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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 52, December 17, 2022

Between Livelihood and Development: Protest against the Vizhinjam Port Project in Kerala | John S Moolakkattu & Jos Chathukulam

Friday 16 December 2022, by John S. Moolakkattu, Jos Chathukulam

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Abstract

This paper analyses the agitation of fishers in the Vizhinjam port area in Kerala to understand the context, issues, and nature of the protest and how it can be seen as a part of the livelihood protection movement by the fishers based on a critique of the neoliberal model of big development. It also discusses the leadership role of the Latin Catholic church and the metaphors and symbolisms used to legitimate and garner support for the agitation. The paper ends by proposing the idea of blue justice that reinforces fisher autonomy and sovereignty as opposed to the blue growth idea reflected in the Sagarmala project.

Keywords: Vizhinjam, Fishers, Latin Catholics, Kerala, Archdiocese

Introduction

Port infrastructure projects, seen as catalysts of growth, are often associated with multiple and conflicting values and interests impacting surrounding communities in such a manner as to trigger protests and conflicts (Lawer, 2019). Starting from July 20, 2022, the artisanal fishers in Kerala’s Vizhinjam port project area led by the Latin Catholic Archdiocese of Trivandrum have been on an agitational path. Kerala has 8.10 lakhs marine fishers, with the Trivandrum District, where Vizhinjam is located, accounting for 1.73 lakh fishers, of whom 56000 are active (Economic Review, 2021). Latin Catholics account for 13 percent of the Christians in the state.

The agitation that persisted for 138 days was temporarily called off on 6 December after a meeting with the Cabinet Subcommittee and the Chief Minister. Although the government did not fully concede the demands of the fishers, the clashes between the fishers and the police leading to the injury of over 100 people, the clamp down and arrest warrants served on a large number of leaders, the orchestration of communal overtones and the unhelpful nature of the judicial interventions, forced the leaders to end the agitation.

The Marxists in Kerala did not see the artisanal fishers as a key instrument of the proletarian revolution (Galtung, 1982). They were seen as a passing phenomenon (Vijayan 1987). The fisheries sector was one of the sectors identified for early modernization. It eventually led to overfishing and finally contributed to a conflict between traditional fishers and motorized boat owners who were either rich Latin Catholics or Syrian Christians. The conflict was taken up by some priests and nuns, with a small section seemingly influenced by liberation theology, then popular in Latin America (Mathew, 1984). Over 50 male fishers lost their lives due to attacks by mechanised boats between 1970 and 1985. This is how the Kerala Swathanthra Matsya Thozhilali Federation (KSMTF), independent of political parties, was founded in 1980 (Ashni & Santhosh, 2019). It was mainly due to this movement that the state government eventually decided to ban trawling during the monsoon season in 1988, which is also the spawning season.

The Project 

The International Deepwater Seaport at Vizhinjam was proposed almost three decades back. The Government of Kerala (GoK) constituted in 2004 the Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited (VISL), a company fully owned by it as the implementing agency. The GoK would work with VISL, the project’s implementing agency, to acquire land, build external infrastructure, and construct a breakwater. The selected private concessionaire will be in charge of funding, planning, and carrying out the dredging and reclamation of (53 hectares) of land from the sea and the building of berths, roadways, substations, superstructures, and equipment, as well as the management of the Port. The Award Letter was issued in July 2015 to the concessionaire, Adani Vizhinjam Port Private Limited (CAG Report, 2017).

The role played by the private sector in the project agrees with the shift in development from the state as the primary actor to a facilitator in the neoliberal order, wherein large-scale infrastructure projects are seen as the way forward. Such projects came to be supported by the Kerala Left under the leadership of Pinarayi Vijayan. With a section of the fishers expecting some positive spin-offs from the project, opposition to the project by the Church would have been criticized for being anti-development and anti-national. The Church, which had a long history of involvement in movements for the rights and welfare of the fishers, decided not to resist it outright (Ashni & Santhosh, 2019). Even though the project location is in the Vizhinjam area, which is home to many fishers, they were not consulted in the infrastructure design process. In such circumstances, the stakeholders seldom succeed in changing the course of events in their favour (Lawer, 2019).

