Vizhinjam- The land moulding coastal refugees

The anxieties of the environmentalists and fishing labourers about the Vizhinjam project are proving real each day. With the progress in the construction activities of the port, the news from the area is not good. The situation is that, by the time the ‘prestige' project of the government is realized, a people and their land will be eroded by the sea. A report through the Vizhinjam International multipurpose deepwater seaport project range:

A lengthy crevice in the wall dragged my attention to that house. Seeing the camera, the homemaker standing in the courtyard stepped into the house and locked the door from inside. It was opened only after prolonged knocks. Our quest for some drinking water was met only after much moments of confusion. In between, a two year old girl came with big curious eyes. Has it cracked because of piling? I asked pointing to the wall. She sadly nodded yes and went inside with the girl. One could see fear in her eyes.

There are no frightening threats on anyone. But there are many residents who think that their differences of opinion may be viewed asobstructionby the others while the land and the people welcome the development of the place. During the night pilings there are many who hold their children tight without sleeping. Some even walk the nights afraid of the cracked walls collapsing over them. Even then, they are ready to bear with the project if it benefits the region.

The construction of the berths of the Vizhinjam project started on Jun 1, 2017 in Karimballikkara, Mulloor. But within months of starting the project, more than 50 boats wrecked by hitting on the seawalls. Northampton University Professor and member of fishermen family, Johnson Jament says, Vizhinjam is a ‘sham’ project of political corruption and financial irregularities.

The government has not yet implemented the promises offered at the beginning of the project, particularly those concerning housing, says Vizhinjam agitation committee leader and Vizhinjam parish council secretary Ishac Johny. On the request of the government, the complete details of 1560 house owners were collected by the committee under Vizhinjam parish council and submitted to the Corporation office, to the head office of Life Mission and also in VISL ( Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited) office eight months ago. Neither a single penny was distributed, nor land acquired for rehabilitation. The piling during the project construction resulted in fissures in 200 houses. Some of them turned out unsuitable for dwelling. Though the meeting held in the collector’s chamber on the matter decided to repair the houses immediately, the contract awarded were on the quotations for onlyminor maintenance and that too has not been implemented yet.

There are 10 gillnets here. As part of the project, four owners weregiven the full amount of compensation. Two were allowed one-fourth of the amount, of whomone has hesitated to receive the sum until now. The government forgot to include three others who deserve to receive compensation. They still work in the harbor.

A list of 92 ‘karamadi’ (shore sein) workers, mostly senior citizens were prepared in a similar manner. The officers delay distributing the compensation to many of them on  different grounds, the most important of them being the absence of their names in the Welfare Fund. Though they are fishermen working even before 1982, they are rejected being unlisted in the Matsyafed (The Kerala State Co- operative Federation for Fisheries Development Limited) register. The fishing labourers are appealing to implement steps to to distribute the amount at least considering their years spent in the trade.

There were many mothers who used to live bearingstocks from gillnets. There are women who live by selling fish over half a km distance. They havenot been offered a single penny in any package. There were many who used to live depending on catamaran (Madras Katamaran), which is not happening now. They lost their sole occupation with the arrival of Vizhinjam project. Though they have demanded protection of their occupation, a decision hasnot yet been declared on the same.

Those fishermen who have to traverse aroundmore distance after the beginning of the harbor project are given 80  litres of kerosene per month. But, amongthe list accepted by the government,  one third havenot been issued permit. It is getting delayed for many reasons. There is no progress in the self-employment project declared for small scale traders, auctioneers and fisherwomen. The government has received areport aboutthe depletion of availability of fish with the commencement of the Vizhinjam project.   On that basis, the fishermen demanded 500 boats for deep sea fishing butthey werepromised a hundred but they have not yet received even one.

Sixteen peeling sheds were abandoned for the sake of Vizhinjam project. They were vacated on the promisethat sheds would be built in a different place. They too failed to get justice. The playgrounds of the children of the community are occupied by the Adani group. The request to allocate playgrounds for them wasnot considered either.

