Monday, October 13, 2008

Storm gathering over Kerala's dream port project

EVEN as the government of Kerala is going ahead with the ambitious Vizhinjam port project, there are signs of trouble ahead. Fishermen using the existing harbour in the area and villagers whose lands have been notified for acquisition have raised banners of protest.

Vizhinjam, south of Thiruvananthapuram, has long been talked of as an ideal location for a deep-water port for two reasons. One, it is located close to the international shipping route and there is easy access to the national road and rail network. Two, large container ships can berth there since the sea is 23 to 27 meters deep.

At present, large vessels unload India-bound containers at Colombo, Dubai and Singapore, and from there they are transhipped to Indian ports in small vessels. Even after the Vallarpadam container terminal, being built near Kochi, is commissioned, this situation will remain unchanged.

As the Central government was not ready to commit funds for the Vizhinjam project, the state government decided to take it up on its own with private sector help. A Mumbai firm offered to form a consortium to execute the project. The Centre denied clearance for the project apparently because the consortium included two Chinese firms.

Subsequently the state government incorporated a company, Vizhinjam International Sea Port Limited, to provide external support and infrastructure. It also picked a consortium led by a Hyderabad firm through global bidding for execution of the project on Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) basis. This consortium includes a Malaysian company.

Last month the Centre cleared the project. Ports Minister M. Vijayakumar said later the state government and the consortium would form a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for executing the project, which was estimated to cost Rs53.48 billion.

The state government would hold 24% shares in the SPV and the consortium the rest, he added. The consortium would operate the port for 30 years. Thereafter it would be turned over to the state.

Last week, striking a different note, the minister said an international port lobby and some vested interest groups were trying to scuttle the project. The port lobby, which had interests in the Colombo, Dubai and Singapore ports and were worried that they would lose a big chunk of their business to Vizhinjam, had got hold of some sections of the people, like real estate agents and resort owners in and around Vizhinjam, and from neighbouring Tamil Nadu and were pumping in money to spread the canard that thousands of families would be evicted, he alleged.

The minister's allegations came in the wake of growing unrest in Vizhinjam and neighbouring panchayats following a state government notification for acquisition of land in the name of the project.

When the project was announced, government spokesmen had said there would be no evictions as the entire land needed would be found by reclaiming 200 hectares from the sea. Later the minister said 86 families would have to be relocated. Still later the number of families to be displaced rose first to 174 and then to 227.

On Sept. 3, the government issued a notification calling upon people in possession of 1,088 hectares in Vizhinjam and five other panchayats to be ready to surrender their land for the port project and related activities. As many as 10,382 families live in the notified areas.

A people's resistance committee, styled as Vizhinjam Janakeeya Prathirodha Samithi, has launched a campaign against the notification, raising the slogan, "Allow us to live in the land of our birth."

The Kerala Swathanthra Matsya Thozhilali Federation, which represents the fishermen living in the coastal areas, has asked the government to publish immediately the survey numbers of the land to be acquired so as to dispel fears of eviction. It has also demanded proper rehabilitation of those who are to be evicted.

Janapaksham, a non-official organisation which was in the forefront of the campaign for implementation of the Vizhinjam project, has suggested that a satellite survey be undertaken to identify areas with low population density.

By and large, the protests are muted at present because there is wide popular support for the project, which is expected to benefit the state in general and Vizhinjam and nearby areas in particular. However, if the government pushes ahead with the scheme without addressing the concerns of the local people, the gathering storm may grow in intensity and create serious problems since the project area is heavily populated. –Gulf Today, October 13, 2008.

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