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'Shashi Tharoor's Bastion but…': How Will Coastal Votes Sway in Trivandrum?

With bitter memories of the 2022 anti-Vizhinjam protests still fresh, the coastal community feels disillusioned.

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Video editors: Prashat Chauhan, Abhishek Sharma

As loud waves crashed against a low wall built along the shores of Poonthura – a coastal village in Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram – Michael Joseph pointed to a large pile of concrete rubble in front of a one-storey house on the edge of the coast. 

"There were four lanes of houses in front of this house. They were all taken by the sea over the years," he told The Quint.

Joseph, a resident of Poonthura, worked in Dubai for 18 years. Two years ago, he returned to his village, bought a boat, and began fishing. "But how are we supposed to survive when we are losing our coast? And it has only gotten worse since the Vizhinjam seaport project," Joseph alleged.

For years now, coastal erosion has been a concern in Thiruvananthapuram – the district with the longest coastline in Kerala, stretching 78 kilometres. About 24 percent of the fisher population in the state reside in this district, and most of them are small-scale fishers, according to a report by Sahapedia.

In 2015, the Oommen Chandy-led Congress government green-lit the Adani Group's Vizhinjam seaport project, costing over Rs 7.5 crore. The project brought with it the promises of development and employment. 

The fishing community and coastal activists, however, alleged that sea dredging and the building of breakwaters for the port led to an erosion of their coasts. In 2022, when the Left Democratic Front (LDF) was in power, the fishers, led by the Latin Catholic Church, staged a 140-day-long protest against the port development.

The struggle drew widespread criticism from various quarters, including Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who claimed that the protest had "clear ulterior and heinous intentions."

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It has been nearly two years since the protest and the project is nearing completion. But have the lives of the fisherfolk gotten any better? Will the Vizhinjam protest cast a shadow on the upcoming Lok Sabha polls in the constituency, where Tharoor, a three-time Congress MP, is taking on the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) Rajeev Chandrasekhar and the Left's Pannyan Raveendran?

The Vizhinjam Protest & Its Aftermath

AJ Vijayan, the secretary of the National Fishworkers Forum and a former coastal researcher, explained to The Quint about how studies have found "that wherever ports are built with breakwaters, erosion on one side is inevitable."

"There were some sudden consequences in the initial years of the port construction. There were cyclones like Ockhi and Tauktae in the Arabian Sea, which were also a result of climate change," he added.

"As we started losing our coast and our homes, the [Latin Catholic] church decided to launch the protest [in June 2022] against the project," Joseph said. About 80 percent of the population in Thiruvananthapuram's coastal areas are Latin Catholic Christians.

The primary demand of the fisherfolk during the protests was to conduct a study on how the construction of the port was impacting the coast, whether it is, in fact, causing coastal erosion, and to halt its construction until the study was concluded. 

The state government constituted a four-member committee led by MD Kudale, former additional director of Central Water and Power Research Station, to probe the issue. The committee is said to have submitted its report to the government but it is yet to be published.

Meanwhile, the Adani Ports conducted a study via the Chennai-based National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), which said in one of its reports that between 2015 and 2021, there was erosion on the northern side of the port and accretion on the southern side.

The report said it could not conclude whether this was a result of the port, as there was less construction during this period, coupled with cyclonic events in the Arabian Sea. 

The Quint has reached out to Adani Ports for comment. This story will be updated as and when we receive a response.

'Will Our Homes Be Next?'

The fisherfolk in Thiruvananthapuram told The Quint they were still struggling with the reality of coastal erosion.

"It is because of the Vizhinjam port that we are always so anxious. Our ancestors have lived by these shores, they have not faced such issues. But ever since this port construction began, there is always this uncertainty. We never know when we would have to pack up and leave [because of a coastal event]," said Jacinda, a fish seller from Cheriyathura village.

Meanwhile, Poonthura resident Hridayadasan told The Quint that the port has led to an increase in sea incursions. "Poonthura has the most number of boats after Vizhinjam, where there is a fishing harbour. But we don't have enough coast and we don't have a harbour. There's only so much space to keep the boats."

