It is often opined that the mental silos of social activism moves in concentric circles. When Medha Petkar’s Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) initially gathered steam, the war cry was that Narmada waters would never trickle to arid Kutch or desertscapes of Rajasthan, forced resettlement of tribals would get them into debt traps and they would fall prey to loan sharks.
Kerala’s Fisherfolk Demand Appropriate Settlement
After failing to halt the project, the NBA changed tack, ensured lucrative compensation to those displaced and the oustees’ narrative as victims changed. But the biggest contribution of Medha Petkar’s prolonged agitation was to make urban middle class Indians appreciate the human cost of development projects.
The tumultuous protests by Kerala’s fisherfolk against the Adani Group’s upcoming seaport at Vizhinjam, south of Thiruvananthapuram may be heading towards another protracted tussle between development proponents and those against coastal erosion and displacement.
On the verge of completion, the Vizhinjam Interational Seaport, touted as India’s first container transhipment terminal, has run into rough weather. Though the grievances of fishermen including issues of inadequate resettlement and compensation, aggravating coastal erosion are being examined by an expert committee, the day and night sit-in is only intensifying.
The Adani group has pointed to studies conducted by scientists highlighting that shoreline erosion is not due to construction but due to sand mining, groynes built by civic authorities and inclement weather conditions. But this logic has failed to break the ice.
Despite the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court dismissing pleas demanding any stoppage of work at the port, the protests have only snowballed.
What is equally significant is that at the forefront of the agitation are the priests and nuns of the Catholic Church who have formed a cordon sanitaire around the fishing community. The first phase of the deepwater seaport is supposed to become operational by early 2023.
Vizhinjam Port Destroys Lives of Local Residents
The phrase ‘caught between the devil and the deep blue sea’ has become literal for Kerala’s fishing community. Locals lament that time balances everything and this holds true for the seas. If the seabed is dredged, it will take sand from the shores. If one drops rocks into the sea to create a shore at one end, a shore from the other end will disappear.
Humans are helpless in front of this oceanic justice. The crux of the allegation is that those in power continue to dredge the ocean floor and pile up massive breakwaters while people who reside on the coast are forced to flee. Out of a total of 450 hectares earmarked for the port, 120 hectares of seabed has been reclaimed and dredged.
Many environmentalists have pointed out that while the Vizhinjam Port might be a dream project for the developers, it may irrevocably destroy lives and livelihood of coastal residents.
A joint petition highlighting the grave dangers posed and signed by noted authors, environmentalists and scientists, was submitted to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in June. The signatories allege, changes in wind and wave patterns have been caused by the construction of breakwaters mandatory for any deepwater seaport of this magnitude.
A breakwater is a stone wall that extends from the shore into the sea and is built in order to protect a harbour from the force of the waves. The Latin Church-backed protest by Kerala’s fisherfolk has been raging for months now and the Pinarayi Vijayan-led CPI(M) regime in Kerala has not been able to break the impasse. Is the stalemate politically motivated as the Kerala Chief Minister asserts?
It is not that the protests have found favour among locals who are clearly a divided house. One section feels, the Vizhinjam seaport mega project will provide immense employment opportunities to locals and stalling the project now will only jeopardise their prospects. And obstructing development by triggering religious sentiments or involving the laity smacks of cultural separatism to many.
Contrarians stress, the Church has a golden opportunity to redress genuine grievances of protesters and ensure speedy development of the coastal zone by allowing unhindered construction. They feel instead of grabbing better housing, sanitation and drinking water for fishing communities in the project area, the stand-off is going to hurt those displaced more than the votaries of the project and the church may be playing spoilsport.
Those tracking the marquee project suspect extraneous elements, hinting at Chinese interests in Colombo Port to inordinately delay India’s mega transhipment port.
While most key demands have been met by the state government, halting the port’s construction till a feasibility report on coastal erosion is submitted has triggered a deadlock. The demand to have a mechanism to dredge the harbour at Anchutengu off Thiruvananthapuram has also been met.
