Thiruvananthapuram: It now looks like the fisherfolk, whose agitation was suppressed last December, will have the last laugh in Vizhinjam.
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has asked the Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited (VISL), a company fully owned by the Kerala government, to conduct a second public hearing before going ahead with phases II and III of the Vizhinjam International Deepwater Multipurpose Seaport.
It was on August 3, while applying for environment clearance (EC) for the remaining two phases, that the VISL sought an exemption from a public hearing. The plea was made before the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) under the MoEFCC. The existing EC will expire on January 3, 2024.
The EAC rejected the request on August 24 saying the subsequent phases involved "expansion". The VISL submitted that during phases II and III expansion would happen within the existing port limits and that no additional land acquisition was involved. Further, it was said that the land for backup and ancillary development was already acquired as part of the Phase I development.
In short, the VISL said that the total project area would remain the same, 450.09 hectares. Moreover, it said that the public hearing held as part of securing the initial EC on January 3, 2014, was based on the master plan in full and was not just limited to Phase I activities.
The EAC was not convinced. It said the EC granted in 2014 was only for Phase I. The EAC conceded the point that the expansion would take place within the existing port limits but observed that the additional components, especially the construction of new berths in the remaining phases, would change the "configuration of the project" and, therefore, insisted on a public hearing.
Reviving the port-erosion link
Even during the public hearings held in 2013, vehement questions were asked about the erosion in areas north of the port.
There was a chapter on shoreline erosion in the first draft of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report that observed that after the Vizhinjam fishing harbour came into being in 1970, areas north of it had suffered erosion. The chapter was based on a study done by Asian Consulting Agency. It also referred to other studies that had observed erosion of northern parts wherever ports came up.
This prompted locals, including experts, to raise the issue during public hearings held in 2013. This chapter was later deleted saying that Asian Consulting Agency was not competent to conduct the study.
Now, nearly a decade later, overwhelming numbers of fisherfolk in the region attribute the erosion in areas north of Vizhinjam to the construction of the port. It was also this concern that pushed them into a do-or-die agitation that lasted over 100 days in 2022.
Second life for fishers
A loss of restraint on their part towards the latter stages of the 2022 agitation had allowed the government to clamp down on the agitating fisherfolk. Cases were foisted on hundreds of local youths forcing the Latin Church to bow before the government. The fisherfolk uprising against the Vizhinjam port soon acquired the tragic aura of a failed revolt.
Now, with the MoEFCC asking the VISL to conduct a public hearing, the ball is once again in their court.
The MoEFCC has asked the VISL to include the issues raised by the public and also the commitments made by the project proponents in the new EIA report that will be submitted to secure the second EC. The new terms of reference (ToR) have also asked the VISL to conduct an 'erosion and accretion study' at the mouth of the creek adjacent to the project site.
The ToR also attempts to address yet another growing concern of the locals. It wants the VISL to conduct a study on the impact of the project on marine ecology and marine biodiversity with a specific focus on the corals, mangroves and mud flats in the proximity of the project site. These findings will be part of the new EIA, which in turn will be the basis for the grant of the EC for the next phase of Vizhinjam port development.
Status of Vizhinjam project
The existing EC will expire on January 3, 2024. Originally, the validity was for five years, which was till December 29, 2020. Considering COVID and other natural disaster, it was extended till January 3, 2024.
Though the government has claimed that commercial operations would begin in the first half of 2024, the overall physical progress of the Phase I work is only 65.46 per cent. During Phase I, a 3.2 km breakwater has been proposed. Not even 70 per cent is complete. Even dredging and reclamation is less than 70 per cent complete.
The 800-metre long container berth is nearly 83 percent complete but the container yard is not even 30 percent complete.
Phase II has just two components: an additional 400 metres of container terminal and an additional 200 metres of breakwater.
Phase III has four components: an additional 800 metres of container terminal, an additional 200 metres of cruise-cum-multipurpose terminal (Phase I will have 300 metres), a 250-metre liquid terminal for storing petroleum products and an additional 700 metres of breakwater.