Vizhinjam port: Are there vested interests at play?
For anti-India forces that are continuously at work to destabilise the country, the opening up of this port would mean that it would will no longer be easy to pose a threat to South Asia.
The coastal area of Kerala has been witnessing a brewing discontent which in its early stages went unnoticed but is now threatening to mirror what happened during the Sterlite protest in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu in 2018.
The allegedly engineered 'social protests' in Thoothukudi resulted in the closure of the copper plant which drastically brought down the production of copper to 47,917 tonnes in 2018-19 from 378,555 tonnes. From a net exporter, it took the country just three years to reach a point where it had to become an importer of copper.
The war against development projects that has been waged against the upcoming Vizhinjam port in Kerala may end in a similar manner if immediate measures are not taken to address the concerns raised and manage the ongoing protests.
It was in the year 2015 that the construction contract of the Vizhinjam port was awarded to Adani Group by the Oommen Chandy-led UDF government after it emerged as the sole bidder.
It is interesting to note that the commercial prospects of the port were envisioned exactly hundred years ago by Diwan Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer during the reign of the erstwhile Travancore dynasty. Being an all-weather seaport, he understood the commercial possibilities and had constituted a team of engineers to study the viability of constructing a port in Vizhinjam. But it took nearly 75 years to turn that vision into a reality and now as the port is on the cusp of completion, it is faced with a daunting challenge.
Two weeks ago, angry fishermen under the leadership of the Latin Catholic church forcefully entered the construction site and demanded suspension of all work. They alleged that the promises of rehabilitation were not met by the government and the large-scale construction and breakwaters have robbed them of their livelihoods. The several rounds of talks that the government held with them failed as they did not budge from their demand that the construction should be stopped with immediate effect.
On 30 August 2022, the government constituted an expert committee to look into specific ecological concerns raised by the protestors and also agreed to most of the protestors' demands but told them in no uncertain terms that the construction will not be halted.
In the midst of this, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan found himself in a unique position as the protests by the opposition to accede to the fishermen's demands were largely muted and were primarily done for optics. It was a clear indication that the government had the tacit support of the opposition and the problem called for a more prudent problem-solving approach.
To all intents and purposes, there can be no argument on the fact that the concerns raised by the fishermen are valid and needs to be addressed by the government. The loss of livelihoods is a serious worry and, in this regard, the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government has failed in winning the trust of these stakeholders and ensuring that they are properly rehabilitated and mechanisms are put in place to ascertain that they can carry on with their traditional occupations.
However, what goes against those protesting is the timing of their agitation and their unreasonable demand that the construction of a port, the first phase of which is about to be commissioned in March 2023 will have to be stopped.
This is despite the Supreme Court giving its nod to the project with the caveat that any lasting damage to the ecology is the sole responsibility of the Kerala government and the onus is on it to take all remedial measures. In such a situation, a concern logically emerges that the ongoing protests which has the explicit support of an external agency may have a hidden anti-development agenda.
The Vizhinjam port that is planned as a transhipment port is located just 10 nautical miles from the major international sea route and East-West shipping axis. It is also a port with minimal dredging requirements which makes it easier for large containers to navigate through it.
It is worth noting that at present India's port capacity (12 major Indian ports) is a meagre 4.61 million TEUs/annum compared with China's capacity of 50 million TEUs. Vizhinjam Port is projected to have a capacity of 4.10 million TEU/annum. Also, since the port is located in a city which is well connected by air, rail and road, the commercial possibilities that can be exploited are huge.
But more than the commercial advantages, it is the geo-strategic advantage of this port that will put India right in the middle of a global power play. Touted as the gateway to South Asia, the Vizhinjam port's geographic proximity to the Bay of Bengal, Coast of East Africa, the Middle East, and Strait of Malacca gives it a rare strategic advantage in the Indian Ocean Region.
It is also estimated that India will be able to take the benefit of its unique geographic positioning in the region to receive many of the large vessels that are currently being diverted to Singapore, Dubai and Colombo. However, it is the Colombo port that plays a crucial role in what may determine the future of the Vizhinjam port.
With no end in sight to the ongoing political and economic crises in Sri Lanka, it is of utmost importance that the region has a space to secure its commercial and security interests. China had very early on understood the strategic importance of this port when a Chinese consortium tried to invest in it with the Left government's support. It was the central government that denied the permission citing national security reasons.
In the current agreement that the government has made with the Adani Group, it is clearly mentioned in clause 17.17.2 that the port will be used by the government for military purposes should an emergency arise. For anti-India forces that are continuously at work to destabilise the country, the opening up of this port would mean that it would will no longer be easy to pose a threat to South Asia. India will have a larger role to play in the maritime security of the region once the port becomes operational.
It can still be argued that the reasons being cited for the ongoing protests at Vizhinjam are too far-fetched and there is no external hand guiding the protestors. Even then, the unfortunate fact needs to be accepted that any development for greater good entails with it certain costs and the answer lies in addressing the concerns in a mutually agreeable manner. Completely stalling development is not the answer.
(Lekshmi Parameswaran is a researcher and writer based in New Delhi. Her twitter profile is @lekshmip.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of OneIndia and OneIndia does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.