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Kerala's $65 billion Vizhinjam port: Fishermen, environmentalists rue loss of job, ecology

Suresh Robert, a 33-year-old fisherman in Poonthura fishing village in the south Indian state of Kerala, is disappointed and agitated. Suresh, who started fishing in deep sea at the age of 10, is not optimistic these days. Depleting fish catch, loss of livelihood and the shore — where he used to play and spend time with his friends — is disturbing him.

"Already, we were suffering from all kinds of construction activities done in the past along the coast. Now, the construction of Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited Project is going to finish off whatever is left," Suresh said.

 Keralas  billion Vizhinjam port: Fishermen, environmentalists rue loss of job, ecology

Suresh Robert standing near his boat. Firstpost/Rejimon K

Some 10 kilometre from his home, the Kerala government is building the $65 billion international sea port with the Adani group as its private partner. Launched on 5 December, 2015, the project is supposed to be completed by 4 December, 2019.

In Suresh’s Poonthura village, around 500 workers involved in net casting and some 1,000 fishermen who go for deep sea fishing, claim to have been directly affected by the project.

S Michael, a fisherman and activist, is one of the petitioners who have filed a case against the construction of Vizhinjam port in the Supreme Court. Michael says he is clueless on what has to be done now.

"When the government acquired around 93 hectares of land in Vizhinjam, they paid compensation for the affected people. But, the government forgot about us saying that we don’t fall under the project impact area," Michael said.

Activist S Michael, who has filed a case against the project in Supreme Court. Firstpost/Rejimon K

Activist S Michael, who has filed a case against the project in Supreme Court. Firstpost/Rejimon K

V Raju, a fisherman for the last four decades, also said how they are struggling due to coast erosion.

“Years ago, a 500-metre-long breakwater was built for a fishing harbour. That itself has resulted in coast erosion. I started fishing from Poonthura, but now, I have to transport my boat to other areas to go fishing because we don’t have a coast here," Raju added.

Each and every fisherman in Poonthura claims to be spending more than Rs 30,000 every month in transporting their boats and equipment to other areas, as the sea has consumed their coast, thanks to the port project.

Joseph Vijayan, a social worker and another petitioner in the Supreme Court against the project, says that livelihood of the fishermen is at stake and irreversible ecological damage is being caused due to the project.

"The football ground I used to play on the coast is now underwater. So, just imagine how much damage Vizhinjam International Port construction will cause," says Jospeh.

For the Vizhinjam project, the breakwater to be constructed is 3.8-kilometre long. What this means, explains Joseph is that "at least 15-kilometre-long coast and more than 30,000 people will be affected when the Vizhinjam project is completed."

An official traffic study claims that Vizhinjam port would handle 2.26 million TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit) by 2022, which is not at all making Joseph happy. “I see a loss of job, loss of livelihood, loss of land and irreversible damage to ecology,” Joseph says.

P Robert, a green activist who has authored extensively researched books on marine life, said that the damage caused by the port construction is visible and happening. "Out of the 33 natural reefs along the 15 kilometre-long coast of Thiruvananthapuram, which are home to unique species, are destroyed due to the Vizhinjam port,” he says.

Robert and his colleagues at Friends of Marine Life had captured pictures of underwater some two months before and after the commencement of the project. “The pictures expose the damage. Centuries-old worm colonies, breeding grounds for mussels and lobsters were seen damaged after the commencing of dredging. These are irreversible losses,” Robert, who himself is from a fishermen family, adds.

Confirming Robert’s claims, Dr A Bijukumar, head of Department of Aquatic Biology and Fisheries at Kerala University, says that the primary impact due to dredging will be habitat loss for the marine life.

“There is a large variety of flora and fauna in the Vizhinjam Bay that is sensitive to siltation and increase in turbidity of water. Especially, corals and mussels will disappear,” Bijukumar adds.

Meanwhile, Shashi Tharoor, the parliamentarian from the project area, says that the interests of the local fishing community were taken into account based on a socio-economic impact assessment done along with an environment impact assessment study. "Remedial measures, both short-term and long-term, have been factored into the project in order to alleviate the hardships of the local fishermen," he says.

Fishermen at Poonthura Village. Firstpost/Rejimon K

Fishermen at Poonthura Village. Firstpost/Rejimon K

On the allegations of ecological damage, Tharoor says that the conditions laid down by the government’s green tribunal have all been adhered to in the implementation of the project.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) recently tabled a report in the Kerala Assembly stating that the Adani group will get undue profit from the port. According to CAG, at the end of 40 years from the commencement of the project, the Adani Group will walk away with Rs 29,217 crore as additional revenue.

Following the report, the Kerala government announced a judicial probe into the port agreement that was inked by the then Oommen Chandy-led Congress government with Adani Ports. The cabinet has appointed retired Justice CN Ramachandran as the head of a three-member probe panel to look into the agreement.

CP John who was a member of the state planning board when the deal was signed, says that unfortunately, the current government has failed to furnish proper details to CAG and this has led to allegations that Adani will get crores of undue benefits.

"Before signing the deal, the central and state planning commissions had verified the model thoroughly and they did not found anything wrong,” says John, adding that it's not the "last development bus", but it's an important bus that Kerala cannot miss. Even when Tharoor and John hope all parties will work together to make the project a reality, the fishermen differ and are 'pessimistic'.

"As we don’t know any other jobs, we are going to die due to hunger. We have lost our coast and we will lose more. Many fish species are (already) missing. Soon, the rest will also disappear," Raju said.

Even though a mail was sent to the state port authority on the issues raised by fishermen, ecologists and environmentalists, a response was not received.

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Updated Date: Jun 11, 2017 12:27:52 IST