The Adani group is set to resume construction at the ₹7,500 crore international transhipment sea port at Vizhinjam, thanks to the Latin Catholic Church calling off its agitation against the project following a late-night closed-door discussion with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Tuesday, December 6.
Meanwhile, a sense of despondency looms among the fisherfolk of Vizhinjam, south of the Kerala capital Thiruvananthapuram, who face environmental and livelihood threats because of the project.
Most of the affected fishing workers belong to the Latin Catholic community and feel aggrieved by the church’s decision to abruptly end the 138-day protest against the Vizhinjam port’s construction without gaining any significant assurances from the government or the Adani Group.
Most demands rejected
Most of the demands raised by the agitators — including setting up an independent scientific committee with at least two members nominated by the affected fisherfolk, and suspending the construction work till the committee comes out with its conclusions — have been summarily rejected.
The government also rejected the demand that all criminal cases registered against the agitators be dropped, and is not in favour of increasing the compensation package for the fisherfolk who lost their houses and livelihood to the surging sea waters.
‘Church surrendered to pressure’
“It seems the Church surrendered to pressure from organised political parties and interest groups who favoured Adani and remained insensitive to our survival struggles. The convening of the closed-door meeting and the sudden conclusion evolved raise suspicion,” Ajith Shanghumukham, a senior community leader at the forefront of the agitation since the beginning, told South First.
“The church leadership forgot all the genuine demands of the fishing community and surrendered before the pressure tactics adopted by the government and Adani supporters. We are yet to come to terms with the decision,” he added.
It was late on Tuesday that the church-backed Vizhinjam Action Council (VAC) general convener Fr Eugene Pereira came out of the closed-door meeting with Vijayan and announced that the VAC had decided to end the first phase of the agitation against the Vizhinjam port construction at the very moment itself.
When asked whether the government had agreed to the demands from the agitators, he replied in the negative. But he said the VAC activists would no longer blockade the project site or disrupt construction of the 3.2-km-long breakwater of the project.
On Wednesday, 7 December, the Adani group said that the construction work would resume very soon.
‘Will continue my campaign’, says brother of Kerala minister
“The decision to withdraw the protests was sudden, and we are yet to get details of the discussions that led to such a conclusion. Whatever the position of the Church over the issue, I will continue my campaign against the Vizhinjam port project based on the scientific research I have conducted on the environmental and livelihood threats it poses,” said coastal researcher AJ Vijayan, one of the public faces of the agitation since the beginning.
“All the burning issues raised by the fishing community remain unaddressed. The church is bound to explain the communications held behind the doors,” Vijayan told South First.
Incidentally, Vijayan is the elder brother of Kerala Transport Minister Antony Raju.
The project is a substantial environmental and social disaster, and its adverse effects would ruin the whole Thiruvananthapuram coast in the coming years, Vijayan added.
In a statement made in the Kerala Assembly on Wednesday, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said rehabilitation of local people and protection of their livelihood are top priorities of his government while implementing development projects.
Why the Latin Church turned defensive
The Latin Catholic Church, which spearheaded the agitation peacefully in the first 138 days, turned defensive on 27 November after some protestors attacked the local police station, injuring several police officials on duty.
Several vehicles and other property of the station were damaged, and the violence caused an estimated loss of ₹98 lakh. Several criminal cases were slapped against the church leadership and followers, and even the archbishop was not spared.
The attack on the police station and the subsequent police action targeting the archbishop had created divisions within the Latin Catholic community, with a section wanting an immediate end to the agitation.
Observers feel that the bipartisan nod to complete the Vizhinjam port project in the Assembly discussions, despite opposition from the Latin Catholic Church, also influenced its decision to end the agitation.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Assembly had discussed the Vizhinjam imbroglio.
Both the ruling LDF and the opposition Congress-led UDF highlighted Vizhinjam’s proximity to international shipping lanes, its naturally deep littoral waters that required scarce dredging, and the port’s potential for catapulting Kerala into a new era of economic growth and prosperity to justify their respective positions in support of the port.
The Opposition, however, wanted a sympathetic consideration of the demands of the agitators.
Agitation halted only for time being, says Church
“We just ended the first phase of the agitation. There will be different phases. Regarding the assurances the government has given us, we are not fully satisfied. We have just withdrawn the agitation for the time being,” Fr Pereira told South First.
“The future course of action will depend on how things progress and how the government and Adani Group address the issues we raised. As all issues raised by us are genuine, we will not retreat on them,” he added.
He disclosed that the JAC turned down a significant offer by the government to increase the house rent promised to the displaced families from ₹5,500 to ₹8,000.
When the JAC representatives pointed out that the already promised monthly rent of ₹5,500 was very meagre, the government said the remaining ₹2,500 would be made available using corporate responsibility funds of the Adani Group. Then the JAC said they would not accept any CSR funds of Adani.
In the Assembly, the Vijayan on Wednesday said, “Construction of flats (for rehabilitating fisherfolk) would be completed within one-and-a-half years. Two months’ rent will be paid in advance. As per a government order dated 1 September, 2022, ₹5,500 will be given as monthly rent.”
To the demand to include the JAC nominees in the expert committee studying coastal erosion caused by the port construction, the government said the group already constituted by it would hear the concerns raised by the affected families.
CM thanks Cardinal Cleemis
The conciliatory talks were held following the intervention of Cardinal Mar Baselios Cleemis of the Syro Malankara Catholic Church and Cardinal George Alanchery of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church, the other two influential Catholic segments in the state.
In the Kerala Assembly on Wednesday, Vijayan particularly thanked Cardinal Cleemis for his efforts.
Kerala Minister for Ports Ahammad Devarkovil also thanked the church leaders for their cooperation in ending the protests that disrupted the port’s construction for more than three months and pushed the communally sensitive coastal locality to the edge.
Only solid assurance from government
The only solid assurance the committee received from the government was that a sub-committee consisting of the chief secretary and port department secretary would oversee the rehabilitation of the affected families.
It will also facilitate some welfare and relief measures for the affected families, including timely disbursal of the promised rent.
According to environmentalist Veena Maruthoor, who supported the protests, most issues concerning the future of the coastal community in Vizhinjam remain unaddressed.
“There was an unexpected hurry yesterday, and most of the agitators are still in the dark about what has been exchanged between the government and the JAC,” she said.