Is there a political deadlock over the Vizhinjam port protests in Kerala?

Vizhimjam port protests in KeralaImage: The Indian Express

Local fishing communities and activists are drawing parallels now between the ongoing conflict in Trivandrum over the Adani group’s massive port project at Vizhinjam and the Nandigram episode in West Bengal that has signalled the end of the 34-year olf CPI(M) regime. The parallels are not quite so stark as at present the miniscule (in Kerala) Bharatiya Janata {arty (BJP) as also both the UDF and LDF have little fault to find with the project that threatens the livelihood of thousands of coastline inhabitants. 

The on-going protest by coastline inhabitants, mostly Latin Christians, is against the major real estate project. On November 26 and 27, violence broke out at Vizhinjam when project work re-commenced. Some activists are drawing a parallel with the Nandigram violence that occurred in 2007 as a result of land being forcibly acquired for the creation of a chemical hub, a type of special economic zone, by the CPI (M)-led government of West Bengal (SEZ) in which 14 people were killed in police firing. 

The one point of similarity between Nandigram and Vizhinjam protests is that at the time, 2007 and now, the CPM-led governments were in power. Though, it was the then Congress-led United Democratic Front government of Kerala and the Adani Group that had entered into a concession agreement in 2015 to construct India’s first major transhipment container terminal at Vizhinjam, which is close to the state capital Thiruvananthapuram. 

While in Opposition, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) had stiffly opposed the project calling it a 5000 crore land grabbing deal. 

In fact, in 2017, the Economic Times had reported that the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has observed that interests of Kerala were not protected in the agreement with Adani Ports and SEZ Private Ltd for implementing the Rs 7525 crore Vizhinjam International Deepwater Multipurpose Seaport project.

CAG in its tabled report on public sector undertakings for the year ended March 2016, tabled in the assembly on May 23, 2017, said the technical and financial estimates prepared by external consultants were not scrutinised with due diligence resulting in inflation of cost estimates.

“The interests of state government were not protected adequately while drawing up the Concession Agreement”, the report had then said in its conclusion.

Observing that the standard concession period for the PPP project was 30 years and by allowing 10 years, extra concession period in the agreement for Vizhinjam, the Concessionaire (Adani Group) would be collecting additional revenue of Rs 29,217 crore, based on revenue estimates in Feasibility Report by Ernst and Young.

This CAG report came a day after CPI-M veteran and former Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan demanded a ‘White Paper’ from the party headed LDF government on the Vizhinjam port agreement inked during the previous Congress-led UDF government. The CPI-M leader also alleged corruption in the deal of the project of which the work was formally launched in December 2015.

As per the agreement, Adani group was responsible for funding and development of dredging and reclamation of 53 acres of land from the sea, construction of berths and related infrastructure and operation of the Port. The total cost of the project was estimated at Rs 7525 crore. On this Rs 2454 crore is the investment by Adani group for and Rs 1635 the Viability Gap funding of Centre and state and Rs 3436 crore by the state.

With regard to the financial and economic viability of the project, the report observed that in spite of 67 per cent investment by the state, the financial benefit accruing to the state was not commensurate with its investments.

Vizhinjam port development was a dream project of the state for a long period as it was first proposed in 1991 when late Congress leader K Karunakaran was the Chief Minister. But it did not materialise due to various reasons. It was the previous UDF government that had given it a first push, in 2011. An agreement was signed with Adani groups under PPP route on Design, Build, Finance, Operate and Transfer basis (DBFOT).

LDF then in Opposition, had seriously objected to implementing the project in private sector and had levelled allegations of corruption in the deal. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had stated earlier that the government would implement the project as there was no option before it other than to execute the project inked by the previous UDF government. 

What does this project mean? 

The 7,525 crore Adani Vizhinjam International Seaport project is said to be an all-weather, 24-meter deep-seaport that can accommodate megamax-sized container ships. It is claimed the transshipment container terminal promises to reduce logistics costs and make

manufacturing competitive. Once completed, it will be the first container transhipment hub in India, competing for business on the lucrative east-west trade routes with Sri Lanka, Singapore and Dubai. 