The rainwater drainage,  earlier passing through the project area into the sea,  are now blocked up after dredging. Now they are filled with waste and stinking.  Filariasis, skin diseases and malaria thus spread among the residents of the region. It was from here that the highest number ofcases of dengue fever in the district werereported.  The people have requested permanent recycling as a solution to the problem. Pallichal Thodu aka Gangayar Canal used to flow freely but is blocked after dredging.  as sand has seepedin.  Since recently, on some days the port employees have been coming with excavators to remove the sand. On other days, the place severely stinks.

The first promise for the residents was that they would be given job in the Adani Company. Of a 1, 000 labourers,  only a fifty are Vizhinjam locals as all others are migrants from different states including Gujarat. The Malayali labourers are replaced by non-Malayali  laboureres as the latterdemand only lesser wages, says Ishac Johny. A majority of the Vizhinjam residents have welcomed the project realising the need, but they accuse that they are ignored.

The agitation committee under the leadershipof Vizhinjam parish held a one-day strike against the broken promises on May 8 2017. More promises were offered again but none fulfilled. In Nov 2017, the Samara Samithi held a 11-day strike paralysing the port. With that, the night piling which had hindered the sleep of the residents stopped. Piling near the houses also were stopped.  But the increased rate of vibrationof piling destroyed many houses. The Vizhinjam residents, including the children and elderly suffered severe physical difficulties. Under the pressure of the agitation committee,  the Government officers and port employees came to measure the seismic graph. Johny says that of the 600 pilings, only 30 remain to be compleed.

The fishing community had to raise their voice against the project officers for planting a huge gatein the area, which was built overnightwithout any notice. The agitation committee declared strike on the very next day, a meeting was held and the gate was removed. The Adani group is not threatening anyone but residents say they are hoodwinkingthe people by making and breaking promises. The project officers are (mis)using the people to implement many things. The residents handed over their letters of plea to implement immediate action on Dec 20, 2018. They were promised solutions before the commencement of the state assemblyconference on Jan 28, 2019.

The people strongly accuse Adani group for bribing those who protest with small inducementslike distributing small quantities of rice, building school ground etc which the people readas business tactics. Johny saysthat what the Adani group aims at is big profit-hitting projects after building the port with the help of the government. The fishermen point out that the group will establish and own the port without spending a single rupee fromtheir side.

At one point, Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad had raised a demandto the Vizhinjam contractand abandon the project.  Many organisations and individuals including Parishad have already proved that the projectbenefitsonly the Adani group and creates a huge liabilityfor the government treasury. The 589-page study report made by the experts, CEIA (Comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment) is available in the website of VISL. It states that many analyses were held to study the seismic featuresof the seabed. Accordingly, problems werenot detected in an are 1.5 km in length, 10-15 m in depth and 5km f circumference. Prof Jament criticises that whenthe groyne is 3.1 km long, the study should cover longer than that.  For the fishermen, the seabed are banks of mobile and immobile fish habitats.

T Peter, National Secretary of National Fish Workers Forum says that the project is detrimental to the fishing community. The forum has informed the Justice C N Ramachandran Nair Commission which was investigating the irregularitiesin the Vizhinjam deal, about the project as negatively impacting the sea resources in the area. The ecosystem of the coast has been destroyed and variations have been noted in the behaviour of  waves of the area. Now each year, the coast is expanding in Adimalathura, Poovar and Pozhiyur areas whereas on the other hand, Valiyathura and Shangumugham coasts are being eroded.

The number of fishermen who have to live like refugees in their own homeland is increasing. The refugees of other places receive at least the sympathy of the public. But for us, it took the Kerala floods to consider the fishermen as our cohabitants. The impact of the deeds of the people over the land affects the coastal residents. They have become a group of people who could only desperately watch the foundations of their houses getting washed away by the waves. It is high time we declared our solidarity with their lament.

Photos: John Aloor

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