How a coastal tragedy rocked Kerala's politics and the Catholic Church | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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How a coastal tragedy rocked Kerala's politics and the Catholic Church

Jul 26, 2023 06:41 PM IST

How a protest reinforced the chinks in the relationship between the LDF government and the Latin Catholic Church

It was dark and foggy, just shy of 4 am on July 10. Kunjumon Cicil and three fellow fishermen, in a small diesel-powered boat that broke the silence of the night, set out to sea, as they had done most of their lives. That early morning was different. Soon, they came near the volatile mouth of the small Muthalapozhi harbour, a thin channel where the backwaters meet the Arabian Sea. Strong waves crashed against sand deposits and scattered remains of groynes (physical structures that intercept sand and sediment) in the channel locals call the ‘maranapozhi' or the ‘channel of death’.

July 10’s events laid bare a tenuous relationship between the CPI(M) government and the influential Latin Catholic Church that spans several years(Vivek Nair/HT photo- Representative Image) PREMIUM
July 10’s events laid bare a tenuous relationship between the CPI(M) government and the influential Latin Catholic Church that spans several years(Vivek Nair/HT photo- Representative Image)

The little boat did not survive the turbulence and capsized. The three fishermen disappeared from sight almost instantly.

Five hours later, the coast, around 30 km from Kerala's capital Thiruvananthapuram, was teeming with seething locals. Four of their own were caught in yet another deadly accident and only one body, that of Cicil’s, had been retrieved. There was no sign of a government rescue mission.

“Sentiments were high because it was not the first time a boat had capsized in that area. At least 64 fishermen have died in the last 10 years in the 'mouth of death'. There have been 10 accidents in the last two months. And the government has done nothing," said BS Anoop, a local panchayat ward member.

It was in this charged environment that a cavalcade of three state government ministers and police officials arrived at around 10 am. They were quickly surrounded by an irate group of men and women, most from the Latin Catholic community who blocked their path to ask them a volley of questions.

Television cameras captured one heated exchange after another. At one point, education minister V Sivankutty told a woman protester “not to make a scene.” Transport minister Antony Raju told the crowd “not to play politics.” The comments incensed an already enraged crowd that began to boo and asked the ministers not to threaten them. The situation worsening, the three ministers spoke to the aggrieved families briefly and left.

A few hours later, the situation escalated. The local Anchuthengu police filed a 'suo motu' case against Father Eugene H Pereira, the vicar general of the Latin Catholic church, for allegedly attempting to incite a riot under section 153 of the Indian Penal Code, and against 50 other people for blocking a public road.

The day’s events laid bare a tenuous relationship between the CPI(M) government and the influential Latin Catholic Church that spans several years; a relationship that has had its ebbs and flows but now seems to be worsening with possible political ramifications.

The linkages with Vizhinjam

Hours after he left Muthalapozhi, minister Sivankutty hit out at the Church leadership, particularly Father Pereira. “It was he that called on the mob to block the path of the ministers and the district collector. He thought there would be a breakdown of law and order. But the people did not follow his orders. We remained patient," he said, speaking to reporters in Thiruvananthapuram.

Then, Sivankutty revealed the broader context for his anger.

“It was Father Pereira who spearheaded the Vizhinjam protests. There were attempts to create a riot there under his leadership. The government only intervened as per the law. Finally, when there was a dearth of people to attend the protests, they reached a compromise. I think he was revengeful for that and that's why he took it out on us (in Muthalapozhi)," the minister said.

Sivankutty was referring to a four-month-long protest between August 16 and December 6, 2022, when fishermen, locals and activists, under the aegis of the Latin Catholic Church protested against the construction of the 7,525 crore multipurpose seaport in Vizhinjam. Nearly eight years in the making, the project is aimed at building the country's first mega transhipment container terminal capable of luring business from adjacent ports like Colombo, and also from Singapore and Dubai.

The project however angered the coastal community. Community members argued that the port’s breakwaters have resulted in massive erosion, leading to loss of life, property and livelihood. They protested for nearly four months, erecting large tents blocking the entrance to the port and halting construction. The indefinite protests involved a large number of women and were led by Latin Catholic priests: Marches to the Secretariat were organised, a boat was set on fire, and many protest meetings were held during that period.

On its part, the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government refused to halt construction and alleged that the protests were “fuelled by outside forces”, which wanted to prevent development in the state. They did however keep a channel of dialogue open and announced a four-member committee to examine if the construction was indeed causing coastal erosion.

The agitation took a violent turn on November 27 when the Vizhinjam police station was attacked, leading to 36 policemen and 45 protesters being injured. A week later, following consultations between the chief minister and church groups, the protest was temporarily called off.

One of the demands that locals made was for a mechanism to dredge the Muthalapozhi harbour to prevent accidents. Father Pereira, the 65-year-old general convenor of the Vizhinjam Action Council said, "The repeated accidents and loss of over 65 lives is due to the technical lapses in the construction of the harbour and the government's failure to correct them”.

“In 2018, the then fisheries minister J Mercykutty Amma told us that the Adani Group has been directed to dredge the sand at the mouth of the harbour as they have to allow the movement of barges carrying stones for the construction of the port,” he added.

The council objected.

“We objected to the movement of barges because it would mean opening up a portion of the groynes built to check erosion. But the government went ahead and drew up a contract in which the Adani Group had to regularly dredge the sand piling up at the mouth of the harbour,” Pereira added.

"But the Adani Group hasn't done regular dredging, especially in the last two years. So, what happens is that during the monsoon, the sediments move from north to south and start piling up inside the harbour's mouth. The depth of the sea is very low there which makes it dangerous. Add to that, the scattered boulders that were part of the groynes. In two accidents last year, 12 fishermen lost their lives," Pereira said.

