Vizhinjam stir called off with most fishermen demands either rejected or only half met

Fisherfolk set fire to their boats when the Vizhinjam agitation entered its 100th day. File Photo: Manoj Chemancheri/Manorama

Thiruvananthapuram: On the 140th day of the agitation on Tuesday, the Vizhinjam Action Council led by the Latin Archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram called off its anti-port stir.

It was a lopsided agreement that was thrust upon the agitators, yet they took it. The LDF Government has not offered anything more than what it had promised before.

The primary demand of the Action Council, to halt port construction, was rejected. This was no surprise as even the Opposition UDF had made it clear that it did not want the construction to stop.

Surprisingly, even the demand to have a local representative in the Expert Committee constituted by the government to study the impact of construction on the coast has been turned down.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan did not even give the Church leaders any assurance on withdrawing the non-bailable charges slapped against the spiritual leaders of the Latin community, including Major Archbishop Thomas J Netto. "The police has charged even section 307 (attempt to murder) on people who were not even present at the site of occurrence," the Action Council convenor Fr Eugene Pereira said after he came out of the talks with the Chief Minister.

As for the other major demands - monthly rent for those living in seedy relief camps, kerosene subsidy and subsistence wages for bad weather days - the agitators had to settle for far less than their expectations. The only way out for the agitators now is to approach the Court.

The decision came after a series of urgent high-level meetings the Action Council had on Tuesday, first with the Chief Secretary, then with the Cabinet Sub-Committee and finally with the Chief Minister.

Father Eugene Pereira speaking to the media after the meeting with the chief minister. Screengrab: Manorama News

During the discussion held in the Assembly today, the Chief Minister gave clear hints that his government would not budge an inch from its stated position. He even gave a sharper edge to his earlier provocative accusation that the Church was controlled by outside forces out to sabotage the port.

As the Action Council leaders came out after meeting Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, they did not care to hide their disappointment. "We are not fully satisfied with what has come to pass. Our major demand that the study should be conducted only after the construction is stopped is still left unresolved," Fr Eugene Pereira said.

"It will be a big irony if construction work goes full steam ahead while a study on its impact is progressing," he said.

Clearly, the negotiations were a one-sided affair with the government calling the shots. The agitators' decision not to insist on their primary demand did not result in the government relaxing its position to accommodate other demands of the Action Council.

The Council wanted the government to increase the rent it had promised to coastal families desperate to move out of congested relief camps from Rs 5,500 to Rs 8,000. It also wanted the government to pay the entire amount from its coffers.

The government said it could not offer more than Rs 5,500 but said it was willing to negotiate with Adani Ports to secure the remaining from the CSR funds of the company. Fr Pereira said that the Action Council rejected this offer. "We said we will settle for Rs 5,500 rather than seek Adani's money," he said. "We stand by all our truths," he added.

Protestors stop truck carrying construction materials for Vizhinjam port. Photo: Manorama

The government also ruled out increasing the subsidy for kerosene. However, it has promised a one-time 50 per cent subsidy to fishermen who would exchange kerosene-powered engines for ones powered by alternative fuel like petrol or diesel or others.

Another long-standing demand was the need to compensate fisherfolk for bad-weather days they are forced to keep off the sea. This, too, was given the cold shoulder. The government said that such livelihood assistance was already being provided and nothing more could be expected.

Further, the government gave a vague assurance that it would explore ways to extend the benefits of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and the Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme to fishermen-related work.

Perhaps the only concession to the agitators was a state-level monitoring cell chaired by the Chief Secretary to review the progress of the agreement.

Police vehicle vandalized by protestors at Vizhinjam police station after cops refused to release those in custody on November 27, 2022. Photo: Manorama

Though the agitators sustained the agitation for nearly five months as a 'do or die' fight for survival, their moral standing weakened after the eruption of violence at Mulloor and Vizhinjam on November 26 and 27. The Vizhinjam police station was vandalised, policemen were attacked and stones were pelted at homes. On top of this vandalism, there were visuals of protesters blocking the way of even ambulances carrying injured policemen. All of this had robbed the movement of public sympathy.

This gave the government a chance to ruthlessly slap grievous non-bailable charges against hundreds of fishermen, especially the youth. Pinarayi thus succeeded in instilling fear in the community.

And then came the comment that firmly turned the tide in favour of the government. One of the leaders of the movement, Fr Theodosius D'Cruz remarking that there was terrorist in the very name of Fisheries Minister V Abdurahiman. This was universally condemned.

All of a sudden, the Latin Church became purveyors of communal hate. What was sought to be built up as a heroic struggle lost its moral centre.

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