Victims of development

‘We will not budge’: Mass protests against its pet projects put Kerala’s ruling CPI(M) in a bind

But Pinarayi Vijayan says his government will not ‘succumb to pressure from anti-development activists’.

Mass agitations against three infrastructure projects in Kerala have put the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the Left Democratic Front government, in a bind.

Residents are opposing the Kochi-Mangaluru gas pipeline which is being laid though Kozhikode and Malappuram, the construction of a gas terminal in Puthuvype in Ernakulam, and the acquisition of 250 acres of paddy fields for a bypass road through Keezhattur village in Kannur.

While Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has denounced the agitations, the Communist Party of India, the second-largest constituent in his government, has thrown its weight behind them.

In Kozhikode and Malappuram, protests have been going on for over a month against the Gas Authority of India Limited’s proposal to lay pipes for carrying Liquid Natural Gas through thickly populated localities. Residents have been demanding realignment of the pipeline because they are worried about their safety. “A minor leak in the pipeline will result in a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions,” said Latheef, a resident of Mukkam village in Kozhikode, who has not given permission for the line to run through his land.

The ruling party has described the pipeline protestors as “Muslim extremists who possess the primitive mentality of the seventh century”. This despite that fact that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) themselves opposed the project when the previous Congress-led government tried to implement it in 2012.

In Puthuvype, a coastal village in Kochi, residents have been agitating against the construction of the massive Liquid Petroleum Gas terminal since February.

The protests in Keezhattur against the bypass have been going on since September. Residents fear the new road will deprive them of their livelihood and force them to leave the village.

‘Development is the main agenda’

Since taking office in 2016, Chief Minister Vijayan has said on more than one occasion that “development is the main agenda” of his government. He reiterated his position early this week in the wake of fresh protests against the gas pipeline. “The government is not ready to succumb to pressure from anti-development activists,” he said at a function in Thrissur. “People with vested interests are creating obstacles whenever the government comes up with new projects.”

In June, inaugurating the Kochi Metro, the chief minister had categorically stated that there was “no scope for protests” under his rule. “We will provide financial compensation to those who are affected by the projects,” he said. “We will rehabilitate those who lose their land. But there is no scope for protests. If protests continue, we have no option but to go ahead with development works. Development is our main agenda.”

His tough talk, it seems, has not had the desired effect.

Police lathicharge anti-pipeline protestors in Kozhikode on November 1. Photo by special arrangement
Police lathicharge anti-pipeline protestors in Kozhikode on November 1. Photo by special arrangement

‘We’ll fight for our right to live’

Protests against the pipeline gathered momentum early this week when the Gas Authority of India began laying pipes in Kozhikode and Malappuram. On November 6, the protestors were called for a discussion but it failed to yield a resolution as the government refused to consider realigning the pipeline. The protestors aren’t backing down either.

“We will not budge until GAIL changes the alignment,” said Basheer Puthiyottil, vice president of the Anti-GAIL Pipeline Action Committee, which is leading the agitation. “We are planning to stage a state-level agitation, bringing together all the affected people under one umbrella.”

Puthiyottil said they are not worried about the government branding them extremists. “We are not bothered by the government’s pressure tactics,” he said. “We will fight until we get our right to live.”

Police beat up a protestor in Puthuvype on June 18. Photo credit: Ashish Vincent
Police beat up a protestor in Puthuvype on June 18. Photo credit: Ashish Vincent

‘We are sitting on a time bomb’

After lying low for four months, the residents of Puthuvype on Monday resumed their long-running protest against the Indian Oil Corporation’s construction of a Liquefied Petroleum Gas import terminal, taking out a “people’s march” to Kochi city.

The residents allege that the terminal is being built in violation of the National Green Tribunal’s ban on construction in the inter-tidal zone, which is between 200 metre and 300 metre from the coastline. The massive project will disrupt the natural flow of the tides, the residents claim, thereby putting them at risk.

The government has cracked down hard on the agitation in Puthuvype. In June, the police beat up hundreds of men, women and children when they conducted a protest march. Vijayan seemed to justify the police action by claiming that the protestors’ allegations were baseless.

“Abandoning this project will help forces who want Kerala not to be developed,” he said. “Development cannot be compromised.”

The protestors don’t see it that way. “Puthuvype is already sitting on a time bomb,” said MB Jaya Ghosh, chairman of the Puthuvype LPG Terminal Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samiti, which is leading the agitation. “We already have Liquid Natural Gas and crude oil terminals near our village. We can’t afford to have an LPG plant here as well. More than 65,000 people live in the vicinity of these three plants. The proposed plant will be just 30 metres away from our village. We are worried about our safety.”

Ghosh said the protests will not be called off even if there is another police action. “We are expecting the police to beat us up, but we are not afraid,” he said. “We will take the agitation to the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram.”

Women of Keezhattoor village take out a protest march. Photo by special arrangement
Women of Keezhattoor village take out a protest march. Photo by special arrangement

‘We won’t allow this in our village’

Residents of Keezhattoor, a stronghold of the ruling party, do not want to part with their land. Although almost all the protesting villagers are members of the party or its sympathisers, the party’s district and state leaders have denounced the agitation. The villagers and activists allege the construction of the proposed road will result in the eviction of 90 families, besides causing ecological damage.

The agitation started with a hunger strike on September 10. It was temporarily halted on September 28 when the minister for public works met the protestors and promised to defer the notification for the bypass, apparently because the ruling party feared the Bharatiya Janata Party would make it a political issue.

Indeed, local BJP leaders had met the protestors and offered to support their agitation, four days before the party’s president Amit Shah launched the Jan Raksha Yatra on October 3.

Suresh Keezhattoor, convener of the Action Committee spearheading the agitation, said that the road would destroy their livelihoods. “The government has the backing of corporate forces and they may try to strangulate people’s protests,” he said. “But we will not allow this to happen in our village.”

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