A forthcoming documentary short by environmental journalist K.A Shaji, Stolen Shorelines is a powerful and well researched intervention into the ecological, sociopolitical crisis now looming large over the coastline of Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram.

The film describes how corporate interests and destructive notions of development are aggravating the crisis of manmade global warming and forcing the coastal community into homelessness devoid of livelihood means.

On the Thiruvananthapuram coast, the fishing community and coastal experts pinpoint the ongoing construction of a deepwater multipurpose seaport, expected to be completed and commissioned by next year, as the primary reason for large-scale sea erosion which has turned hundreds of families into climate refugees.

The idea for the multipurpose seaport project near Vizhinjam, a coastal village south of Thiruvananthapuram city with the advantage of proximity to international shipping channels, goes back to the 1990s. Despite widespread concerns from ocean and environmental experts the site was approved for the deepwater seaport construction a decade ago. The laws of the Coastal Regulation Zone notification of 2011, which forbid the siting of port projects on coasts prone to high levels of erosion, were ignored.

In 2015 the Kerala government signed an MoU with the Ahmedabad based Adani Ports Limited and construction of the mega seaport commenced close to the Vizhinjam fishing harbour. The documentary shows how the local fishing community now faces a twofold threat, of agroindustrial global warming and the local mega project, which has harmed their relationship with the coast, which once felt like it was their own.

It begins with the story of 15 year old Aleena, a budding pigeon racer, who with her family and 40 pigeons lives in a public school turned rehabilitation camp in Valiyathura, a little away from Vizhinjam. Aleena and her family live inside a cramped classroom in the school, turned like many others from the Thiruvananthapuram coast into refugees after the cyclone Okhi of 2017.

Since that year, fishing families lose their houses and homes to the surging sea waters every monsoon, being forced to move to rehabilitation camps each year. Now work on the three kilometre plus breakwater for the Vizhinjam port is fast progressing, and the experts consulted in the documentary confirm that as the breakwater accelerates the mighty waves during the monsoon, the whole coast north of the project is gradually being submerged.

The documentary articulates the situation of the dispossessed on these vast shorelines of ‘climate refugees’. Yet the articulation does not stagnate into rhetoric around the ecological crisis. It systematically dissects the issue of climate change exacerbated by “mega” infrastructure projects on vulnerable sites and people like Vizhinjam.

The whole coast is set for massive destruction through infrastructural investments, facilitating a top-heavy pattern of growth that obsessively relies on seamless subsidy of huge cargo volumes and the port development model for the capital city.

The documentary takes us through the development processes exacerbating the climate crisis and weakening the resilience of the people and their coast. It takes us across the disappearing shorelines, beaches and fishing villages to the north and south of the Vizhinjam port. It covers the entire coastline stretch of Thiruvananthapuram instead of our imagination, centering on the immediate vicinity of the Vizhinjam project site.

And it effectively leverages this journey as far and wide as possible to narrate the ecological crisis brewing in areas such as Muthalapozhy, a fishing harbour as far as 80 km from Vizhinjam.

The loss of coastal commons would mean the loss of livelihoods, fish drying and boat parking spaces, clam grounds, pristine marine biodiversity, and the forced invisibilization and disenfranchisement of women engaged in fisheries. Various reports of climate change adaptation, coastal resilience and the IPCC reports have long recognized community land and resource rights and access to ecological commons as crucial to building a natural defence in these vulnerable landscapes against extreme events.

The coastal commons are the inevitable first line of defence against the climate disaster that strikes the coast. These ecosystems are being endlessly destroyed by public authorities, and their stewards, the coastal community, find themselves being sent to relief camps one by one as the coasts continue to erode.

Through Vizhinjam and Thiruvananthapuram, the documentary tells the story of the whole coastline of India, where corporate interests and wrong notions of development are destroying people’s lives.

While Shaji, who has tracked environmental and livelihood concerns in the southern states for over two decades, wrote and directed the film, academic Dr Kalyani Valyathu gives a powerful narration. Syed Shiyaz Mirza and Sooraj Ambalathara handled the camera while VPG Kammath did beautiful editing. The documentary will be released in Valiyathura early June, before being screened across India.

A native of Kannur in North Kerala, Nikhila S is a researcher on natural resources governance and conflicts