In one of the early audit reports, several queries were raised for which the Kerala government could not provide a satisfactory reply. For example, the internal rate of return (IRR) for the state government was just 3.72, with 67 percent of the investment, and that of Adani, 15 percent over forty years, with 33 percent of the investment. Regarding the concession period of 40 years, which is longer than the usual period of 30 years in similar projects, the reply to objections was not acceptable to the audit wing, which pointed out the case of the proposed Port at Colachel, a greenfield project similar to Vizhinjam project, where the concession period was fixed at 30 years. The CAG concluded: "The technical and financial estimates prepared by external consultants were not scrutinised with due diligence resulting in inflation of cost estimates. The interests of the GoK were not protected adequately while drawing up the Concession Agreement" (CAG Report 2017, p.103). More than 5,000 fishers have to be rehabilitated because of the project. There is no mention of the impact of the Vizhinjam port project on the Western Ghats. Two mountains will be destroyed to provide the necessary rock for the construction and related works. Recent studies show that from 2006 to 2020, the coastal areas lost 650 acres of shore due to accretion and erosion (Thomas, 2022).

As a result of the campaign for the project, the fishers who would suffer its worst effects were seduced by the promised benefits of development projected by the elites. But the Trivandrum Archdiocese still had reservations, which led to the announcement of a rehabilitation package. In other words, the tacit consent of the Church was obtained before work on the project started. Soosa Pakiam, the Emeritus Archbishop, said the Port was built on misinformation (Goodness TV, September 5, 2022). However, evidence of his tacit support for the project exists.

Church’s Role as a Mediator and Reinforcer of Community Identity 

The Latin Catholic Church in Vizhinjam and surrounding areas plays a crucial role in the day-to-day lives of the fishers. Priests are the natural leaders in the Mukkuvar fisher community, who have less respect for lay leaders. The Church is the central institution around which the social organisation and community of the Christian fisherfolk is organised (Kelkar-Khambete, 2012). Halfdanardottir says that "just as the priest is the ’ex-officio’ leader in the villages, so is religion more than ’belief’ for the fisherfolk. Rather, it is the philosophy of existence, penetrating into all aspects of life and death in the fishing communities" (1993, p.153). It is often claimed that Christian fisherfolk are Kerala’s ’real’ fisherfolk (Hapke, 2001). But unlike the earlier agitation against trawling, the Church’s initial response to the trans-shipment port project was ambivalent. This is due to the change in the class composition of the fishing community in Vizhinjam to a certain extent. As the project went ahead, many local enthusiasts realized that events did proceed along expected lines and that the apprehensions of those who opposed the project were not altogether unfounded. This resulted in localised protests led by the parish priest concerned with getting some immediate demands fulfilled. Hindu majoritarianism and increasing suspicion of minorities prevented the agitation in Vizhinjam from taking off on a mass scale during this period. It is also alleged that the Church initially assisted the state and the dominant classes in manufacturing the necessary consent for the project, which was denied by the church authorities (Ashni and Santhosh, 2019). The fishers have a sense of separate identity. The strength of the Church in the fishing community and the imposing Church building in each village reinforce this identity and serve as a powerful material symbol of pride and unity (Busby 1995). So far, the Church has maintained its independence and desisted efforts made by the opposition to capitalize on the agitation in political terms. Some 300 fisherfolk families in Thiruvananthapuram have been residing in temporary shelters and schools (Jacob, 2022).

The supporters of the agitation claim that Trivandrum is an area with maximum sea erosion and accretion. After the start of construction in 2015, such erosion intensified. High tidal waves are now common, and several boats have been destroyed. Once the Port is ready, there will be a shipping channel, a no-fishing area, and a no-fishing coast that will wreck the fishers’ livelihood. Millions of tons of rock will be needed to construct the tripods used to block the waves, which will be quarried from the Western Ghats. It is also alleged that the Kerala government went out of its way to court the Adani group, knowing fully the project’s lack of viability (DeCruz, July 2022).