It is important to recall that the adjoining Anchutengu Fort was the first permanent structure of the British East India Company along the Malabar coast in the 17th century. The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council throwing its weight behind the agitators and forming a human chain has only complicated matters further.
The fishing community appears convinced that the port will reduce their catch by destroying beaches and fish habitat; lashing frequent high tidal waves will impair the coastline and gobble their homes.
Expansion Plans for 2.6 Million Teus by Final Phase of the Project
For the CPI(M)-led Kerala government, it may be a Catch-22 situation. The Latin Catholic Church has a loyal following in Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Alappuzha and Ernakulam Lok Sabha constituencies and as many as 20 assembly segments. But the intervention of the pro-Congress parishioners’ forum spearheading the agitation has been a dampener.
The Janakeeya Prathirodha Samithi (JPS), a group supporting the port project at Vizhinjam, has alleged conspiracy in the Church-led protests. They feel that instead of being lauded for its climate goals, development projects are delayed by environmental peer groups and the church. Dissent is brewing against the fishermen’s stir and the Adani group has filed a contempt plea in the High Court against the Kerala government for hindering construction work.
Many residents assert, the stir at the port site has created anarchy in the area despite them being in favour of the project. They recall two past instances of similar protests. The Sterlite Copper plant in Tamil Nadu was shut in May, 2018 after 13 anti-Sterlite activists citing umpteen violations, fell to the bullets.
Something similar happened in the fishing hamlets in Tirunelveli where anti-nuke protesters at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power plant faced the baton in 2012. The pro-Vizhinjam port lobby argues that vested interests may be trying to scuttle the project because the first ship’s port of call is scheduled for January, 2023. Consensus has been eluding rounds of talks between the Cabinet sub-committee and the Latin Archdiocese leading the anti-port stir.
Incidentally it was the Congress-led UDF government in Kerala which gave the go-ahead to the Vizhinjam seaport in 2015. The 7525-crore mega project being implemented as a private-public partnership model between Kerala government and Adani Vizhinjam Port Private Limited is to be showcased as a world class transhipment terminal.
The capacity of the first phase alone will be 1 million TEUs or twenty-foot equivalent units meaning how many 20-foot-long containers can be berthed at the port at one go.
This will expand to 6.2 million TEUs once the final phase is completed and one can only imagine the sheer magnitude of the project.
While the beleaguered fishing community, supported by the diocese, is up in arms over their existence and livelihood, environmentalists claim coastal erosion arising out of the transhipment terminal may damage our fragile marine ecosystem. In all this, the angst of a sucked shoreline continues to haunt.
Projections for Additional Profit Could Be Approximately 10,000 Crores
But not all is hunky-dory. A key report by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2017 had warned that the Kerala government would have incurred a loss of 5608 crores at the end of the concessional period of 40 years and only after this stipulated period, the port would be handed over by the private promoter to the government.
Currently, the concession period for Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) projects at Indian ports is 30 years for a single phase of investment though the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways had extended it to 40 years for the Adani group on the basis of performance and mutual agreement.
According to projections, the private promoter constructing the port would reap a whooping additional profit of 10,000 crores due to this extension of the concession period by 10 years.
Impeding project completion has its own corollary and embarking on a social crusade is like a whirligig in time. We have seen in the past, select groups initially resist ecologically sensitive projects forming a bulwark.
Then gradually the resistance and dampeners dissipate, a compromise is reached between the aggrieved and promoters; binaries of compensation and resettlement acting as mollifiers.
In any project of this magnitude, force majeure clauses absolve firms from overshooting the commercial operations date set by the concessionaire, generally the government in a public-private- partnership (PPP) model.
As the anti-port stir escalates and its fruition hangs in limbo, one must accept that every postponement comes at a price. Even if in the end every impasse is broken and protests, litigations et al are overrun by public interest, they have siphoned off time, money and resources that could have been utilised elsewhere. It may be a zero-sum game with truce delayed, not annulled.
(Chiranjib Haldar is a commentator on Politics and Society. He has has worked extensively in broadcast media and has contributed to leading national dailies and publications for many years. )
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)