Kerala: Fisherfolk Demand Halting of Vizhinjam Port Construction
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The protest by fisherfolks against the Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited (VISL), near Thiruvananthapuram which began on August 16 is continuing despite two rounds of talks with the government. The government has agreed to five of the seven demands in the first round of talks itself.
The demand for halting the construction works immediately has not found favour from the government, considering the completion of works.
The representatives of the fishing community did not turn up for the talks on August 28 after being invited by the government. Three ministers and the district collector were made to wait for almost an hour.
Earlier on the day, the Latin Catholic Archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram, leading the protest, issued a pastoral letter against the project, claiming that the community is fighting for survival.
The fisherfolk have alleged increased sea erosion and damages to houses in several villages along the coast since the construction began in 2015. The community has alleged unscientific construction works being the reason for the adverse impacts.
The opposition in the state, the United Democratic Front (UDF) has pledged support for the protest. For the record, the project was approved during the Congress-led UDF in 2014, as per the ‘build-operate-transfer’ mode. The LDF had demanded the landlorship model to be implemented and opposed the Public Private Partnership (PPP) model.
PASTORAL LETTER AND REFUSAL FOR TALKS
The government of Kerala once again extended an invitation to the protesting fishermen for another round of talks on Sunday evening to end the impasse between the protestors. But the minister for fisheries, V Abdurahiman waited in vain as the representatives failed to turn up.
“The government cannot halt the construction works all of a sudden. This has been conveyed to the protestors as well. The government has informed its consent to set up an expert committee to further study the impacts of the construction. The protestors must introspect if the decision to continue the protest does any good for the state,” the minister said during a press meeting.
The minister also informed that the government is ready for talks at any time, that too with the assembly in session.
The archdiocese in an attempt to intensify the protest issued a pastoral letter which was read in the concerned churches during the mass. The archbishop advised the fishing community not to fall into the traps of forces attempting to divide the fishing community.
‘IMPOSSIBLE TO HALT WORKS’
The protesting fishermen have urged the government to halt the construction works and conduct a detailed environmental impact assessment (EIA). The second round of talks held with the chief minister on August 25 failed since the protestors continued to insist on this demand.
“The government has clarified its position on halting the construction works. Since more than 50% of works have been completed, it's practically impossible to do it,” said Pulluvilai Stanley, the general secretary of All India Fishers and Fisheries Workers’ Federation (AIFFWF) to NewsClick.
The government has not laid any pre-conditions to hold talks anytime soon, given the fear prevailing among the community.
“The community has alleged unscientific construction of groynes leading to increased sea erosion and damage to houses after the construction works of the port began in 2015. The government has ensured to study the impact of the allegations, but without halting the works, which is the only possible way forward,” Stanley said.
Before the present deadlock, the representatives of the Latin catholic archdiocese had expressed satisfaction after the first round of talks held on August 19.
"The meeting with the minister had a relatively positive outcome. However, we will continue our protest until all our demands are met," Fr Eugene Pereira, the Vicar General of the archdiocese said after the meeting.
A major demand of the protestors, seeking a solution for rehabilitation has been arrived upon, with land in Muttathara being identified. The government will also extend financial aid to the fishermen during adverse climate conditions.
‘UDF APPROVED PPP MODEL’
In the UDF government, Ommen Chandy as the chief minister in 2015 approved the project to construct the container shipment terminal in Vizhinjam. The LDF had opposed the PPP model proposed by the government instead of the landlord model in the assembly.
“The LDF had opposed the mode of implementation in the assembly itself when the UDF government at the time of proposal itself. But the UDF is now playing politics in the issue,” Stanley accused.
To a question on the role of the Latin Catholic Archdiocese in leading the protest, Stanley said, “Most of the fisherfolk belong to the religion and hence the church has donned the role. Further, I suspect political reasons behind the protest with the general elections less than two years away. The UDF depends on the Latin catholic voters in the four southern districts generally.”
The UDF suffered a setback in the 2021 assembly elections in the south and central districts. The UDF managed only four seats out of 34 constituencies in Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, and Alleppey districts which have a considerable population of the Latin catholics.
“I strongly doubt the protests are being intensified in the interest of some political forces. Some political front wishes to keep the issue alive against the LDF government at least until the general elections,” Stanley said.
'GOVT COMMITTED TOWARDS WELFARE’
The allegations of the archdiocese on the government being negligent in fulfilling the promises made during the commencement of the project were rejected by the authorities.
The government has sanctioned funds for rehabilitation and resettlement of fishermen, compensation for catamaran fishermen, drinking water projects, and housing for around 1000 people under Livelihood Inclusion and Financial Empowerment (LIFE) mission among others.
A sum of Rs 52.76 crores has been sanctioned to 942 traditional fishing workers in Vizhinjam and Adimalathura hamlets. Each of the workers will receive Rs 5.6 lakh. The LIFE mission has enlisted 1,062 homeless people in the locality as part of the LDF government's aim to provide housing to all.
The LDF government has upgraded the community health centre into a 100- bedded taluk hospital for Rs 10 crores, while Rs 12.5 lakh each has been sanctioned to 73 mussel workers.
Despite the measures rolled out, the fisherfolk continue to intensify the protest putting the ambitious project in jeopardy.
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