While an Adani Vizhinjam Ports Private Limited (AVPPL) official declined to comment, he shared a note sent by AVPPL to the state government in light of the Muthalapozhi tragedy.

"Due to Cyclone Tauktae of May 2021, the southern breakwater at Muthalapozhi (maintained by Harbour Engineering Department) got damaged and the damage results in boulders falling near the channel area. Being the principal agency responsible for the upkeep of breakwater, Harbour Engineering Department (HED) tendered the work for removal of boulders from channel area. As a goodwill gesture, AVPPL agreed to reimburse half the cost to be incurred by HED. However, citing many reasons including the onset of monsoon, the contractor selected by HED did not take up the work," it said.

The AVPPL added that it would deploy dredgers after the monsoon at the channel, as decided in a meeting with the fisheries department on July 5.

Senior Kerala government officials said that they were set to hold a meeting between the fisheries department and the Adani Group to find a resolution. Fisheries minister Saji Cheriyan said on July 17 that the government will find a permanent mechanism to clear sand from the approach channel of the Muthalapozhi harbour.

"We will employ a method called ‘sand bypassing’ through which the sand will be pulled out through a pipe before it can collect in the channel. It will cost about 10 crore and a tender will be called soon," he said.

Pereira said that in the backdrop of repeated accidents and deaths in Muthalapozhi, the families of those missing and dead were understandably anxious, leading to the scenes witnessed on July 10.

“When Archbishop Thomas J Netto and I walked to the crowd, the education minister was exiting and was extremely provocative. He looked at me defiantly and said, 'Don't make a scene.' He had said the same to the women protesters as well. Then he went back to the city and falsely alleged that I had tried to stir up the protesters when I hadn't said a word. The same minister, during the Vizhinjam agitation, had termed the fisherfolks 'anti-national',” he said.

He said that linking this anger to the Vizhinjam agitation and “pressuring” the police to file a case betrayed a clear ‘motive’. “Whenever fisherfolk face problems, people like me will intervene,” Pereira said.

The politics

In the middle of it all, the ‘motive’ Pereira speaks of, the political subtext, is inescapable.

With a history that dates back over 11 centuries; early records of the Franciscans and Dominicans point to the presence of Latin missions in the subcontinent particularly in Quilon (now Kollam), Mylapore in present-day Chennai and parts of what is now the territory of Goa.

The Church now forms around 14% of the Christian population in Kerala, numbering around 10 lakh and is concentrated in the districts of Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Alappuzha, Ernakulam, Thrissur, Kozhikode and Kannur. Most live along the coast and are engaged in fishing, and this affects at least 10 seats.

The influence is clear.

After the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) alliance returned to power in the 2021 Kerala assembly elections, the first government to do so in three decades, it made careful choices regarding caste and community equations considered important in its ministry calibrations. One of those choices was the induction of Antony Raju, the leader of the little-known Janadhipathya Kerala Congress that won all of one seat and had 0.22 percent of the vote share. The CPI(M) kept several claimants waiting and the selection of Raju was seen as deliberate: He was from the fishing community and a member of the Latin Catholic Church.

In some ways, it was like a note of thanks, aimed at solidifying a burgeoning relationship. In the elections, the LDF had performed well in the coastal belt, winning constituencies like Neyyattinkara, Varkala and Chirayinkeezhu with sizeable Catholic voters. In fact, in 2021, of the 14 seats in Thiruvananthapuram, the LDF won 13, leaving just one for the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). In 2016, the LDF had won 9 seats, and in 2011 when the UDF had come to power, the Left-led alliance had won just 6.

Two years down the line, there are now question marks about whether the experiment is working. Raju was with Sivankutty on July 10 and was roundly admonished by locals. It was Raju who used the words “Don’t play politics.” Hours later, Raju laid the blame for the protests on the Congress, saying that the party was trying to create law and order issues because it was being squeezed out.

"In coastal constituencies, Congress is losing its grip in both Assembly and local body elections. They are having sleepless nights. That's why they are trying to give communal undertones in the backdrop of a tragedy and making political mileage," he said.

Political analyst Sunnykutty Abraham said while the fishing community and the Latin Church were traditionally seen as votaries of the Congress, there was a shift in the last elections.

"Among young priests, there are a lot of pro-Left voices. In the last assembly election, the CPI (M) was able to make major inroads into the Nadar and Latin Catholic voters which were earlier with Congress. But in the light of the Vizhinjam agitation and the incidents in Muthalapozhi, there's a good chance that these voters will drift back to Congress in the parliamentary elections," said Abraham.

It was not unusual for the Latin Catholic Church to stand up for fisherfolk, Abraham said, adding that a lack of sensitivity from the LDF government could hurt them politically.

“It is common for the church leadership in these parts to spearhead protests and Father Eugene is a very proactive priest. The community takes precedence over everything. I believe the government could have handled the issue sensitively. After all, the residents of Muthalapozhi have been begging for government intervention for years," Abraham said.

CPI (M) Thiruvananthapuram district secretary and MLA V Joy said the party does not want to get into a “tussle” with the Latin Church.

“When certain priests show political animosity, we respond and expose them. Three of the fishermen who died on July 10 belong to families that are aligned with us. So, we understand their problems and we will resolve them. There will be no political impact,” Joy said.

J Prabhash, former pro-vice chancellor of Kerala University and political scientist, said that there was a time in the late 1950s, at the time when EMS Namboodiripad was chief minister when various Church groups had allied with Muslim and Hindu groups in a 'vimochana samara' or ‘liberation struggle’ against the policies of his communist government.

“The Left then was very much an ideological party back then. But since 1991, they have been more flexible for electoral gains. So, there is little difference between the CPI (M) and the Congress today. There is a real possibility of the Church and its adherents going back to Congress," Prabhash said.

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