FOR OVER a week, fisherfolk on the southern coast of Kerala have been protesting in front of the gates of the Adani Group’s Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited at Vizhinjam in Thiruvananthapuram. As people take turns for the 24×7 sit-in, men in cassocks mingle with the protesters and the red-yellow-white flags of the Latin Catholic Church flutter from the tents.
The protesters, mostly fishermen from nearby coastal villages, fear the Rs 7,500-crore deep-sea port project, that’s coming up at Vizhinjam in Thiruvananthapuram, will cause sea erosion and result in a potential loss of their traditional livelihood.
With all major political parties in the state torn between their vote bank in the region and support for the port project, it’s the Latin Catholic Church that is backing the protesters. The Thiruvananthapuram diocese of the Church has also managed to win the support of other Catholic segments in the state.
The disenchantment of the fishermen towards mainstream political parties was evident when Congress leader V D Satheesan, who visited the protest site last week, was greeted with angry questions about the party’s stand on the project.
It was the previous Congress-led UDF regime in Kerala that inked the deal with the Adani Group in August 2015. The Group, which had promised to make the sea port operational in 1,000 days, by December 2019, is well behind schedule.
While in Opposition, the CPI(M) had been critical about the terms and conditions of the Build-Operate-Transfer contract that the government of the day had signed with the Adani Group, but since coming to power in 2016, the party, which has been aggressively backing its development and infrastructure agenda, has changed its stand.
Though the protest is against the Adani project, many of the demands of the coastal community, including a proper rehabilitation plan, are pending with the state government. However, the Congress, despite its strident position against the LDF government on a host of recent issues, has been unable to take on the government on the Vizhinjam protests given that it was its government that signed the deal with the Adani Group.
Archdiocese Vicar-General Fr Eugine H Pereira, who is general convener of the agitation, feels successive governments have betrayed the people of the coast. “Over the years, as various development projects came up, our people were deprived of the coast that is so key to their livelihoods. ISRO, airport and various government institutions… the fisherfolk have had to pay the price for all these projects,’’ he said.
The Latin Catholic Church has traditionally played a big role in the socio-economic lives of the fishermen in the region, who mostly belong to this Catholic sect. Electorally, though the community has largely stayed with the Congress, there have been exceptions.
While the Vizhinjam fisherfolk backed the Congress’s Shashi Tharoor in the 2019 LS elections, they stood with the LDF in the 2021 Assembly elections, when the LDF fielded Antony Raju. a Latin Catholic who is now a minister.
Referring to the Church’s sway over people along the coast, political scientist and former VC of Central University of Kerala, Dr G Gopakumar, said, “The Church has always played a critical role in the lives of the fisherfolk here. Three decades ago, when I visited the Vizhinjam coast, I noticed a warning board for fishermen venturing into the sea. It was put up not by the government, but by a local bishop. The Church now has an even bigger role as our political system could not establish a rapport with the fishing community or develop a direct dialogue with them. Political parties should have taken up the task of organising the fishermen instead of leaving the task to the Church,’’ he said.
The protests are expected to go on till August 31.