Today, what is happening there at Vizhimjam? 

However, this ambitious Vizhinjam project landed in controversy as the fisherman community have organised themselves against it. This project is caught in protests and violence which is being supported by the Latin Catholic church. Vizhinjam is the perfect location for a deepwater port due to its natural un-dredged draught. According to protesters, who halted the construction for almost four months, the project is resulting in habitat, economic and biological destruction. 

On November 27, the protests against the project became violent when demonstrators attacked the Vizhinjam police station in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala. At least 12 policemen were hurt during the incident, the media reported. The villagers, supported by Catholic priests, are blocking the site’s entrance with a homemade shelter. The police tried to interfere and that caused skirmishes resulting in more than 80 injuries. 

Public property losses were reported, including damage to 20 motorcycles, two vans, four police jeeps, and furnishings within the police station. Following the demonstrations on November 26, protesters arrived at the station, demanding the release of five people who had been previously detained. Following these demonstrations, at least 50 Latin Catholic priests, including Archbishop of Thiruvananthapuram’s Latin Archdiocese Archbishop Thomas J. Netto reportedly had cases filed against them. 

Local tensions spiralled when Thomas Netto was named as the first accused in an FIR against him. In the new FIR, 50 priests are also listed, including Auxiliary Bishop Christudas and Vicar General Eugeine Pereria. Apart from this, the police also registered cases against 3,000 people. 

 It is the local fishing population led by the influential Latin Catholic Archdiocese of

Thiruvananthapuram has been arguing that the breakwater and works will impact their way of

life and residences for some time. 

Is there a communal twist being given to the protests? 

As happens on all matters of communal conflict, economic reasons are often given an identity label and twist. While the RSS-backed Hindu United Front has sworn to walk to the port in Vizhinjam to express support for the project they claim will create jobs in the area, the protest has now taken on a more divisive tone. 

So far the government and administration have not displayed any heavy-handedness on the protesters. A senior police officer has stated that even additional security had been placed around

the port to keep the Hindu group from getting there in an effort to avert new confrontations. 

Coastal Erosion 

While the coastline inhabitants alleged that Adani’s ultimate goal was to displace the impoverished fishermen and seize the coastline in order to turn it into a major real estate project, protesters have also claimed that following the start of construction, protesters claimed there had been significant coastal erosion on the port’s northern side and sea accretion (the gradual accumulation of sand or land mass along coastal zones). According to research conducted by the National Institute of Ocean Technology in Chennai, erosion has occurred in Shangumugham (600 m), Valiyathura (200 m), and Cheriyathura (100 m) on the port’s northern shore. 

However, in contrast, according to a senior government official, the region was experiencing coastal erosion, and this erosion had nothing to do with the construction of the port and the region was witnessing coastal erosion from early 2000s onwards. 

Background to protests 

The protest however continues and vehement opposition to the project has put the LDF government, particularly the CPM, in an awkward spot. Local fisherfolk from the Muslim and Christian communities are genuinely agitated because the port is being constructed in the area where they are concentrated. The fear of losing their houses and livelihood is real and serious. Sea erosion in the project area is another challenge after the construction has started. No adequate compensation for the loss of livelihood and houses… these are some of their grievances. 

The government, on its part says that adequate compensation has been agreed. A number of

meetings have taken place in which the church and the protesters have agreed to the suggestion of higher compensation. Often in the case of mass displacement however, once projects are underway and populations “cleared” compensation often remains a pipe dream. 

The protest by fisher folk against the Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited (VISL), near Thiruvananthapuram this year began on August 16 and has continued despite two rounds of talks with the government. The government has agreed to five of the seven demands in the first round of talks itself. 

The demand for halting the construction works immediately has not found favour from the government, considering the completion of works. The representatives of the fishing community did not turn up for the talks on August 28 after being invited by the government. Three ministers and the district collector were made to wait for almost an hour.

Earlier on the day, the Latin Catholic Archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram, leading the protest, issued a pastoral letter against the project, claiming that the community is fighting for survival.

