As many as 36 policemen and around 20 agitators were injured in the violence that rocked Vizhinjam area on Sunday evening. In the FIR, the police said their department suffered a loss of Rs 85 lakh in the attack.
What is the Vizhinjam Port Project and why are fishermen protesting against it? Why did the agitation take on a communal tone? We explain.
What is Adani Group’s Vizhinjam Port Project
Then the foundation stone of the Rs 7,525 crore port, which is being built on a public-private partnership (PPP) model with Adani Ports Private Limited at Vizhinjam near Thiruvananthapuram, was laid by then Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy in December 2015 Since then, the deadline for its implementation has been missed.
The port will have 30 berths and will be able to receive giant “megamax” container ships. Adani Group said the ultra-modern port, located close to major international shipping routes, will boost India’s economy. Its location is also of strategic importance, say the project’s supporters. The port is expected to compete with Colombo, Singapore and Dubai for a share of transshipment traffic.
According to the Vizhinjam International Seaport website, the port’s advantages are “having a 20-metre loop within one nautical mile of the coast; minimal coastal drift along the coast, almost no dredging required for maintenance; connections with national/regional road, railway network; and proximity to international shipping routes.’
Why are fishermen protesting?
Fishermen have been protesting the project for the past four months, claiming its construction is causing massive sea erosion, taking away their livelihoods and homes. They want an impact study to be done and the project to remain on hold until the study report comes out.
Construction on the project resumed on Saturday after a Kerala High Court order allowed it, causing the unrest that led to Sunday’s violence.
The fishing community also put forward six other demands: (i) rehabilitation of families who have lost their homes due to sea erosion, (ii) effective steps to mitigate coastal erosion, (iii) financial assistance to fishermen on days when flood warnings are issued the weather, (iv) compensation to the families of those who lost their lives in fishing accidents, (v) subsidized kerosene and (vi) mechanism for dredging the Muthalappozhi fishing harbor at Anchuthengu in Thiruvananthapuram district.
The kerosene subsidy was sought on the grounds that due to the project, fishermen have to venture deeper into the ocean to catch, adding to the burden of fuel costs.
The government accepted all the demands except the kerosene subsidy and the suspension of port construction.
While the fishermen’s protests are supported by the Latin Catholic Church, a local People’s Action Committee is pushing for the project to be completed quickly. This committee has the support of various Hindu community outfits like the upper caste Nair Service Society, besides OBC Hindu organization like Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam as well as Vaikunda Swami Dharma Pracharana which has a significant presence among the Nadar community in southern Kerala.
Opponents of the BJP and CPI(M) have rallied around the port project, criticizing the protesters.
Senior CPI(M) leader and state education minister V Sivankutty blamed the Latin Catholic Church, alleging that it was trying to create a rebellion. The pro-Left media in the state also alleged that foreign funding was behind the fishermen’s agitation.
BJP state president K Surendran said that the forces that organized the protest against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant near Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu were behind the Vizhinjam protest. The Kudankulam protest was spearheaded by the Latin Catholic Diocese of Tuticorin.
What did the government say?
The government claims the port will not cause coastal erosion.
On Monday, Kerala Port Development Minister Ahamed Devarkovil said an all-party meeting would be held on the issue.
“The district collector has been asked to convene an all-party meeting to ensure peace in the region. He would also have discussions with the campaigners. The matter will be heard by the Supreme Court on Monday. The government will also consider the high court outcome before deciding on further action. The agitators have given an assurance before the Supreme Court that they will not obstruct the construction. Now that confidence in the court is broken,” he said.
Questions about financial viability
Apart from fishermen’s protests, the port project has also faced questions about financial viability.
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s report tabled in the Kerala Assembly in 2017 said the terms of the concession agreement were not favorable to the state government. “Out of the total project cost of Rs 7,525 crore, the Adani Group has to invest only Rs 2,454 crore. The rest of the expenditure will be borne by the state and central governments,” the release said.
The CAG said the standard concession period for PPP projects is 30 years, but the concessionaire of the Vizhinjam project has been given an additional 10 years, which will enable it to reap an additional revenue of Rs 29,127 crore.