Fish Workers’ Agitation: Kerala’s Vizhinjam Anti Adani Port Struggle For Survival

vizhinjam protest 1

The historical agitation by the coastal people of Trivandrum has crossed 120 days. The struggle has been going on at Vizhinjam all these days under the leadership of the Trivandrum Latin archdiocese raising 7 demands including the demand that construction of the harbour has to be stopped and the destruction it has already caused to the coast to be enquired into by an expert committee acceptable to fish workers also. The new phase of the agitation started on 5 June 2022 when a joint committee formed by Kerala Independent Fishermen’s Federation (KSMTF), SEWA and Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh started the indefinite satyagraha in front of the first terminal of the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport, a government-owned airport which was handed over to Adani. Following this, a Satyagraha was started at the Adani-owned Vizhinjam port gate too led by the archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram

In addition to the demand of constituting an expert committee, the fish workers are also demanding the following:

  1. Find a permanent solution for the general loss of coastal area due to unscientific constructions for various projects and for the severe coastal erosion caused by the construction of Vizhinjam harbour;
  2. Provide cost of rent required for the rehabilitation of those who have been put up temporarily in schools, go downs etc for years as a result of loss of land and houses due to coastal erosion;
  3. Plan projects necessary for the permanent rehabilitation of those who have lost land and houses to the sea;
  4. The government should intervene to withdraw the price hike of kerosene and should plan projects to make kerosene available to fish workers, as Tamilnadu has done.
  5. Minimum wages should be paid to fish workers for days on which they lose work due to weather warnings;
  6. Find a permanent solution to problems caused by the unscientifically constructed fishing harbour at Muthalappozhi

The historical relevance of the Vizhinjam struggle is that the fish workers are fighting against the biggest economic powers of the world and governments controlled by them. Not only fish workers but experts too confirm that the basic reason for the highly destructive coastal erosion in Trivandrum is the construction of the harbour. The Chief Minister says that it is due to global warming and climate change.  This agitation is to expose the social economic and environmental hazards caused by the harbour project under construction at Vizhinjam and to protect the lives property and means of livelihood of the coastal population. All of us have to recognize the deep crisis and challenges of survival faced by Kerala’s coastal region and its people.

At the time of conceiving the project itself, different study groups had expressed their dissent on the desirability of the project. Even the union environment ministry had expressed their disagreement more than once. Assessing that it will be a loss even economically, no other harbour construction company at the global level participated in the tender for this project.

On 16th May 2015, today’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote in his Facebook post: “what is being implemented through the Vizhinjam project is colossal corruption by exchanging land worth Rs 6000 crore to the Adani group under the pretext of Malayali’s desire for development.”

When the Vizhinjam project had been proposed the Trivandrum archdiocese and the coastal people pointed out the disastrous consequences it could cause to the coastal area. In May 2017, the Comptroller and Auditor General released a report pointing out serious irregularities and corruption in the project. It was recorded clearly in it that “the Vizhinjam international multipurpose deep water Harbour project being established at the capital of Kerala is against the best interests of the state.”

V.S Achuthanandan, the then Chairman of the Administrative Reforms Commission gave a letter to chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan demanding to stop the harbour work and to conduct a judicial enquiry on the subject.

All these facts shatter the government’s argument that the struggle had started only after reaching halfway in the process of construction. As the construction work is progressing, damage and destruction increase on a large scale and it is evident that the project is a threat to the coast. Hundreds of families on the coastal belt have turned landless and homeless. Shamkhumukham beach and Veli tourist village have lost their shores to erosion. The Trivandrum International Airport, Kovalam tourist village and Thumba Rocket Launching Station are on the brink of ruin. When only one-third of the construction of the breakwater of Adani’s port has been completed, several accidents occurred due to wave intensification and more than 60 fish workers lost their lives in these accidents. The coastal erosion in the Trivandrum district will endanger the future life of thousands of fish workers. The construction of the port has already affected the biodiversity and fish population of the sea. It has been since the construction of the Vizhinjam port in 2015 that the coastal erosion has become so severe.

The environmental study report states that the area near the coast has to be dredged to a depth of 20.4 meters to enable the entry of mother ships. Besides, 66 hectares (165 acres) of the sea have to be reclaimed for containers and other facilities. This coast has already started experiencing the terrible consequences of building an artificial port based on breakwaters as distinct from the natural ports such as Cochin, Mumbai, Goa etc constructed by factoring in the natural estuaries, straits, islands and backwaters etc. If constant dredging (sand mining) and construction of the 3.2 k.m long breakwaters for the Vizhinjam commercial port continue, the consequences will be tenfold what they are today. When one-third of the port construction has been completed, the shore has been lost by 600 meters. At Valiyathura alone 5 rows of houses have been swallowed by the sea. If this state of affairs is allowed to continue, gradually, fishing will become impossible for more than 50,000 fish workers in the Trivandrum district.

