VIZHIINJAM- The Land of Coastal Refugees
The anxieties of the environmentalists and fishing labourers upon the Vizhinjam project are dawning sensible 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 ‘proud’ project of the government is realized, a group of people and the land will be eroded by the sea. A report through the Vizhinjam International multipurpose deepwater seaport project range
Photos : John Aloor
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 upon anyone. But there are many residents who think that their differences of opinion while the land and the people welcome the development of the place can be marked as objecting by the others. 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 tolerate if the project 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 hitting on the seawalls. The 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 in the corporation office, in the head office of Life Mission and also in VISL ( Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited) office eight months ago. Neither a single penny is distributed, nor land acquired for rehabilitation. The construction of piling during the project resulted in fissures in 200 houses. Some of them turned out unable to house in. Though the meeting held in the collector’s chamber on the matter decided to repair the houses immediately, the contract is given to quotations of minor maintenance and that too has not been implemented yet.
There are 10 gillnets here. As part of the project, four owners are given full amount of compensation. Two are allowed one-fourth of the amount, of which one 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.
Like this, a list of 92 ‘karamadi’ ( shore sein) workers, mostly senior citizens were prepared. The officers delay distributing the compensation to many of them on account of different reasons, of which the most important 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 actions to distribute the amount at least considering their labour years.
There were many mothers who used to live taking stocks from gillnets. There are women who live by selling fish over half a km distance. They are not offered a single penny in any package. There were many who used to live depending on kattamaram( Madras Katamaran), which is not happening now. They lost their sole occupation with the Vizhinjam project. Though they have demanded protection of their occupation, a decision is not declared on the same.
Those fishermen who have to circumference more distance after the beginning of the harbor project are given eighty litres of kerosene per month. But, in the list accepted by the government one third are not given permit. It is 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 the report stating the depletion of availability of fish with the commencement of the Vizhinjam project. In such cases, of the 500 boats for deep sea fishing demanded by the fishermen, they are promised a hundred though but not yet received at least one.
Sixteen peeling sheds were abandoned for the sake of Vizhinjam project. They were vacated by promising to build sheds in a different place. They too did not get justice. The playgrounds of the children of the community are occupied by the Adani group. The request to allocate playgrounds for them is not even considered.
The rainwater drainages earlier passing through the project area into the sea are blocked up after dredging. Now they are filled with wastes and stinks. Elephantiasis, skin diseases and malaria thus spread among the residents of the region. Higher cases of dengue fever in the district are reported from here. 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 pushed in. Recently, on some days the port employees come 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 1000 labourers only a fifty are vizhinjam locals as all others are migrants from different states including Gujarat. The Malayali laboureres are replaced by the non-Malayali laboureres as they demand only lesser wages, says Ishac Johny. A majority of the Vizhinjam residents has welcomed the project realising the need, but they accuse that they are ignored.
The agitation committee under the supervision of Vizhinjam parish held a one-day strike against the broken promises on May 8 2017. More promises were offered again but none implemented. 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 is stopped. The increased quakes of 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, all are piled except a 30.
The fishing community had to raise their voice against the project officers for planting a huge gate in the area, which was built without any notice. The agitation committee declared strike on the very next day and a meeting was held in its impact and the gate was removed. The Adani group is not threatening anyone but toying with the 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 actions on Dec 20, 2018. They were promised solutions before the commencement of the Legislative conference on Jan 28, 2019.
The people strongly accuse the Adani group for bribing those who protest with small sponsoring like distributing small quantities of rice, building school ground etc. which the people realise as business tactics. Johny says, the Adani group aims at big profit-hitting projects after building the port with the help of the government. The fishers point out that the group will establish and own the port without any expense on their side.
Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad has asked to nullify the Vizhinjam pact and abandon the project in the interim. Many organisations and individuals including Parishad have already proved that it profits only the Adani group and creates huge debt for the government treasury. The 589 pages 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 features of the seabed. Accordingly, problems are not detected in 1.5 km length, 10-15 m depth and 5km circumference. Prof Jament criticises that if the groyne is 3.1 km long, the study should cover more areas. 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 disadvantageous for the fishing community. The forum has informed the justice C N Ramachandran Nair Commission which was investigating the lapses in the Vizhinjam deal, about the project as negatively impacting the sea resources in the area. The ecosystem of the coast is destroyed and differences are noted in the 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 eroding.
The number of fishers who have to live like refugees in their own homelands is increasing. The refugees of other places at least receive 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. Its high time we declare our solidarity with their ailments.