CM, ministers, Tharoor keep away from Vizhinjam summit. Is compromise on the anvil?

Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited under construction. File photo: Manorama

The Vizhinjam Seaport Expert Summit on November 29, touted as the LDF Government's first big public outreach where experts from reputed institutions like IIT were lined up to debunk fears surrounding the Vizhinjam project, turned out to be a tame affair with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and most of his ministers preferring to keep away.

However, observers suggest that this was also sign that the government was keeping the doors open for a compromise.

Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor, the only opposition leader invited to the 'summit', also gave the 'summit' a skip.

Tharoor has backed out citing the Government's failure to amicably settle the anti-port stir. Tharoor's decision seems to have been promoted more by the inner-party churning in the Congress.

The Thiruvananthapuram MP, instead of striking out independently as is his wont, has demonstrated to his party that he can align his politics closely with that of the official Congress line. The state unit of the Congress had come down heavily on the LDF Government's handling of the violence in Vizhinjam, it was especially critical of the police move to arraign top priests including the Latin Archbishop Thomas Netto as prime accused in the FIR.

Of greater relevance was the non-participation of the Chief Minister and his cabinet colleagues. The Chief Minister's absence was attributed to ayurveda treatment; Vijayan had been undergoing treatment during the last week.

After it was clear that the Chief Minister could not make it, it was said finance minister K N Balagopal would deliver the inaugural address. Balagopal, too, did not turn up. Neither did civil supplies minister G R Anil or tourism minister Mohammed Riyas or transport minister Antony Raju made it to the 'summit'.

Therefore, the presidential address was delivered by ports minister Ahammed Devarkovil. Fisheries minister V Abdurahiman was the only other minister present.

Significantly, even while emphatically stating that the port would be completed come what may, both these ministers refrained from overly provocative statements. Abdurahiman even said that the LDF Government would not want to see the tears of the fishermen.

Still, even when it became evident that the invited dignitaries were not going to make it to the venue, the organisers kept assuring the audience that the Chief Minister and his cabinet colleagues will reach the venue during the course of the 'summit'. Clearly, the organisers were unaware of the political considerations that happened behind the scenes.

The absence of the ministers has probably been purposeful because, according to sources close to the government, the LDF did not want to politicise the issue at this stage when a possibility of compromise with the Latin Church still exists.

Nonetheless, Devarkovil once again stressed the LDF line that port construction was not the consequence of port construction. "It is a scientifically proven fact," the minister for ports said. "In fact, beaches have been restored naturally in both Sanghumughom and Kovalam (areas most affected by erosion)," he added.

Devarkovil also quoted another scientific study to junk the criticism that fish availability had depleted after the port construction began. The study says that the fish availability had increased by 16 percent in the 10 years from 2011.

In the same breath, Devarkovil conceded that galloping kerosene prices had hit the coastal folk hard. It was clear that even Devarkovil, who had made some damning charges against the Church the other day, was speaking the language of compromise.

After the seminar was over and the main speakers had made their presentation, finance minister K N Balagopal made an entry. As the Chief Minister's stand-in, the minister then did the ceremonial inauguration of the 'summit'.  

While delivering the inaugural address, he listed the welfare assistance the government had been providing the coastal folk. Balagopal also made it clear that the government could not call a halt to port construction. He said the cost would be high, "higher than what a small state like Kerala can bear'. He was referring to the arbitration proceedings to which the Adani Group had dragged the government. Balagopal hinted that the hindrances caused by the anti-port agitation could work in favour of Adani. 

He also wondered why the agitation had cropped up at this stage when the project had been in the planning stage for over 15 years.

Still, he too spoke in terms of conciliation. "The project should go ahead only after removing the concerns of the people," Balagopal said.

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