How NGOs and the Church are getting in the way of development projects in Kerala
Fishermen protest against the Vizhinjam port project on August 23, 2022
KERALA CHIEF MINISTER Pinarayi Vijayan announced on August 30 that his government would form a three-member expert committee to examine the environmental issues surrounding the Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited, a marquee project of the state government that has run into rough weather with Church-backed agitators running riot against the project for a fortnight now. The chief minister was, however, firm in rejecting a key “demand” of the agitators: halting the seaport project.
Just days earlier, on August 23, Vijayan had answered questions and doubts about the project that has been in the works for almost a decade. But his words and assurances fell on deaf ears. Led by the archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram—that has some measure of political influence in the Vizhinjam area—the agitators would have none of it.
The demands of the agitating fishermen, the Church and its auxiliaries, are couched in environmental concerns. But in reality, they have no link with possible environmental concerns about the project. The six demands of the fishermen—the majority of which the state government has conceded—are: rehabilitation of families of fishermen who had lost their homes from sea erosion; mitigation of sea erosion; financial assistance to fishermen when they cannot venture into the sea on days when weather warnings are issued; compensation to families of fishermen who lose their lives in fishing accidents; subsidy on kerosene and dredging of the harbour in Achuthangi in Thiruvananthapuram.
None of these demands is related to the Vizhinjam port. Take the demand for subsidised kerosene (it was rejected by the government). This has nothing to do with the port project. But because it is a popular demand, it has been latched onto the protest. But these fishermen—or more accurately, their backers and activists—wanted the project stopped. This was a demand that was not just unreasonable but went against the preparations made for the project by the Kerala government for almost a decade. It could not have conceded the demand.
Vijayan explained the kerosene issue in the Assembly and said: “In our state, there are about 32,000 traditional fishing boats, of which 90% use kerosene as fuel. The Central government does not allot kerosene for fishing purposes. Annually we need one lakh kilolitres of kerosene but the Centre allots less than 25,000 kilolitres. Rising costs of kerosene are a major problem although we subsidise kerosene through Matsyafed.” (Matsyafed is the state cooperative for fisheries.)
The state government clearly has little room to subsidise kerosene on such a scale given its serious revenue and spending constraints.
Vijayan also answered other queries about relief and rehabilitation in his speech. He noted the project to rehabilitate people living within 50 metres of the coastline to areas suitable for them. The government has set aside ₹2,450 crore to rehabilitate fishermen as well as others, keeping in mind climate change issues and Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) regulations. Earlier, the government had given ₹20 lakh each to the kin of those who had lost their lives in the wake of the Cyclone Ockhi disaster in 2017.
The minister for ports in the Vijayan government, Ahamed Devarkovil, highlighted the other demand of fishermen: their rehabilitation. This, too, was done before protests took off. Devarkovil said in the Assembly that, based on recommendations of the livelihood impact assessment committee, 317 fishermen in Vizhinjam South and 625 in Adimala Thura were given
₹ 6.5 lakh each. Those working in allied fishing activities—73 in all—were paid ₹9.125 crore in all. In all, the state government spent ₹100 crore in such rehabilitation schemes for fishermen and those associated with the trade.
The claim about the project being environmentally damaging merits a closer look. The Chennai-based National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) has been issuing shoreline erosion reports for the area around Vizhinjam for a number of years now. Its latest report, for the period from October 2020 to September 2021, was issued in June this year. By using satellite imaging and other techniques, NIOT has continuously carried out erosion studies from Edappadu Beach to the south of the port (around 25km away in Tamil Nadu) to Kochuveli in the north (around 33km away). This is, in effect, a coastal area of roughly 60km around the project site.
The report said: “It can be noted that the spots of erosion such as Valliyathura, Shangumugham and Panthera remain the same before and after the commencement of the port (December 2015). However, the spots such as Kochuveli, Cheriyathura to the North of Valiyathura show erosion during the period October 2020-21.”
At the same time the report highlighted the large impact of Cyclone Ockhi on the shoreline on either side of the port. Cyclone Ockhi had hit India’s western shoreline and was active from November 29, 2017 to December 4, 2017.
In conclusion, the NIOT report said that it can be noticed from the study that no major work was done during this period by the port authorities and considering the natural events that occurred during this time, the impact of the port activities on either side of the coast is less significant till date.
The accusation that the port has led to environmental damage and thus affected the livelihoods of fishermen has little basis. But, as is to be expected, the protest has not stopped; nor has any protester bothered to read the clockwork-like reports and other environmental assessments issued by different agencies.
Environmental clearances and the preparatory phase of the project were undertaken long before even the first fisherman was mobilised by local activists, NGOs and the Church in Vizhinjam. The environmental clearances for the project were given in January 2014. This was well before any agreement was signed with a concessionaire to develop the port. These clearances included CRZ and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). These were based on EIA and CRZ studies carried out by the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS) in Thiruvananthapuram. These, in turn, were used by the Kerala State Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA) to evaluate the environmental impact. This was done in August 2013. After all the preparatory work that spanned nearly five years, the concessionaire agreement was signed with Adani Ports & Special Economic Zone Limited on August 17, 2015.
BY THE TIME the Kudankulam nuclear power plant was dedicated to the nation in 2016 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, the site of the plant in Tirunelveli district was peaceful and the furious protests of 2011-12 were a distant memory. In those days, the site of action, however, was different. Located seven kilometres from Kudankulam, the St Lourdes Church at Idinthakarai was the place from where protests against the nuclear power plant radiated in the region.