Goals and Nature of the Agitation

The fishers want a stoppage of all activities at the Port and a credible study to determine the ecological effects of the project in terms of its impact on the erosion of the seashore, loss of homes, and loss of livelihood involving people in the coastal area as well as provide just compensation and rehabilitation for fishers who lost their property and homes. Other demands included subsidised kerosene, rent-free housing for those who lost their homes, and compensation for fishers who missed work due to erroneous weather forecasts (Rajwi, 2022). The fishers allege that only one-third of the project has been completed, [1] although the Adani Group says it is 80 percent. The leaders of this movement also speak of the need to protect the Western Ghats, which is contrary to the powerful Syrian Catholic Church’s anti-Gadgil stance on matters related to development in the Ghat region (Nair & Moolakkattu, 2017).

The leadership of the clergy enabled the protest to proceed in a controlled and peaceful manner. Some priests even compare the method of struggle to Christ’s and Gandhian ways (Interview August 27, 2022).The agitation started in front of the State Secretariat on July 20, 2022. Subsequently, processions, motorcycle rallies, and cultural activities were organized in the coastal villages to rouse public awareness of the issue. Then there was a siege of Trivandrum city on August 10 with boats and fishing equipment. August 16 was a black day, with the youth attending motorcycle rallies. Finally, the activists started a relay hunger strike at the port entrance. So, there was a step-by-step progression of the agitation. Women constitute the majority of the protesters. The protest location is, in many ways, an extension of the Church, with talks by priests, nuns, laymen, and women, interspersed with jokes to lighten the environment. On the allegation that it is a sponsored agitation by the Chief Minister, the fishers retort that it is sponsored by God (Interview with a group of fishers on August 27, 2022). 

The agitators contest the explanation given by the authorities that the sea erosion and tidal waves are due to climate change rather than the seaport project. The National Institute of Ocean Technology also adopts this position based on satellite imagery, which does not explain the extreme stress on the Port’s north side (Thomas, 2022). Fishing has become a costly affair, and often fishers have to return to the shore with fish, the value of which is much lower than the amount spent on catching them. This scenario has prompted many young people to leave their traditional occupations and seek employment abroad.

Metaphor and Symbolism in the Agitation

Modern cognitive research demonstrates that people are very responsive to concretizing metaphors when trying to understand an abstract topic (Low, 2008). Onuf (2017, p. 2) says: "A metaphor represents some state of the world already constituted as such through the use of other, familiar metaphors." There is, for example, the metaphor of Kadalamma, the sea Goddess. When the fishers go out to the sea, they pray to Jesus and Mary, dip their hands in the seawater, and hold up paying obeisance to Kadalamma. In this scheme, Kadalamma derives her power from God, and the fishers see no conflict between the two (Cannell, 2006, p.84). Frequent reference to the Holy Spirit and the Bible is made to support the agitation and motivate the activists. Exhortations for using the weapon of prayer in the struggle are frequent. The Christian fishers from the southern part of Kerala often urge the parish priest to sprinkle water on the sea during the lean seasons, when the fish are scarce (Kelkar-Khambete, 2012). The protestors also emphasise that they are the inheritors and protectors of the sea, just as the forests belong to the tribal communities who inhabit them.

Bishop Soosa Pakiam concluded his remarks at Vizhinjam protest site on September 5 by drawing parallels between the story of Naboth in the Bible and the situation of the fishers. Naboth had a vineyard close to King Ahab’s palace in the city of Jezreel. Ahab wanted the vineyard so he could plant a vegetable (or herb) garden there. Naboth refused to sell the land for a good price to Ahab since he had inherited it from his forefathers. Finding Ahab sullen, his wife plotted Naboth’s murder and informed the King that his problems had ended and he could take control of the vineyard since Naboth was dead. Then, God sent the prophet Elijah to punish Ahab for this transgression. [2] Some even describe the struggle as one against Satanic forces led by God’s army. Prayer is one of the means of struggle used based on a belief that no weapons can stand against God’s will. [3] Although the priests are not avowedly Gandhi-inspired, they claim that their protest is a model for Kerala, where protests are more often accompanied by violence and the destruction of property. [4]

Other Considerations 

Since the Church leads the agitation, there have been allegations of exclusivism and communalism. Some say that the reluctance of the Hindu Dheevara community to involve is due to their lack of organisational strength. The wariness of the Muslim fishers to take part is ostensibly due to fear that it would be labelled as extremism. (Interview with a group of fishers on August 27, 2022). While brutal police action is not used to keep the protesters at bay, the Chief Minister’s and the Fisheries Minister’s statements in the legislative assembly and outside alleging an external hand in the agitation have provoked the fishers.

