Broken houses, lost livelihoods: How a Kerala shipping terminal wrecked many backwater lives

The government promised land, compensation and jobs for evicted families, but few of these things have materialised even 9 years later.
Broken houses, lost livelihoods: How a Kerala shipping terminal wrecked many backwater lives
Broken houses, lost livelihoods: How a Kerala shipping terminal wrecked many backwater lives
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Until 2005, the residents of picturesque Vallarpadom in Kochi’s backwaters lived satisfied if not always rich and plentiful lives. 12 years later, their lands and houses gone, their livelihoods lost, all they can do is rue the promise of development, as the rehabilitated lives they were promised exist only as an elusive dream.  

The International Container Transshipment Terminal in Vallarpadom, proposed at the end of 2004, was to be a great boon for Kochi, a dream project for Kerala. The only catch – its proposed site was a group of beautiful islands in the backwaters of Kochi, inhabited mostly by fishermen and paddy farmers. Vallarpodam was famous across the state for a special variety of rice called Pokkali and for prawn cultivation.

Predictably, a movement against land acquisition began in 2005, called the Moolampilli struggle. Despite the opposition, however, 316 families from seven villages – Mulavukad, Cheranalloor, Eloor, Kadungaloor Edappally north, Edappally south and Kadamakuddy (Moolampilly) – were evicted from the islands in 2008, so that construction on the Vallarpadom terminal could begin.

At the time, the evictions were conducted under the Land Acquisition Act 1894, which only provided for meagre compensation and made no mention of rehabilitation measures. But following a prolonged citizen battle, an agreement was reached with the state government in March 2008 for rehabilitation measures.

The government offered compensation according to rates offered in the LA Act. This meant compensation of between Rs 20,000 and Rs 30,000 per cent of land (435.6 sq ft), which was four or five times lower than the then market price.

However, the additional agreement also promised evicted families six cents of land, free of cost, with all basic amenities such as water supply, electricity, roads and drainage being provided by the government. The evicted families were even to be given Rs 10,000 as a one-time shifting charge.

The 2008 package also offered Rs 5000 per month to evicted families, as they had to live in rented houses for ten months. It also offered employment for one member of each family in the ICTT project, and offered to waive the 12% central income tax levied on the compensation amount.

Broken promises

In March 2017, the package, popularly known as the Moolampilly package, will complete its 9th anniversary. Nine full years later, the rehabilitation measures offered in the Moolampilly package exist more in breach than in actuality.

A meagre 40 families, out of the total 316 evicted managed to build a new house on land allotted to them. 10 of the families have still not received their six cents of land due to technical delays.

Around 70 families have still not received their compensation, while many other families have only received half or less than half of the compensation promised. The Cochin Port Trust Authority is yet to remit Rs 17 crore in the High Court, to be given out as compensation, claim activists.

What’s more, while the construction and operationalisation of the terminal proceeded rapidly, and the port started functioning five years ago, the promise of jobs in the IMTT did not materialise for any of the evicted families

With the majority of the evicted families depending on farming and fishing for their livelihood, the loss of the local habitat meant they were robbed of their scope to work. And thanks to the conditions under which they were allotted land for rehabilitation, they could not even capitalise this land to their advantage.

“The land given to them cannot be transferred or sold for the next 25 years. So, no banks will give them a loan. The compensatory amount is still pending for many and others have received a much lower amount than they should to settle in a different place,” said Francis Kalathunkal, General Convenor of the Co-ordination Committee of Moolampilly struggle.

Another major problem for many of the evictees is that the land they were allotted near water bodies fell under the Coastal Regulation Zone, which has meant that construction on such land is not allowed.

“In the beginning, the government had said that these lands would be excluded from the CRZ. But that did not happen,” Francis said.

What’s more, most of the land allotted to the evictees is marshy land completely unsuited to building houses.

“Many of the houses now have slanting floors or cracks running through them, as they were built on marshy land. Since the houses already built have become damaged, others are not ready to build new ones either,” Wilson, one of the leaders of the agitation said.

Rajesh and family, who were evicted from Ponekkara, built one such house in Thuthiyoor.

“In the rainy season, we can’t even get out of the house as it is full of mud here. The house I built is just two years old and it is already slanted. Every day, we live in fear that the house may collapse on us,” Rajesh said.

Rajesh's house

Mary Francis and her family owned 25 cents of land in Vallarpadam, with a market price of Rs 75 to Rs 80 lakh. But the compensation the family was granted came to just Rs 5.75 lakh. Thus far, she has received just Rs 75,000, while the rest of the compensation amount is still pending in court.

And having given up 25 cents of land, she received just six cents of land in Moolampilly, and that, too marshy to build a house in.

“Even if you put a chair on the land and sit on it, its legs sink into the mud. Then how can we build a house. Those few families that built houses nearby already have cracked walls,” Mary says.

Mary and her husband used to run a workshop for two-wheelers in Vallarpadom. But without land and the means to build another workshop, they are now struggling in unemployment.

Ramani and her family have been living in a rented house for the last eight years, since the six cents of land she was allotted in Vaduthala is completely submerged in water. “How can we build a house in water? They don’t even give us our house rent. We have no idea what to do next other than participate in this agitation,” she said.

Protest by laying foundation stone in the land allotted for Ramani, which is completely submerged in water.

Yet, multiple agitations since 2005 have yielded little result for these families. Through the years, representatives from each family together with activists have conducted regular meetings with the district administration, with local MLAs and ministers. In the last three months, these meetings received a new impetus after the new district collector K Mohammed Y Safirulla began his tenure, with meetings taking place every two weeks.

Their protests have also drawn support from prominent politicians in the state. The most recent protest at Menaka junction on February 6, for instance, was inaugurated by Bishop Sebastian Edayanthranth and attended by a handful of MLAs, including Hibi Eden and S Sharma.

However, for all this activity little in the way of concrete results has come the way of the evicted families.

But the families are slightly more hopeful under the LDF regime. “In all meetings, the response from the authorities are positive. Especially during LDF rule, they’ve been ready to listen to us. But in the last five years of UDF rule there were no attempts to help us. Many cases were registered against activists for protesting,” Francis said.

Edited by Rakesh Mehar

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