Ground report: Vizhinjam fisherfolks’ blackflag protest has seven main demands

The protesters are demanding proper rehabilitation, kerosene price subsidy and protection of the environment in the coastal area.
Vizhinjam fisherfolk protest
Vizhinjam fisherfolk protest
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The atmosphere in Kerala’s Vizhinjam and surrounding villages is tense. Hundreds of people holding black flags sit in protest in front of the Vizhinjam International Deepwater Multipurpose Seaport, a project by Adani Enterprises Limited. The protesters, most of them fisherfolk, are angry and scared. They say that the construction of the seaport threatens their livelihoods.

Taking the lead in the protests, set to continue till the end of the month, is the Thiruvananthapuram Latin Catholic Archbishop Diocese. The fishing community members taking part in the protests are demanding proper rehabilitation, kerosene price subsidy and protection of the natural environment in the coastal area. About 13% to 15% of the fisherfolk in the area belong to the Latin Catholic church.

Speaking to TNM, Archdiocese vicar general Father Eugene Pereira, said the state was keen on praising fishermen as an army, but had otherwise ignored them. “Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that the fisherfolk were the army of the state during the floods. These people were amongst the first to extend helping hands to those affected by the rains. However, now around 50,000 lives are at stake, due to the construction of this port. The project is going on despite us informing that it is not feasible in any aspect – environmental, social or financial. The government is unable to understand the problems of the people, and we can see coastal areas in Kovalam and Shangumugham being damaged in front of our eyes,” he said.

The protesters have seven main demands this time. Arranging a temporary, free and accessible residential facility for the people who lost their homes due to coastal erosion; compensate their loss and provide adequate rehabilitation; halt the construction of the port and conduct a scientific study including the locals and experts; provide subsidy to keroses; provide minimal wages to fisherfolk on the days that they are not able to venture into the sea due to weather conditions; rectify the damages in the seaside regions like Muthalappozhi and make it available for the fisherfolk to go fishing; and rehabilitate the families that might get affected due to coastal erosion.

“We were told that jobs would be provided to us. Not only do we not have a job now, we are in the danger of losing our old jobs also. The fishermen have little to no income right now, because of the price hike of kerosene. In addition to this, we can’t find fish in the area because of the port construction. This has affected the fish vendors and the entire economic cycle,” said Sunil, one of the protesters.

Paniadima John, Kotturpuram ward councillor says that dredging has adversely impacted the region, especially Kotturpuram. “This is the nearest place to the port and most fisherfolk reside in this ward. Dredging has affected the natural habitat of the fish and so has the livelihood of the people. It has caused sea erosion from the north side of the port and this has caused an increase in the water force. This results in forceful waves crashing on the land, which impacts the fishing area,” he said.

“Some of the people have been given beautician training and training for setting up photocopying shops, but there is the question of how long the set up would work and for how many people. Kotturpuram alone is home to 5,000 families,” Paniadima said and added that the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds meant to be used in the area surrounding the port, and for improving the lives of the people there, is being given to private companies and other places far away from the port.

Apart from their main demands, the protesters are also enraged about the comment made by Kerala Minister for Ports Ahammad Devarkovil, who said that the protests were conducted by ‘outsiders’ and not by the people of Vizhinjam. “We are this land’s people. We are the people of this sea. We were the people who risked our lives and went to save the lives of hundreds when floods hit the state. And what did we get? The government is refusing to look at us, our plight and calls us outsiders,” said Antony. Another protester Joosa termed this stand of the government as an attempt to kill the fisherfolk. “Because loss of livelihood and residence means loss of life, isn’t it?” he asks.

Another priest of the diocese said that the people who lost their houses previously are still residing in relief camps for months together. “They should be immediately rehabilitated and this work should be stopped. We, fisherfolk, got all our rights through protests, and we will protest till our end – for our rights and the safety of our people. No one can stop us or this fire that is burning here in our hearts and eyes,” he said.

Meanwhile, Transport Minister Antony Raju, on Tuesday, said that steps were being taken to allot land for constructing flats for those who lost their homes to the sea. “One of the main problems faced by a large section of the fishing community was the loss of their homes and to address this, directions have been issued to allocate land by August 22 for construction of flats for them. The objective is to provide homes without any further delay. They (fisherfolk) are facing various problems which need to be addressed in a time bound manner. In the coming days, the government will take a final decision on ensuring housing for those who lost their homes," he said. Further, the government has come forward to hold talks with protesters, which is expected to be held on August 22, according to reports.

However, this is not the first time the fisherfolk are protesting against the port construction. This is the third time they have decided to come on streets and raise their voice. Previously, in October 2020, there was a protest following COVID-19 protocol. Even before that, the first protest was held in 2016, followed by a one-day agitation in 2019.

Amidst all this, Minister Ahammad Devarkovil, on July 23 of this year, had announced that the Vizhinjam Port will become operational in March 2023. "While the first ship will berth in March 2023, the first phase of the port will be commissioned in September 2023," he said.

Once finished, the Vizhinjam International Deepwater Multipurpose Seaport project is expected to be one of India's deepest ports with 80% of the country's cargo trans-shipments going through Vizhinjam. The port project worth Rs 7,525 crore was signed in 2015, when the Congress-led UDF government under Chief Minister Oommen Chandy was in power. The group chief Gautam Adani, at the time of commencing the work, claimed that the first ship will berth there on September 1, 2018, in a “record time” of less than 1,000 days. However, there were several issues in the meantime, including Cyclone Okchi in 2017, when a part of the breakwater was washed away; and shortage of limestone, and the continuous opposition from local people.

Right now, the protests led by the Diocese will continue until the month end, and a major protest is likely to be held at Vizhinjam itself on August 20.

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