VIZHINJAM, India (Reuters) -Hundreds of people from a Hindu group marched on Wednesday in support of the construction of a $900 million port in southern India, shouting slogans against a local Catholic church that is trying to stall the project.
Police in riot gear set up barricades and blocked the supporters before they reached the entrance of the port where construction by the Adani Group has been halted for almost four months because of objections from a mostly Christian fishing community.
They say the port, in Vizhinjam, is causing erosion that has undermined their livelihoods. Billionaire Gautam Adani's conglomerate and the government of Kerala state have denied accusations the port is causing environmental damage.
Supporters of the port, including members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, say it will create jobs in the region. They have set up makeshift camps across the road leading to the site. The Christian protesters too have built a large protest shelter blocking the entrance.
"This port, which takes India far ahead on the global stage, cannot be sacrificed," K P Sasikala, the group's convenor, told the gathering, brandishing saffron flags in front of the barricades.
"We can't risk having a situation where people shy away from investing in the state of Kerala," she added.
Local police said they had not given permission for the action by the Hindu group. Police have mostly been unwilling to take more forceful action against either side, fearful that doing so will set off social and religious tensions.
A spokesperson for the Adani group did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
The port is of strategic importance to both India and Adani, Asia's wealthiest man. Once completed, it will become India's first container transhipment hub, rivalling Dubai, Singapore and Sri Lanka for business on the lucrative east-west trade routes.
The protest against the port has continued despite repeated orders by Kerala's top court to allow construction to restart.
The first phase of construction was due to be completed by the end of 2024. The Adani Group has said in court filings that the protests have caused "immense loss" and "considerable delay".
Adani has also faced protests in Australia, where environmental activists launched a "stop Adani" movement to protest against his Carmichael coal mine project in Queensland state.
(Writing by Miral Fahmy and Shilpa Jamkhandikar; Editing by Conor Humphries, Robert Birsel and Alison Williams)