The Catholic fishermen of the Thiruvananthapuram coastal villages on Tuesday called off their four month-long sit-in protest against the Adani Group’s Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited (VISL), as they see no major tangible gains from continuing it.
The government’s adamant stand that the construction of the Rs 7,500 crore project cannot be abandoned or suspended at this stage, along with the reluctance of opposition political parties to put their entire weight behind the agitation, and the depletion of public sympathy in the wake of last week’s violent incidents, forced the fishermen to pack up and return to their villages.
There is no doubt that the agitation brought to public attention issues related to the state’s fisheries sector, ranging from sea erosion, loss of dwellings and working days, and inadequate fuel subsidy. But, for all the woes in their coastal life, the protesters failed in putting the port project in the dock.
There is some respite for the fishermen, though. The formation of a chief secretary-level committee has been announced, which will monitor their rehabilitation and a host of perennial demands related to their livelihood. These demands related to their rehabilitation had been agreed upon by the government during previous rounds of discussions with the agitators, but they had continued the stir demanding suspension of construction until an expert committee probed sea erosion due to the port and submitted its report on the matter.
Among their other demands, there is no word yet from the government on increasing the subsidy on kerosene that the fishermen use in their outboard-engine fitted boats, and increasing the house rent paid by the government to those who had lost their houses due to sea erosion in recent years. The fishermen wanted at least Rs 8,000 per month as rent, but the government was in no mood to go beyond Rs 5,500, which the fishermen feel is inadequate.
The fishermen had identified sea erosion as the crux of their woes and blamed the port being built for it. Banking upon various expert studies and reports before and after the commencement of the port’s construction, the government categorically stated that the VISL had not contributed to any sea erosion, which became an impediment for the fishermen trying to pin the blame on the Adani port for all their problems, from houses that collapsed to dwindling livelihoods.
The disappointment of the Latin Catholic Archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram, which led the agitation, was evident in the words of senior priest Fr Eugine Pereira, the general convenor of the action committee. “We are not fully satisfied, but no agitation would meet all its demands. Hence, the agitation is being called off temporarily,” he said.
“At the same time, our agitation prompted the government to announce a housing scheme for those who had lost their houses to sea erosion in recent years. They also agreed to pay rent for those who lost homes, until they get a permanent house under the scheme,’’ said Fr Pereira.
For the government, the end of the agitation is a major political win that sends a strong message that no developmental project or investment would be abandoned or suspended in the face of a massive protest.
Over the last six years, CPI(M) in Kerala had silenced several protests against mega projects, despite the fact that it had backed many of these agitations when it was in the opposition. When the Vizhinjam protest turned violent last week, CPI(M) raised the allegation of extremist elements behind the fishermen’s agitation. The party had used the same extremist allegation against recent mass agitations against big infrastructure projects and land acquisitions.
At Vizhinjam, CPI(M) tactically backed the BJP’s bid to give a communal colour to the fishermen’s agitation. After the Catholic church started leading the protest, various Hindu organisations from different social and religious stratas joined hands, seeking resumption of construction. Leaders of the CPI(M) had no qualms in sharing venues with the BJP over the Adani port project.
Last week’s violence at Vizhinjam had its origin in the communal polarisation — between fishermen agitating against the port and Hindu organisations backing the project — which had built up in the recent months. Police action against the fishermen on this minor clash between two sides had led to a massive attack on the cops and their premises at Vizhinjam, which finally turned the wind in favour of the state government. The church alleged that the provocation that led to the attack was a government conspiracy to put the agitators on the backfoot. Fishermen, who had been hailed for saving thousands of lives during the devastating floods of 2018, had suddenly become “anti-national”. In any case, the agitation’s violent turn helped the government put pressure on the Catholic Church to call it off.
This is not the first time Kerala’s CPI(M)-led LDF government has shown steely resolve and dodgy media manoeuvring while ignoring popular grassroots protests against prestigeous infrastructural projects. Having left behind its days of agitations, they have found a new angle to dismiss any recent mass protest — calling them as being led or funded by “extremists”. When people protested against the social impact assessment survey of the semi-high speed SilverLine railway project, and the construction of a sewage treatment plant in Kozhikode, the CPI(M) blamed “extremist elements” as behind both agitations. They had earlier raised the bogey of extremists in 2017, when coastal people at Puthuvype in Kochi protested against an IOC plant.