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Troubled waters in 2 ports in 2 states right next to each other

Saturday, 09 July 2016 | 00:00

The sea off Colachel’s coast has been mostly quiet since August 1741, when the forces of Travancore king Marthanda Varma ended the imperial ambitions of the Dutch by defeating their navy under Capt De Lannoy.

On Wednesday, this coastal stretch in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district was abuzz once again, with the Centre granting in-principle clearance to a Rs 25,000-crore transshipment harbour project at Enayam, a village 10 km north of Colachel’s fishing harbour.

The objective is to attract large ships that now dock at Colombo or Singapore. But early indications are that it will not be a smooth journey for the Colachel project.

For, just 35 km away, in Kerala’s Vizhinjam, work has already started on a similar harbour with the same objective. Opposition to the new project is also growing from within Colachel by villagers who fear land acquisition and claim they were never kept in the loop — a day-long hunger strike will be held on July 15 at Puttetti, a hospital town near Colachel.

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However, Union Minister of State for Shipping, Pon Radhakrishnan, who represents Kanyakumari in the Lok Sabha, is convinced there will be enough business for Vizhinjam and Colachel. The scepticism, he says, is only political and not based on economic considerations. While the Adani Group will develop the Rs 7,525-crore project in Vizhinjam, the Centre is investing in Enayam.

Apart from citing feasibility studies, Radhakrishnan points to ports at Chennai and Ennore, and JNPT, Nhava Sheva and Mumbai. But unlike Chennai and Mumbai, Vizhinjam and Colachel can’t boast of manufacturing hubs in the hinterland. Significantly, a container terminus built at Vallarpadam, near Kochi, about 200 km to the north of Vizhinjam, is now making losses.

But what could actually trip Radhakrishnan is the opposition from in and around Enayam. The project was a campaign issue in the last assembly elections and worked against the BJP. The party lost in all six assembly constituencies in the district just two years after Radhakrishnan won the Lok Sabha election with a thumping majority.

The coastal villages in Colachel have been in ferment ever since it was announced that the minor port that was initially proposed has been transformed into a transhipment harbour and moved north to Enayam. At the time of the assembly elections in May, the parish priest of Enayam, Father Anbarasan, had said that they came to know about the harbour only when a team of “experts” came to identify land last August.

Anbarasan also alleged that the Union minister and his officials were not “forthcoming” about the project. As news spread of possible land acquisition, roads and a railway line, people from the hinterland also joined in the protests. Last September, a meeting of local residents were held at the church ground. “The minister met us and said why should we continue fishing and why not take up other professions,” said Anbarasan.

In February, hundreds protested at the district collectorate in Nagercoil. “All these decades, the talk was about building a port to the east of Colachel. We wanted to know why the project has been shifted,” said Anbarasan.

C Berlin, a resident of Kurumbanai village, near Enayam, says their demand was for an all-weather fishing and trade harbour at an estimated cost of Rs 2,000 crore in Colachel. “Instead, they have given as this monster project. They want to take away the livelihood of over a lakh of people with the promise of providing a thousand jobs,” he said.

At Enayam, residents claim that at least 30,000 people will be directly affected if the transhipment harbour comes up. But Radhakrishnan is dismissive of the protests, which he believes are influenced by local political considerations.

Meanwhile, drowned in the debate about development and rehabilitation at Enayam and Vizhinjam, both densely populated, is the impact of these projects on the ecology of the region.

The Thiruvananthapuram District Coast Protection Samiti says the building of a 400-metre breakwater at Vizhinjam in the 1970s resulted in major erosion at villages to its north.

A J Vijayan, a former state secretary of Swatantra Matsya Thozhilali Federation, an association of fishermen, says dredging has already caused coastal erosion in the area.

These issues came up during a public hearing on the Vizhinjam project but massive pressure from non-coastal communities, which see the port as the gateway to “development”, forced many to tone down their opposition. Activists citing environmental impact have also approached the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court against the project.

Robert Panipillai, a resident of Puthenthope village, near Vizhinjam, says the absence of any knowledge of the marine ecosystem has turned the debate in favour of ports. “The Vizhinjam coast is unique for its system of cliffs and promontories. Of Kerala’s 500-km coastline, only 30 km have such features. The Enayam coast is not similar to the one at Vizhinjam but it, too, has reefs with rich biodiversity. The port activity will destroy them,” said Panipillai, a researcher of Kerala’s coast.
Source: Indian Express

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