"If there's a sudden sea incursion, the boats and engines will get destroyed. If there's a loss of property, will the government compensate us immediately?" he asked.

A fish-seller from Valiyathura village, who did not wish to be named, told The Quint that the government must build groynes [a shore protection structure] along the shores.

"We are living very close to the shore and we're not sure if our houses might be next. We have been dreaming of a home for years and we built our house with Rs 18 lakh. If we lose this home, then what's the point of living?" she asked.

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Political Implications

"In the previous Lok Sabha elections, coastal areas have supported the Congress. If you take the case of Shashi Tharoor, the coastal community has contributed greatly to his vote share and victory. In other communities, the votes usually get split," observed Vipin Das Thottathil, an environmental activist who is also a resident of Puthiyathura. 

Vijayan, meanwhile, had said that coastal votes were especially significant in the 2014 parliamentary polls. "Coastal votes were counted last then. BJP candidate O Rajagopal was leading in the urban areas. And once the coastal votes were counted, Shashi Tharoor made significant headway, leading to his victory," he remarked.

Vipin, however, noted that since the anti-Vizhinjam protest, "coastal voters are confused."

"The Kerala government had quashed the Vizhinjam protest – people know and remember that very well. Moreover, it was Shashi Tharoor and Oommen Chandy who wanted to make the port a reality. Tharoor had also made statements that the port was necessary for development."
Vipin Das Thottathil

"Shashi Tharoor is a national leader, he is a good leader. But what I'm concerned about is: what has he done for us?" asked Joseph. "For the last three times, I voted for him. But I am thinking differently this time," he added, suggesting that he was "leaning towards the BJP."

He further continued: "I am not saying that the BJP's governance is good or that they will win. There are a lot of issues with that as well. But I am criticising the incumbent MP here."

Michael Paniadima, another environmental activist who was at the forefront of the Vizhinjam protest, shared a similar sentiment: "We have tried and tested both the Congress and the Left. We have gained and we have lost. Why shouldn't we try the BJP now? People have started thinking this way."

But Paniadima also said the Vizhinjam protest would not have any bearing on the polls. "The Adani port was brought here by the Oommen Chandy government. The Left government went ahead with the project. And the BJP is in support of Adani. By this logic, we shouldn't vote for any party, right?" he asked rhetorically.

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Anti-Incumbency vs Dissent Against BJP

"The main reason why people are questioning the Left and Congress is because these two political fronts have been interacting with the community for so long. They believe they have let them down. In comparison, the BJP has not had as much dialogue with the people, even though they are pro-Adani. So, people are thinking why there shouldn't be a change," explained Thottathil.

"This doesn't mean the BJP will win here – but there may be a stark rise in their vote share, unlike never before, in the coastal belt," he added.

BJP candidate and Union IT Minister of State Rajeev Chandrasekhar has been extensively touring the coastal areas of Thiruvananthapuram. In an interview with The Quint, he said:

"My view is that a port-led development is critical for Thiruvananthapuram. Singapore is a port-led development city. Vizhinjam can really be a force multiplier for Thiruvananthapuram. It can be a catalyst for the electronics manufacturing industry. However, the people displaced by the port and impacted by the port must be given justice."

However, factors like communalism and the Manipur conflict are still deterring the BJP in the coastal areas, where the church wields a lot of influence. In his Good Friday sermon, Archbishop of the Latin Catholic Church in Thiruvananthapuram, Thomas Netto, had condemned the conflict in Manipur and the attack on Christian communities elsewhere in the country, in a veiled remark against the ruling dispensation at the Centre.

Speaking to The Quint, Kuttan, a driver and resident of Cheriyathura, said: "People supporting the BJP don't know the difference between good and evil. They might be doing it for financial gain. If they are concerned about the future generations, they won't vote for the BJP. No one will."

"Our PM goes everywhere, whether it's for election campaigning or otherwise. But he's never been to a place where conflict has happened [Manipur]," Kuttan said.

Pathros, a shopkeeper in Shangumugham, said, "I cannot support the BJP at any cost. We are all reading the paper and watching the news everyday, right? People may say they will support the BJP, but in reality, they won't in the coastal belt."

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