instances of displacement and loss of traditional occupations such as fishing and fish-net weaving for the shore-communities. The residents of Puthuvype, who comprise mostly marginalised shore communities, started protesting in 2009 when the Indian Oil Corporation proposed a Liquid Petroleum Gas terminal at the current site. Despite their protests, the project was sanctioned in 2013. The project was stalled in between due to the protests.

However, as the protests waned due to the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, the construction work of the plant resumed in full swing. The terminal is being built as close as 30-metres to the houses of the residents, which poses concerns about the safety of the residents. Other than questions of safety, environmental pollution from the construction site of the plant has been causing respiratory diseases and other health problems for the residents. Murali, secretary of the Puthuvype LPG Terminal Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samiti (People’s Protest Committee against the Puthuvype LPG Terminal), points out that almost six-acres of mangroves have been destroyed for the current LPG plant and other companies along the seashores. The destruction of mangroves leads to the disruption of life cycles of several types of fish which could eventually lead to their extinction. The safety, environmental and livelihood questions became central points of discussion in the protest against the plant.

Women protestors in the struggle

Large numbers of women were active participants in the over-a-decade-long protest. Some of them were badly beaten up in police repression efforts in June 2017 and in March 2018. Some young women have grown up with the protest, participating in it while building their lives. I have been frequenting the protest site since 2018. The resolve and determination of the protestors, despite the dire realities, and the way the presence of large numbers of women protestors assert themselves in the city space evoked my interest in more ways than one.

Construction along the shores, Kochi, India.
Construction along the shores, Kochi, India.

When I started the award period, public demonstrations were paused due to the Covid restrictions. However, during my field trips and regular conversations, it was clear that the protestors are considering various options as it has become untenable to continue the protest in the same format. The field of debates and protests have already been set by the island residents for over a decade in the island. Also, the protest became a point of discussion in the mainstream media due to the persistent struggles of the residents. In this way, they have managed to insert the islands, environment and the marginalisation of island residents into the mainstream conversations about the city of Kochi. Though central to the sustenance of the city geographically, the lack of attention to the islands as a space in the peripheries of the city refigures in the debates through the protest.

Makeshift protest site, Kochi, India.
Makeshift protest site, Kochi, India.

There was much to take inspiration and motivation from the way they have dedicated themselves to learning about the dangers of the LPG plant, the scientific aspects of the environmental crisis the plant might cause and their understanding of sustainable development for a sensitive bio-economic island zone such as Puthuvype. My interaction with the islanders during several field trips was more of a learning experience for me to be attentive to the nuances rather than trying to replicate existing frameworks. The general outcome of my work was in contributing to the discussions and debates in the form of podcasts, articles and conversations in the field. Also, at a time when the public demonstrations had stopped, my visits rekindled many conversations between various stakeholders.