KOCHI - Construction on a $900-million port in southern India is set to resume on Thursday after mainly Christian villagers blocking the entrance to the site of the Adani Group project agreed to suspend their four-month-old protest, its leaders said.
Fisherfolk camped in a makeshift shelter at Vizhinjam, in the state of Kerala since September, have blocked vehicles and halted work on a project they blame for coastal erosion and affecting their livelihoods.
Billionaire Gautam Adani's conglomerate has denied both accusations.
One of several Catholic priests leading the protests, Eugine H. Pereira, told Reuters the fishermen had agreed to remove the shelter and allow construction to resume while they await the results of an environmental impact study by an expert panel.
"This is only a temporary end to the strike," he said on Wednesday. "We will resume our strike if the core issues we raised are not resolved."
The protesters have started to dismantle their shelter of 1,200 square feet (112 sq m), consisting of poles holding up a roof of corrugated iron, protest leader Joy Jerald said.
An Adani Group official who declined to be identified said construction would restart on Thursday.
The port has strategic importance for both India and Adani, an ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Asia's richest man.
On completion, it will be India's first container transhipment hub, rivalling Dubai, Singapore and Sri Lanka for business on the lucrative east-west trade routes.
The Kerala government has said it was committed to the project, which supporters say will create jobs in the region.
But in a seven-point manifesto displayed at their shelter, the villagers say their protest will not end until plans have been made to resettle those who have lost their homes and land to the project and to coastal erosion.
The villagers now live in industrial warehouses.
Despite several court orders for the protesters to disband, police have taken little action for fear of igniting social and religious tension.
Security around the site, however, was beefed up more than a week ago after the villagers clashed with police. A Hindu group also held a rally in support of the project.
Pereira said the fishing community was halting the strike to clear "misunderstandings" about the protest, among them accusations by some state officials that the fishermen oppose development.
The Adani Group says the port complies with all laws and has cited studies that show it is not linked to shoreline erosion, which the Kerala government says is due to natural causes. The first phase of construction was due to be completed by end-2024.
Adani has previously faced protests in Australia, where environmental activists protested against his Carmichael coal mine project in the northeastern state of Queensland.
There, activists concerned about carbon emissions and damage to the Great Barrier Reef forced Adani to downsize production targets and delayed the first shipment from the mine by years.
(Additional reporting by Arpan Chaturvedi; Writing by Miral Fahmy; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)