The Marxists in Kerala did not see the fishers as candidates for a revolution, and so also the tribal groups. Since they are engaged in a primitive form of catching fish from the ocean, class relations are difficult to discern in such an arrangement. The fishers, in turn, were not fascinated with communism either and were active participants in the Vimochana Samaram (liberation struggle), which eventually led to the dismissal of the EMS ministry in 1959. [5] The failure to develop cooperatives, either under the Church’s initiative or under the state, which would have improved the life chances of the fishers, also did not happen (Galtung 1982). Naturally, the fishers came to be on the outer layer of the developmental gains made by the state (Kurien, 2000). Fishermen in the coastal villages of Kerala could not benefit from participatory planning projects or participate in the Gram Sabha meetings as they were too far from their fishing grounds. They could not consolidate their votes to elect ward members belonging to the fisher community due to the vertical manner the coastal panchayat wards were organized (Rajan, 2022).

What, then, are the solutions? Should the project be discontinued? This is where political economy conflicts with ecology. One commentator says that the project management should resort to a mid-course correction drawing on the experience so far and the genuine fears of the fishers (Thomas, 2022). For four months, there was no headway in talks with the government, and the Church leaders were unimpressed with the government’s assurances and the unwillingness to stall the construction work. The Church called for a mass agitation throughout Kerala from October 19, 2022, involving a cross-section of society (Deepika, October 4, 2022).

The agitation was finally called off on the 6th of December, 2022. This was not a case of successful resolution of the conflict through one-to-one negotiations. Instead of a government-appointed committee to study the project’s environmental impact involving the fishers’ representatives, the Church had to settle for a people’s committee constituted by itself to undertake the task, the findings of which are unlikely to have any impact on the project’s trajectory. Although the Church leaders have described the end of the agitation as a temporary measure and a mere phase, it is more like a face-saving gesture. The capacity of the state to negotiate livelihood-related conflicts also came under the scanner. Early intervention, particularly on the part of the Chief Minister, to diffuse the situation was not forthcoming. Instead, the Chief Minister himself used the occasion to denounce the fishers and the Church leaders, calling them instruments of external forces and agents working against the development of the state. The agreement reached is not a case of successful conflict resolution or transformation but mere management of the conflict, akin to a ceasefire. It served the government’s interest and the state’s opposition political parties, who could not go whole-hog along with the fishers’ demands. While the agitation made the wider Kerala society aware of the grievances of the fishers, it did not bring to the fore critical questions, such as the role played by extractivism and neo-extractivism in endangering people’s livelihood.

Conclusion

The movement against the Vizhinjam port is part of the global movement for protecting livelihood and preserving the oceans. It indirectly critiques the neoliberal mega projects that the Central and State governments are advocating in the name of development. It also indirectly questions the much-acclaimed Sagarmala project of having a string of ports on the Indian coast. The fishers have been left out of the benefits of the Kerala model of development, much like the tribals in the state. The movement has remained largely peaceful because of the leadership of the clergy but was presented by the detractors as a violent one. As elsewhere, the demands of the fishers in Vizhinjam centre around the blue justice idea as opposed to the blue growth idea that the capitalist economy is proposing. It focuses on questions of displacement and dispossession of fishers due to ocean grabbing and reasserts fisher autonomy and sovereignty over the coastal areas (Ertor 2021). For the fishers, their material culture, the artifacts they own, and the communities they live in represent their identity and sense of place, which they are disinclined to forsake for material gains, real or imagined.

(Authors: John S Moolakkattu Visiting Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala, India and former Senior Professor, Department of International Relations, Central University of Kerala. Email: moolakkattu[at]gmail.com ; Jos Chathukulam is former Sri Ramakrishna Hegde Chair Professor of Decentralisation and Development, Institute of Social and Economic Change, Bangalore & Director, Centre for Rural Management, Kottayam. Email: joschathukulam[at]gmail.com )

References 

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[1Our fieldwork suggests that the progress in the construction work is way behind the claim made by the Adani Group.

[5This was a strike against the reform agenda of the CPI by Christians, Muslims, and Hindu Nairs backed by the Indian National Congress (Lieten, 1978).

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