Opposition to Vizhinjam Port Project Must be Seen in the Wider Context of Protecting Coastal Ecology and Communities
The wider discussion on coastal areas often takes place in the context of their beauty and tourism potential. However ecologists place more emphasis on seeing coastal areas as very significant as well as sensitive areas whose development activities should be carefully monitored and regulated to prevent unintended serious and longer-term harm. The need for this has increased further in times of climate change when several wider aspects need to be monitored carefully and when the need for protective policies has increased further. In particular the increasing frequency and intensity of cyclones is a very worrying aspect of coastal life related to climate change and anything which increases further the harm caused by cyclones is best avoided.
A second aspect of coastal life is that traditional fishers and coastal communities, the children of the sea so to say, have experienced increasing injustice and marginalization during recent decades. Due to mechanization trends and the entry of big capital, the livelihoods of small and cottage-scale traditional fishers were eroded while big tourism and other coastal developments also tried to marginalize them. Gradually their place in the beaches and shores which had been in their ancestral home has been made more precarious, so much so that even when they were devastated by cyclones, some of the rehabilitation was within the framework of such marginalization. Thus clearly traditional fishers and coastal communities are much in need of justice based interventions and policies.
Keeping in view all these considerations, coastal areas need ecologically protective and justice based policies, with much emphasis also on careful, unbiased monitoring of the changing situation, and protection from sea-level rise, coastal storms and coastal erosion.
It is only in this wider context that the debate on the massive ongoing development projects such as the Adani group Vizhinjam seaport, located at a short distance from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, should be seen. This massive seaport, or transshipment container terminal, has faced sustained opposition from local fisher and coastal communities spread over many villages prompting much debate on this under-construction project. It is a big enough project in its ongoing first phase, but if its all future development plans are included then it becomes a truly massive project which should be properly evaluated keeping in view the current priorities of coastal areas. Another factor that must be kept in consideration is that Kerala has already become a very high disaster prone region in recent times, and this has been already blames by several experts to a considerable extent on indiscriminate construction activities, apart from the overall high risks of climate change such as those relating to more highly concentrated and heavy rains.
Keeping in view all these factors a massive project like Vizhinjam does not appear to be justified in these times. It is apparent from
the intense and sustained opposition of local fisher community that they strongly feel, on the basis of their actual experiences as well as their understanding of local conditions, that their sustainable livelihoods are being badly eroded and made much riskier and hazardous by this project.
The wider risk is that the various constructions of the project can increase the damage to some surrounding areas at the time of cyclones. The construction works and the building materials required by then may lead to increase in quarrying in vulnerable nearby areas where even the existing smaller quarrying has led to adverse impacts. The project can also accelerate the rate of ongoing sea erosion processes. In fact an important question is why such a massive project was started in a place where sea erosion was already considered to be a serious threat.
Hence while evaluations have been taken up already, it appears that important possible adverse factors were not taken note of adequately. Hence the demand of local communities for stopping this work till a more comprehensive and unbiased evaluation can be taken up in a transparent manner, involving them and their representatives, appears to be well justified. The best available and latest scientific information and studies can be utilized for such a comprehensive and unbiased evaluation, the best of experts can be consulted, but at the same time the immensely valuable knowledge of local people, particularly the elders among them who have known the sea and the coast all their life, should also be utilized properly as this can really contribute to a better understanding. This comprehensive evaluation should be conducted in a highly transparent way and can be completed in about six months or so. Till such time that this evaluation can be completed, most work on this project should be stopped. In the course of this comprehensive reappraisal the terms of the agreement reached by the government with the company should also be re-examined in a transparent way from the perspective of protecting and promoting public interest only.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.