The fisher folk have alleged increased sea erosion and damages to houses in several villages along the coast since the construction began in 2015. The community has alleged unscientific construction works being the reason for the adverse impacts. The opposition in the state, the United Democratic Front (UDF) has pledged support for the protest. For the record, the project was approved during the Congress-led UDF in 2014, as per the ‘build-operate-transfer’ mode. The LDF had demanded the landlord-ship model to be implemented and opposed the Public Private Partnership (PPP) model. 

Pastoral Letter

The government of Kerala once again extended an invitation to the protesting fishermen for another round of talks in August 2022 to end the impasse between the protestors. But the minister for fisheries, V Abdurahiman waited in vain as the representatives failed to turn up. 

“The government cannot halt the construction works all of a sudden. This has been conveyed to the protestors as well. The government has informed its consent to set up an expert committee to further study the impacts of the construction. The protestors must introspect if the decision to continue the protest does any good for the state,” the minister said during a press meeting. The minister also informed that the government is ready for talks at any time, that too with the assembly in session.

The archdiocese in an apparent attempt to intensify the protest issued a pastoral letter which was read in the concerned churches during the mass. The archbishop advised the fishing community not to fall into the traps of forces attempting to divide the fishing community. 

Impossible to halt works’

The protesting fishermen have urged the government to halt the construction works and conduct a detailed environmental impact assessment (EIA). The second round of talks held with the chief minister on August 25 failed since the protestors continued to insist on this demand. 

“The government has clarified its position on halting the construction works. Since more than 50% of works have been completed, it’s practically impossible to do it,” said Pulluvilai Stanley, the general secretary of All India Fishers and Fisheries Workers’ Federation (AIFFWF) then to NewsClick.

The government has not laid any pre-conditions to hold talks anytime soon, given the fear prevailing among the community. 

“The community has alleged unscientific construction of groynes leading to increased sea erosion and damage to houses after the construction works of the port began in 2015. The government has ensured to study the impact of the allegations, but without halting the works, which is the only possible way forward,” Stanley said.

 Before the present deadlock, the representatives of the Latin catholic archdiocese had expressed satisfaction after the first round of talks held on August 19. “The meeting with the minister had a relatively positive outcome. However, we will continue our protest until all our demands are met,” Fr Eugene Pereira, the Vicar General of the archdiocese said after the meeting. 

A major demand of the protestors, seeking a solution for rehabilitation has been arrived upon, with land in Muttathara being identified. The government will also extend financial aid to the fishermen during adverse climate conditions. 

UDF approved PPP Model’

In the UDF government, Ommen Chandy as the chief minister in 2015 approved the project to construct the container shipment terminal in Vizhinjam. The LDF had opposed the PPP model proposed by the government instead of the landlord model in the assembly.

“The LDF had opposed the mode of implementation in the assembly itself when the UDF government at the time of proposal itself. But the UDF is now playing politics in the issue,” Stanley accused.

‘Govt committed to welfare’

The government has sanctioned funds for rehabilitation and resettlement of fishermen, compensation for catamaran fishermen, drinking water projects, and housing for around 1000 people under Livelihood Inclusion and Financial Empowerment (LIFE) mission among others.

A sum of Rs 52.76 crores has been sanctioned to 942 traditional fishing workers in Vizhinjam and Adimalathura hamlets. Each of the workers will receive Rs 5.6 lakh. The LIFE mission has enlisted 1,062 homeless people in the locality as part of the LDF government’s aim to provide housing to all. 

The LDF government has upgraded the community health centre into a 100- bedded taluk hospital for Rs 10 crores, while Rs 12.5 lakh each has been sanctioned to 73 mussel workers.

According to the government, despite the measures rolled out, the fisher folk continue to intensify the protest putting the ambitious project in jeopardy.


Anti-Adani Kerala sea port protest: 3,000 booked over alleged police station attack at Vizhinjam, all-party meeting today

Opposition to the Vizhinjam Port Project must be seen in the wider context of protecting coastal ecology and communities

Kerala fisherfolk’s persistent battle against the seaport development project

Kerala against Adani takeover of Trivandrum International Airport

Indian Fishworkers protest at 23 ports and harbours against proposed shipping corridor

Why We Must Say No to Vizhinjam Project


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