Who 'fathered' Vizhinjam International Port? Pinarayi, Modi or Chandy?

Pinarayi Vijayan; Narendra Modi; Oommen Chandy. Photo Collage: Canva

Thiruvananthapuram: When he said "success has many fathers", Union Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan, though unintentionally, captured the theme of the evening.

At the event organised to celebrate the berthing of the first ship at Vizhinjam International Seaport Thiruvananthapuram on Sunday, there was a competitive bid to stake a claim for the success of the Vizhinjam project that would begin commercial operations in May 2024.

The union minister was insinuating that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was usurping the credit meant for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Muraleedharan, and also the Congress leaders present during the occasion, must have been especially provoked by the opening line of the Chief Minister's inaugural address.

It was a piece of grand rhetoric in pursuit of self-promotion. "What is now clear with the arrival of the ship is that the word impossible no more exists in the lexicon of Kerala." The implication was that such determination to make things happen was introduced to Kerala by Pinarayi Vijayan.

Then, in the course of his speech, Pinarayi said something that Muraleedharan could have read as condescension towards the Centre. "This port is one of Kerala's greatest contributions to India," the Chief Minister said. And in carefully crafted words that could be mistaken for gratitude, Pinarayi put on record how inconsequential the Centre's contribution to the project is when compared to Kerala's spending.

"The Vizhinjam port is a Rs 7,700-crore project. Of this, Rs 4,600 crore is the investment of the state. The Centre's share is Rs 818 crore. This is also why this project should be considered as one of the major projects of the country. It is also the first time in the country that a viability gap fund has been sanctioned for a port project. This shows the priority accorded to Vizhinjam by the Centre," the Chief Minister said.

What the Chief Minister couched in polite language, general education minister V Sivankutty expressed in blunt terms. "Barring a small amount, the entire money for the project comes from the state government. So this project should be considered a state project," Sivankutty said.

The union minister came straight to the point. He grouped all the projects that Pinarayi Vijayan ad nauseum lists out to show off his development record and packaged it as the fruits of the Centre's "good governance".

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan flags in the cargo ship from China to the Vizhinjam International Seaport on Sunday. Leader of Opposition VD Satheesan and Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor, among others, look on. Photo: Manorama

"National highway development, GAIL pipeline, Kochi Metro, NH 67 and now the Vizhinjam project. I am extremely happy as a member of the central government that the waves of good governance are now lapping the shores of Kerala," Muraleedharan said.

Then, Muraleedharan hinted that Vizhinjam would not have happened had it not been for Modi. "The completion of projects that had been stalled for decades and starting new ones propel the development vision of the Narendra Modi government. What is now getting realised in Vizhinjam under the Narendra Modi dispensation is a project that was first talked about some 75 years ago. It was only in 2015, just a year after Narendra Modi came to power, that the Vizhinjam project got a new lease of life," Muraleedharan said.

In their attempt to take credit for the project, neither Pinarayi nor Muraleedharan made even a small mention of former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy under whose watch the agreement with Adani Ports was inked.

Opposition leader V D Satheesan, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor and Kovalam MLA M Vincent were clearly bitter and made up for the Chief Minister's and the union minister's silence on Chandy's role.

However, it has to be noted that ports minister Ahammad Devarkoil did mention Chandy's name, but in a general sense. "The Vizhinjam project was a longstanding dream," he said. "This day is the continuation and triumph of the interventions made by governments since 1995 to realise this dream. It is with great gratitude that we remember those who have worked on this project, especially the late comrade E K Nayanar, K Karunakaran and Oommen Chandy, and comrade V S Achuthanandan," Devarkoil said.

But Pinarayi Vijayan was less considerate and sounded as if his predecessors, not just Oommen Chandy, were disappointments. "Open before Vizhinjam are possibilities no other port in the country can boast of. It is highly unfortunate that these could not be exploited or even understood for a very long time. Anyhow, we have finally been able to put an end to such a stagnation," the Chief Minister said.

When Pinarayi painted himself as the messiah of development, opposition leader V D Satheesan placed all the credit for the Vizhinjam project right at the feet of Oommen Chandy. "We should not forget the fact that it was the Oommen Chandy ministry that had made this project a reality," he said.

Then he struck Pinarayi where it hurt the most, recalled instances when Pinarayi himself had made life difficult for Chandy. "He was faced with innumerable issues, especially when the project was described as loot in the high seas. Even when the charge that he had entered into a Rs 6,000-crore real estate deal with the Adani Group was hurled straight to his heart, Oommen Chandy went ahead undeterred and unshaken to make the project a reality," Satheesan said.

The Rs 6,000-crore corruption charge was levelled by the then CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan. "Chandy also secured all the necessary approvals, including environmental clearance, before his term ended. He was also able to get the first viability gap fund the centre had ever offered a port project," Satheesan said.

Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashti Tharoor complimented Satheesan. "Between 2004 and 2010 no one was able to implement the project. When Oommen Chandy became Chief Minister in 2011, the project was at a standstill. So let me say with all the confidence at my command that it was Oommen Chandy's initiative alone that helped us realise this project," Tharoor said.

He said Chandy did all the studies, probed the various aspects of land acquisition and in his first year itself declared that the Vizhinjam project should be made a reality. When investors were not confident, Tharoor said that it was at Chandy's insistence that Gajendra Haldea (a top bureaucrat known as the father of public-private partnerships in infrastructure) was brought to Kerala and his advice taken to seek viability gap funding from the Centre.

Tharoor also recalled how Chandy personally called up bidders who developed cold feet. "He called up each of these bidders and told them of the advantages. He asked me also to use my personal contacts to rope in investors for Vizhinjam. He said he was willing to even extend the bid date but he somehow wanted bidders to come," he said.

Tharoor said that it was at this time that he met Gautam Adani on a plane during a trip to New York. "I used the opportunity to sell Vizhinjam to him. Eventually, he said his company would bid for the project," the Thiruvananthapuram MP said. As it turned out, Adani's was the sole bid.

Kovalam MLA M Vincent said that it would not be possible to think of the Vizhinjam project without remembering its chief architect Oommen Chandy.

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