Nearly 100 people are gathered on the road in front of Our Lady of Good Voyage church in Kerala’s Vizhinjam, right next to the sea shore.
Nearby, in a hall, a discussion of a church committee with the residents is ongoing, regarding a protest launched by the people, demanding immediate distribution of rehabilitation packages promised for those affected by the Vizhinjam International Deepwater Multipurpose seaport.
A few minutes later, the church loudspeaker creaks into life. “It has been decided to go ahead with the protest, until a decision in our favour is taken, considering public opinion,” a voice announces. Immediately, the people gathered outside break into applause - men and women of all ages wear determined looks as they get set for the next leg of their battle.
No compensation paid
The protest launched on Tuesday by the people of the coastal region, about 20 km away from capital Thiruvananthapuram, has in effect stalled the ongoing construction activities at the Vizhinjam port.
The construction was happening at a stone’s throw away from the church, that sits facing the sea. Scores of fishing boats have been anchored on the shore, and a make-shift pandal has been set up, under which the protesters sit and raise slogans.
The major complaint of the residents is that the multi-crore, ambitious project being implemented by the Adani Group, has adversely affected their prime livelihood, in a coastal area where 99% of the people make a living by fishing or related activities. A Rs 296.46 crore rehabilitation package had been promised to the fishermen, and others who would be affected by the project, two years ago.
But till date, the residents say, they haven’t been paid a rupee.
Paniyadimai, a man in his later 40s, is leading the protest. “Every time discussions were held, we were promised compensation at the earliest. But these promises have remained empty. They pretend to have done something, but the truth is they haven’t,” he says.
Earlier protests launched by the people, backed by the Latin Catholic Church, have had no effects whatsoever, they say.
“It is the delay in implementing the package that worries the people. There was a protest four-five months ago, at that time, it was agreed that they would release the package soon. But so far they haven’t done it,” says Vizhinjam ward councilor NA Rasheed. “The laxity of the Adani group is causing the problem,” he alleges.
“They need to spend from the Corporate Social Responsibility Fund to give the compensation, but they are not doing it. They are interested only in carrying out the construction work,” Rasheed adds.
‘Why no pressure on Adani?’
Paniyadimai explains that the livelihoods of most people have been affected by the port. “Ninety nine per cent of people here have been traditionally engaged in fishing, and we were content with the money we were making. Now, after the dredging and the piling for the port began, it has adversely affected the availability of fish,” he says.
“Also, the waves have become so strong that collision of fishing boats is quite frequent now. The authorities are not even aware of such things. No one cares about giving compensation for the damage to the boats,” he adds.
“Sea rage has also become frequent now. Piling work for the project has also damaged scores of houses in the area. But who will listen to our woes? Our church vicar and church committee members have gone to many offices, many times - but it all fell on deaf ears. Why is there no pressure on Adani to listen to us?” Paniyadimai asks.
Another resident, Justin says that the government had also promised to provide drinking water for the local people. “Shortage of drinking water had been acute in the area and we have been depending on public taps for it. When the project was announced, it was agreed that they would provide drinking water by incorporating it in the social responsibility part of the port project. But that too was not materialized,” he says.
‘Officials don’t know our problems’
District Collector K Vasuki and other officials, including Revenue Divisional Officers have met the protesters and held talks. But this time, the protesters refuse to give up till the compensation is in their hands.
“The fact is that officials get reshuffled and they take time to learn the issue. Even the district collector is only two months old in the post. By the time she learns the issues she would be transferred. So none of the officials actually know the real issue,” says Rooban, a young fisherman.
“It had taken two years for the authorities to find out who really deserves the compensation, which is also a reason for the delay in releasing the package,” he adds.
‘No jobs left for us’
Maira Thanka, Sindhu and Mini say that it’s not just people of Vizhinjam who have been affected by the project, but those of nearby villages like Karimkulam, Pulluvila and Puthiyathura as well. They fear that they will end up like the people of Moolampally in Kochi, who were evicted for the Vallarpadam Container Transshipment Terminal Project and finally didn’t get due compensation.
“The people’s representatives are worse here. The sea has dried up. Availability of fish and prawns have drastically reduced, which in turn has reduced our earnings,” says Pushpa.
Thankamma, another resident, says that though the government had promised work for the local people, even that promise has not been fulfilled. “Instead, only labourers from other states are assigned for the construction work of the port, when scores of local youth are left jobless,” she claims.
“If they said we were demanding high wages, we would have negotiated. But nobody has even asked us,” she adds.
“The Adani group conducts job related training to divert the attention of the youth in the area. The group has had the history of becoming kings wherever they have invested money in big projects. But things are different here. Hopefully a settlement will be reached in Monday’s discussion,” Rasheed says.
Earlier the CAG had found that the Adani group had received undue benefits from the agreement of the project, signed during the time of the previous United Democratic Front government led by Congress leader Oommen Chandy.
The local people of Valiyathura allege that the project has caused sea erosion and many of them lost their houses in that.