Protests over Vizhinjam project: All-party meet held after clashes in Kerala but deadlock continues

Published on Nov 29, 2022 12:14 AM IST

A day after violent clashes left 36 police personnel and 30 protesters injured in Vizhinjam of south Kerala, the all-party meet called on Monday to address the issue failed to arrive at a consensus, officials privy to the matter said

Police personnel gathered near an overturned police vehicle during an attack on Vizhinjam police station, in Thiruvananthapuram on Sunday. (ANI)
Police personnel gathered near an overturned police vehicle during an attack on Vizhinjam police station, in Thiruvananthapuram on Sunday. (ANI)
By, Thiruvananthapuram

A day after violent clashes left 36 police personnel and 30 protesters injured in Vizhinjam of south Kerala, the all-party meet called on Monday to address the issue failed to arrive at a consensus, officials privy to the matter said.

The ongoing protest against the country’s first mother ship terminal project being developed by the Adani Ports and SEZ Ltd in Vizhinjam (20 km away from the state capital) turned violent on Sunday evening after protesting fisherman led by Latin Catholic church stormed the Vizhinjam police station, demanding release of protesters detained in connection with minor violence on Saturday.

In another development, the Kerala government on Monday informed the high court — that is hearing a plea by Adani Ports to allow commencement of port work — that it will recover the damage to public property from the protesters. The government also promised to take “stern action” against the protesters.

After the all-party meeting, Kerala food minister J R Anil, who represented the government, said all parties condemned violence and except protesters, everybody wants to resume the project work immediately.

“The meet condemned violence and political parties want to resume work. The government is ready to talk further,” Anil said. Congress and BJP participants, however, questioned chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s absence in the meet.

Meanwhile, vicar general of the church, father Eugine Pereira said there was no going back on its “prime demand to stall work” and sought a judicial probe into Sunday’s violence. “We are firm on our demands... couldn’t arrive at any consensus,” he said. Church, which is spearheading the stir, got a leg up after Kerala Congress leader Jose K Mani criticised the government for registering a case against Arch bishop of Latin Catholic Church Thomas J Netto. Kerala Congress (M) is an ally of the ruling Left Democratic Front.

Over 3000 people were booked in connection with the violence in which property worth over 1 crore was damaged, said police. Arch bishop Netto has been made the first accused and charges of conspiracy and instigating violence have been slapped on him and other accused in the case registered at Vizhinjampolice station. Later, Thiruvananthapuram city police commissioner Sparjan Kumar said the case against the bishop was “a natural process”.

Blame game

Both the government and Latin Catholic Church have blamed each other for violence. “Police unnecessarily provoked protesters and it was a plot hatched by them. We want a judicial inquiry into the violence,” said Eugine Pereira.

“Both the government and Adani group worked in tandem to foment trouble. Despite grave provocations, fishermen remained quiet and they responded only at the last moment. We are against violence and it should not have happened,” he said. CEO of the Adani Vizhinjam Port Pvt Limited Rajesh Jha said, “Since the matter was sub judice”, he “would not like to make any comment at this juncture”.

Ports minister Ahamad Deverkovil blamed the church for violence. “The government has shown maximum restraint and accepted five out of seven demands of the protesters. The church took our patience as weakness and let loose violence,” he said, adding the ongoing work should not be stalled at any cost. He also alleged that “a section of the church communalised the whole issue”.

However, the Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference (KCBC) criticised the minister. “The minister’s statement is unfortunate and uncalled for. There was no attempt to communalise the issue at any point. Fishermen were protesting after their livelihood was affected,” said KCBC spokesman Jacob G Palakapally. Opposition leader V D Satheesan also blamed the government for violence. “Protesters were provoked after the police booked the arch bishop and many senior priests,” he said.

The issue also came up before the high court on Monday during which the Adani Group told the court that law and order in the port area broke down and “violence was premeditated”. It reiterated its demand for deployment of central forces to ensure starting of the work which was disrupted for more than three months. The government counsel informed the court that negotiations were underway to end the stalemate and 3000 people were booked in connection with the violence on Sunday. It also said protesters will have to pay the damages caused in the riot. The single bench of justice Anu Sivaraman later instructed the government to take all steps to maintain law and order and the plea will be heard again on Friday.

Last week, the HC had ruled that protesters should comply with its earlier order and should not disrupt the work. But protesters blocked several trucks to the work site on Saturday and Adani group had filed a contempt against protesters and the government. CEO of the Adani Vizhinjam Port Pvt Limited Rajesh Jha said, “Since the matter was sub judice”, he “would not like to make any comment at this juncture”.

Left, BJP on same page

Interestingly the three-month-long stir against the port has brought arch-rivals CPI (M) and BJP together who have been working closely with a movement called “Save Vizhinjam project.”

The movement is a collective of residents of Vizhinjam and adjoining areas who have been supporting the port saying it will bring the much-needed development in the area. They allege the church brings believers from far-away places for the stir and “they also get foreign funding to sabotage the ambitious project”.

“It is good the ruling CPI(M) which opposed the project initially later came around. But we feel the government was not sincere in tackling the agitation and it waited to aggravate the situation,” said BJP district president V V Rajesh.

But the CPI(M) district secretary Anavur Nagappan said the government’s perseverance really helped avert bloodshed. “Poor fishermen are misled by the church. But the government’s apt tackling averted it,” he said. Education minister V Sivankutty also blamed the church for “making poor fishermen mere pawns in their hands.”

Country’s first mother ship project

The idea for the country’s first mother ship port was conceived more than three decades ago when late M V Raghavan, a Marxist renegade, was the port minister in K Karunakaran cabinet. But it was mired in many controversies and delayed inordinately. People who support it claim that international port lobby played a key role in this fearing Vizhinjam with a 20-meter natural depth and 12 nautical miles close to international ship channel will affect prospects of three major ports in the continent: Dubai, Colombo and Singapore.

Devoid of any mother port, now the country is heavily dependent on these three ports for trans-shipment of heavy cargos incurring extra cost and time and once Vizhinjam is commissioned it will bridge the gap. Once it is fully functional the largest mother ship of the world can be anchored here easily, said port officials adding five mother ships can be berthed at a time in Vizhinjam.

After several rounds of discussions the project was awarded to Adani Ports and SEZ Ltd under a PPP agreement work for 7,525 crore. The project started in 2015 and deadline for the first phase was 2019. But the company said Cyclone Ockhi and scarcity of stone boulders delayed the project and now it is expected to be commissioned by October, 2023. Later, Adani Group said the work was halted at a crucial stage due to the pandemic also.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Ramesh Babu is HT’s bureau chief in Kerala, with about three decades of experience in journalism.

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