Kerala’s fisherfolk hailed for their numerous rescue missions during the 2018 floods have embarked on a new mission to prevent the construction of a massive port in the midst of their villages, beaches and tourist resort by the Adani company. The AdaniWatch published a report by Jisha Elizabeth on November 1, 2020 that talks about the current situation in Vizhinjam seaport in Trivandrum city.
The fisherfolk, dubbed ‘Kerala’s Army,’ condemned the new seaport plan alleging that the new port will destroy the marine ecosystem, their livelihood and their lives. To their credit, Adani’s project recently featured in news headlines for various reasons such as coastal erosion, delays, public subsidies and damage to fisheries. Yet, the children of the sea have chosen a strong Opposition that enjoys the patronage of state as well as central governments.
On September 30, the community blocked the road to transport rocks in huge trucks to the construction site with their boats – intact boats as well as those vessels damaged during port construction. Their sit-in protest has continued ever since then resulting in the deployment of two buses worth of police personnel.
Despite being at the centre of the issue, the Adani Group has distanced itself from the dispute claiming that matter solely concerns fisherfolk and the Kerala government. A company spokesperson said that the blockade was related to an agreement between Kottapuram villagers and the state government about rehabilitation and resettlement which is not the concern of Adani Ports.
Meanwhile, the fisherfolk who kept their morale high with regular announcements from the nearby Church of the Lady of Good Voyage – that serves around 4000 families in the village – managed to temporarily halt all construction activities for 17 days.
According to the report, taped conversations by Adani spokespeople stated that the company incurred a loss of Rs. 10 million within this period – a fact that is corroborated by media reports. The state government, district authority and the company agreed to hold discussions with villagers on October 16, but failed to reach a consensus.
While the state acknowledged the fishing community’s grievances, it declined to issue government orders to ensure that their demands were met. Instead, government representatives offered to sign assurances on the Vizhinjam International Seaport Ltd (VISL) letter pad.
Protestors rejected such a letter without legally binding and warned against trying to fool the community. Protest leader Father Michael Thomas, making it clear that the community would no longer tolerate fake promises.
The dissenters pointed out that similar such government orders were issued but not executed prior to the beginning of the project in 2015. An example of such a promise was the drinking-water project that would cost AUD$ 1.4 million. Protestors alleged that the project is nowadays being used to supply water for the port construction.
However, Adani says it has made good on its promises. The company claimed that it employed over 200 people from the region in need of employment. Moreover, a spokesperson said the company is also committed to training local youth so that they are prepared and highly skilled for port operation work.
“Everyone has the right to voice their opinion in a democratic way within the factual and legal framework. All stakeholders need to be respectful and not put themselves or anyone else in harm’s way,” said the spokesperson.
Regarding the project’s environmental impact, fisherfolk said that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted in 2013 was inadequate. They demand a new study claiming that the impacts on the fishing industry due to pollution, boat-damage and reduced fish catch is much higher than that estimated in 2013. Further, they demanded that the social-responsibility fund instituted by the company be subjected to a social audit.
Fisherfolk also demanded that an independent expert commission conduct an inquiry into the project since most expert committees filing project reports are sponsored by the Adani port company. They alleged that these experts tweak their findings to suit the company’s interests and the government takes decisions based on these questionable reports.
In response, the Adani Group said that the EIA was prepared by L&T-Ramboll, a reputable consulting firm appointed by the state government prior to Adani’s involvement in the project.
On the twenty-fourth day of protest, Ports Minister Kadannapally Ramachandran attempted to mediate the situation. Ramachandran said that He said that a new directive has been issued to the district collector to look into the matter afresh. Moreover, he said the current government distributed around AUD$ 15 million as compensation to 2,623 people, as opposed to the previous government’s AUD$ 1.5-million package for rehabilitation. Similarly, the Adani Groups, too said that, it would offer to pay $AUD 76 to each of the 243 households in the region as a goodwill gesture to the local community although an expert panel had earlier rejected the claim that piling works at the port site had damaged houses in the nearby villages. The spokesperson said that the district administration had not confirmed the necessity of any such payment.
Ramachandran added that various government departments have had to liaise policy decisions to meet the 18 demands of protesters. He assured favourable results protesters in a press release distributed at Thiruvananthapuram on October 23 and added that the related appeals committee has been directed to submit a report after studying unsolved compensation claims for loss of livelihood.
The government hoped that the protestors would relent after assurances of Ramachandran and Tourism Minister Kadakampally Surendran. However, the strikers declared a demand for written assurances from the government.
They geared up to accelerate the agitation from November 1 following a discussion at the church’s parish hall on 24 October. There, parish Secretary Benans Lopez said that every fisherperson in Kerala will protest against the government and surround the Secretariat if it does not come to a practical solution. He said that the Vizhinjam port will face the same fate as Vedanta’s Sterlite Industries plant in Tamil Nadu, which is subject to a court order to shut down.
Back at the Vizhinjam port, elderly fishermen such as Jose, Transilas, Patrikal, Joseph Fernandes, Francis Christopher, Anthrudama and Susadima Sylvester spend the day in the boat that has blocked several large Taurus trucks. Young men take turns to keep watch at the protest tent. The construction site of an ambitious international deep seaport, remains a battle ground between the state and its people.
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