The Basic Demands of the Agitation and Government’s Responses

  1. Find out a solution for the coastal erosion caused by the construction of the Vizhinjam port. There has been no serious approach on the part of the government of Kerala to prevent coastal erosion, reclaim lost shore or solve the problems associated with it. The government did neither consider nor implement the report submitted after a study in august 2007 by Prof V Sundar and Dr.K. Murali of the  Ocean Engineering Dept of IIT, Madras in collaboration with the Kerala Irrigation Department. As part of the efforts to protect the shore from Shamkhummukham to Valiyathura, It was in 2019, during the tenure of this government, that attempts to deposit geo tubes in the sea slightly away from the coast, as recommended by the IIT on an experimental basis started. But, the government was not able to go ahead far with this experiment. Really, the government is groping in the dark about the protection and reclamation of coastal lands.
  2. Families living in inhuman conditions in relief camps after losing their homes in coastal erosion should be rehabilitated immediately, giving them the full rent required for payment. For the rehabilitation of families who have been in inhuman conditions in relief camps for years together, the government has offered a meagre rent of Rs 5500/-. In the suburb of the city, no house will be available for this amount. The government is not willing to raise the amount of rent and offer the necessary advance for the deposit. The govt. says that the sufferers should also meet the beneficiaries’ share of the expense.
  3. Rehabilitate those who have lost land and home after giving due compensation for the losses. Though government land has been located in Muttatthara, away from where they now reside,  Government is trying to build flats to accommodate them. The land and houses they earned and owned have been lost to the sea.  The government is not considering any compensation for these. “However, you have lost land; you should be satisfied with what you get now”. This is what ministers and officers tell them.
  1. Suspend the construction of the Adani port which has caused coastal erosion, and threatened the Vizhinjam fishing harbor and the beaches at Shamkhumukham and Kovalam and conduct a transparent study involving local experts also in it. Govt. has ignored the proposal of the agitation council to include local experts suggested by fish workers while constituting a committee for study. If the backgrounds of some of these experts are traced, they are people who support the hidden agenda of the govt. to attribute coastal erosion to climate change emphatically. The govt is also not willing to suspend the construction of the port till the study is completed.
  1. The govt. should intervene to withdraw the uncontrolled rise of kerosene price. Kerosene should be provided to fishworkers as has been done in Tamilnadu. The govt has not yet been willing to revise and enhance  the meager subsidy that has been allowed long ago.
  1. Pay minimum wages to fish workers when they lose work due to weather warnings. when asked to compensate fish workers by paying wages for work lost due to weather warnings, the govt just repeats the refrain that they have to study.
  1. Solve the problems at Muthalappozhi. Though 60 fish workers have lost their lives in Muthalappozhi, there have not been any positive directives from the part of the govt to study and solve the issues.

Even though this is the truth, the govt propaganda is that they have met six out of the seven demands raised by the agitation council. This claim can only be viewed as a heinous attempt by the govt to mislead the people of Kerala and to defeat the struggle.

We have been informed that the total investment for the construction of Adani port would come to Rs7525 crores. But, now figures have changed utterly so that the govt. will have to spend approximately Rs 5000 crore more now. According to the CAG report, Adani has to invest just Rs2454 crores (i.e32.6%); the balance of Rs 5071 crore (67.4%)  will have to be spent by the govt. of Kerala. Even though the total amount of Rs 1635 crore allocated as a grant under VGF to Adani, is to be equally shared by the Union govt. and the govt .of Kerala, there is a provision that the Union’s share should be repaid by the govt. of Kerala. The total capital investment except the amount spent by Adani should be considered as that of the Govt. of Kerala. Even then, after the commencement of the project, up to 15 years, Adani need not pay a single paisa to the govt. If there is profit after that period only 1% of it goes to the govt. There is also the provision in the agreement that Adani can pledge for raising money the 190 acres of land transferred to him by the govt. Information revealed recently shows that the actual investment by govt. of Kerala will be much more than that. The expense newly estimated for land acquisition is Rs 2829 crores and that for road construction is Rs 2039 crores. The railway ministry has estimated Rs 2104 crores for building a new railway line.

Anyhow, according to these estimates, it is clear that a total of Rs 6972crores will be required for the road (Rs4868 crores) and rail (Rs2104 crores). If that is so, the govt of Kerala will have to allocate Rs 4999 crores more instead of the earlier estimated Rs 1973 crores for road and rail. Thus there will be a net increase of Rs 5000 crores in the total investment. It is by spending taxpayers’ money that all these will have to be done for the sake of Adani. Out of the total expenditure of Rs 12500 crores

Adani needs to invest only Rs 2454 crores. In these circumstances, 81% of the total investment is going to be people’s money. This will increase the debt burden of the govt of Kerala which is already facing a debt crisis and will create a situation in which there will be no money to implement social welfare schemes.

The experience from the Vallarpadam port project is a lesson for us. The Cochin port under Port trust was privatized and  Vallarpadam was handed over to Dubai Port World with much fanfare. We know the condition of Vallarpadam today which does not handle commodities at an average of even 30% of its capacity. Vallarpadam terminal was started with a promise that Kochi would be converted into another Singapore. Those wild fancies for such a development have disappeared today. Only about 100 people have got permanent employment at Vallarpadam. The state of Hambantota Port in our neighbouring Srilanka has also appeared in recent news. Even when infrastructures are being built by borrowing money and squandering public wealth, none of their promised benefits seems to materialize.

The economic and environmental challenges raised by the consequences of the construction of the Vizhinjam port will have to be examined. The govt has an obligation to agree to the fish workers’ demand, as a precautionary principle, that the port building should be suspended till the study is completed honestly and transparently. The govt should abandon false pride and listen to people’s wishes.

Protection of the coast is not the need nor responsibility of fish workers only. Millions of tonnes of granite are mined by destroying midland hills and the Western Ghats, which are brought and dumped on the seashore. People in hilly areas are also suffering from different environmental problems caused by this activity. All Keralites should express their solidarity with this just and righteous struggle of the coastal people for survival.

Subrahmanian N has been working as an environmental activist for the past three and a half decades. He is a regular contributor to the media on Various topics.

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