Such was the ferocity of the protests against the nuclear power plant that the usually quiet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forced to say, “The atomic energy programme has run into difficulties because these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States, don’t appreciate the need for our country to increase energy supply.”
“There are NGOs, often funded from the United States and Scandinavian countries, which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces,” Singh had said.
It took strong measures from the Jayalalithaa government to quell the agitation—8,956 people were charged in 21 different cases of sedition in the Idinthakarai area. At that time, the Church had backed these protests.
Ultimately, the Kudankulam power plant went ahead but with huge time and cost overruns.
Something similar was seen in the 2018 agitation against Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper unit in Thoothukudi that led to the death of 13 people in a violent agitation. Finally, the plant was closed for good under orders from the state pollution control board. After protracted judicial appeals and counter-appeals, the plant was shut down permanently in late 2020.
A report by the Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) (‘Economic Impact of Select Decisions of the Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal of India’) estimated the economic loss from the Sterlite plant, directly and indirectly, at ₹14,749 crore since the plant’s closure in May 2018. This estimate is old and is conservative as the report itself is dated now. The Thoothukudi plant contributed close to 40 per cent of India’s copper production. The report said that “its [plant’s] closure has amounted to significant losses in terms of Foreign Exchange (Forex), cutting down the country’s net production by 46.1%. From being a net exporter of copper, India has become a net importer thus impacting the country’s balance of payments.”
As in Kudankulam, so in Thoothukudi, the local church was involved in the protests. This happened in Thoothukudi under the banner of the Our Lady of Snows church. During the protest, many locals said their community was always against the Sterilite plant. Some of them said that at the Sunday mass, local priests urged the community to join the protest in large numbers.
The interesting aspect of the situation was the trade-off between concerns about pollution from the plant—that motivated the protests—and the economic cost to the local community. These are not simple trade-offs as one involves long-term costs (pollution) while the other costs are immediate (livelihoods lost, etc). The Church, NGOs and local activists are all funded and can take a longer view of things. But local fishermen and workers are not, even if they are misled into supporting such agitations. They experience difficulties later.
The CUTS report stated that after the protest was over and after a lapse of time, “a group of fishermen and a few villages have petitioned the state government requesting to reopen Copper Plant as it was a major source of their income and livelihood.” But in the headlines over pollution and the shutdown of the plant, the voices of those who lost their livelihoods directly—workers at the plant and the fishermen—never made it to those who made the decisions to kill the plant. Only the voices of NGOs, activists and Church leaders were heard.
KERALA’S EXPERIENCE WITH agitation against development projects is not new. Just before the protest against the Vizhinjam port, the state was in the throes of protest against a rail connectivity project linking Thiruvananthapuram in the south to Kasaragod in the north through a high-speed link. The Silverline project is meant to speed up travel between two ends of the state. Currently, it takes 12 hours to traverse this distance but once the 529km link is ready, the journey will be reduced to four hours, assuming a travel speed of 200km per hour. The project was conceived keeping in mind future needs of the state.
But no sooner had the project been announced that the “K-Rail SilverLine Viruddha Janakeeya Samiti”—a local group of agitators—sprung up. It was claimed that 30,000 people would be displaced due to the project. Another group of agitators—“Kerala Paristhiti Aikya Vedi”—said the project would destroy the state’s environment and ecology and that the government choose more sustainable alternatives. A third concern is the cost of the project that is pegged at ₹1.26 lakh crore according to NITI Aayog and at approximately ₹63,940 crore according to the Detailed Project Report issued at the state level.
The claim in the third objection is that Kerala is a highly indebted state and that it could do without an expensive infrastructure project. Kerala’s debt/GSDP ratio is close to 40 per cent. Its revenue streams are limited and its welfare commitments require extensive spending. These are all valid arguments but they ignore one key element: if a state does not spend on infrastructure, it is unlikely to grow and reduce its debt burden. But such is Kerala’s toxic culture of activism that even positive steps by a government are likely to be opposed. The situation is one where activists hunt for excuses instead of analysing what the state has to do for its economic sustainability.
India has a healthy tradition of protests against the government whenever political and policy mistakes take place. But in the past two decades, this trend has acquired a life of its own and its links with governance errors are tenuous at best. These days, no sooner is an infrastructure project announced that agitations against it begin. Then there are legal challenges to these projects in courts. All these are tactics to delay, if not derail, the projects. It takes willpower on the part of an elected government to overcome these protests. It is a dilemma for all elected leaders: if they push ahead with a project and protests intensify, then the political costs are severe. If they give in to protests, then the larger objective of economic growth and welfare spending is lost.
At the other end of the equation are well-organised groups extensively funded from abroad. Be it the Church or NGOs and activists with their global links. This well-lubricated machine is almost unstoppable. The experience in Kerala shows that politicians need to fortify themselves with extra political fortitude—or else everything is lost.
In recent years, some positive steps have been taken to check this menace. The changes and tightening of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2010 have slowed the funding of the agitation machine. But then there are second-order effects. India is now routinely described as something less than a democracy because the country has dared to check agitators fuelled by perverse ideologies and supplied by resources from elsewhere. In many cases, well-meaning laws are sabotaged and their effects are felt later. The Modi government had to repeal the three farm sector laws in late 2021 after agitation in Punjab acquired a very different—identity-based—and menacing dimension. It is another matter that it is precisely in states where investment and economic growth ought to be a priority that such agitations acquire dangerous dimensions. Kerala’s experience with a greenfield port and a much-needed railway line are just two examples. Perhaps it is time the Centre took stock of these agitations that are spread across the country and are not a problem for a single state.