In the last nine days, the fishing community in Vizhinjam in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala has stalled construction of a deep-water multi-purpose sea port, a public private partnership project between Kerala government and the Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited. They are protesting against damage to 100 homes and demanding immediate implementation of the rehabilitation package. The fisherfolk – a large number of them women – have blocked the road at the project site with old boats since the protests started on October 24.

The agitation is led by the parish council of the Our Lady of Good Voyage Church, which has the support of over 17,000 people from 4,000 fishing families. The council had welcomed the project when the Congress-led government had made the proposal in 2012, even as people living in nearby villages opposed it. In June, the construction of a 3.5-km-long breakwaters, or barriers in the middle of the sea to tame the waves and ensure tranquil waters, began. But after the fishing community complained of unusually strong currents hitting the harbour as a result of the construction and damaging more than 100 homes and 10 boats and injuring many people, the parish council withdrew its support to the project.

Parish priest and parish council president Father Wilfred said residents had taken to the streets only after the port construction began to affect them directly. “We hoped it [the project] would bring prosperity to Vizhinjam,” he said. “But nothing has happened so far.”

He added, “Residents have been demanding implementation of the rehabilitation package announced by the government in 2015. We want to discuss all these issue with the government and settle the matter amicably. But the government has not shown any interest.”

On Monday, the district collector of Thiruvananthapuram appealed to the fishermen to stop their protest if they wanted a discussion with the government. But the protestors held firm.

Dr Jayakumar, director and chief executive officer of Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited, the implementing agency for the port, however, said the construction had not displaced any people and the government had not promised any rehabilitation package. “The people were misguided by people with vested interests,” he claimed.

But he added that “the government has promised financial aid to those who lost their livelihoods. We have already distributed Rs 5.6 lakhs each for 178 fishers”. He also said a review was underway to see if people eligible for compensation had been left out.

Project authority denies charges

Rejecting the claim that the construction of the breakwaters had damaged homes, Jayakumar said, “An expert team from the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai checked the damage [to the homes] and found out that those were old cracks.” About the damage to the boats, he said, “Waves enter directly into the harbour and cause damage. It happens at all ports. It has nothing to do with the breakwater construction.”

He went on to say, “What we conducted recently was test piling on land. The actual piling will be done in the sea.”

Piling is the process by which a deep foundation of wood, concrete or steel is built by drilling it deep into the earth.

He also said the project had the approval of the National Green Tribunal and that it would not have an adverse environmental impact on Vizhinjam.

Controversial from the start

This is not the first time the Vizhinjam port has run into trouble. There was opposition almost as soon as the Congress-led government floated tenders for a public-private partnership project on December 3, 2012. The project received environmental clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in January 2014 and on July 13, 2015, Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited won the contract through an international bidding process.

The same year, activists filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal – which decides on matters pertaining to the protection of the environment and natural resources – on behalf of residents. They sought withdrawal of the environmental clearance to the project, claiming legal procedures had not been followed to obtain it. They also argued that the port construction would cause sea erosion and damage the coast’s marine wealth.

The tribunal did not find any merit in their claims, though, and in its final verdict on September 2, 2016, refused to cancel the environmental approval. But it set up a seven-member expert committee to monitor compliance with the conditions of the environmental clearance, and sought a report every six months.

While the controversy surrounding the project had at first revolved around its environmental impact, it took a political turn in May this year with the Comptroller and Auditor General stating that the contract went against the interests of the state government and heavily favoured the Adani group, which would earn an additional Rs 29,217 crores in revenue as a result of certain conditions.

Beach erosion has destroyed hundreds of homes in Kerala's coastal villages. Opponents of the Vizhinjam port project say it will lead to sea erosion. (Credit: TA Ameerudheen)

‘Fishery wealth at risk’

Meanwhile, the protests against the project are gaining momentum. “Our anxieties grow with the port construction,” said parish council secretary Issac Johny, calling on the government to understand the hardships of the people. He said, “I don’t know how residents will respond when Vizhinjam becomes an unliveable place.”

Voicing the concern of numerous residents like him, Arul Das said, “We are living under the threat of sea erosion thanks to the construction of the breakwater. It will eventually damage our fishery wealth.”

He also said people who had once supported the project were now against it. “They didn’t get the promised jobs during construction work,” he explained. “Adani employed only migrant labourers.”

AJ Vijayan, founder-member of the National Fish Workers’ Forum, a union for small and traditional fishermen, was among the complainants who moved the National Green Tribunal against the project. He said he had expected protests to break out when the port construction gathered pace, but not so quickly.

He added, “The life of fishers will become miserable when the actual piling begins. This issue cannot be resolved with compensation packages.”