Thiruvananthapuram: The arrival of the first ‘ship’ at the Vizhinjam International Seaport in October 2023 created a flutter with the Kerala government and politicians, cutting across party lines, taking credit for the state’s big infrastructure development.
The ‘ship’ from China, which docked at Vizhinjam on October 15, carried a gantry crane to handle containers for the under-construction port. But the fanfare with which it was welcomed created the impression that actual cargo movements would soon begin at the much-publicised seaport.
A soon-to-be-released extensive study, ‘Impact of the Vizhinjam International Seaport on the Beaches, Coastal Sea, Biodiversity, and the Livelihoods of Fishing Communities in Thiruvananthapuram District’, attempts to bust the government's claims about the completion of port’s construction.
The report, prepared by prominent scientists, disaster management experts and social scientists under the banner of Janakeeya Padana Samithi (People’s Study Panel), comprehensively analyses the Vizhinjam issue besides providing long-term remedial measures.
The Janakiya Padana Samithi is chaired by Dr. K.V. Thomas, Former Scientist G (Chief Scientist) and Group Head, National Centre for Earth Science Studies (NCESS), Thiruvananthapuram and Former Dean, Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies, Kochi. Besides the chair, the team comprised experts in various fields including fisheries, coastal ecology, and disaster management.
When will the port become operational?
Examining the availability of various facilities that need to be in place before a seaport becomes operational, the report states that Vizhinjam port will not be ready for full-fledged operations even by 2025. The government had stated that commercial operations would begin in May 2024.
It states that just completing the breakwater to provide berthing facilities for vessels does not mean that the port is ready for commercial operations.
A submission to the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) by the Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited on August 24, 2023, stated that the breakwater construction is only 62 percent complete, though the work began eight years ago. It also stated that the project’s Phase 1 will be completed in December 2024, which is five years behind schedule.
A commercial transhipment sea port terminal requires a comprehensive and integrated approach, encompassing not only berths and anchorage but also a range of infrastructure, equipment, services and regulatory compliance measures to facilitate efficient and secure cargo handling, storage and transportation. These facilities are not yet ready at Vizhinjam.
Requirements to start operations
To launch commercial operations, the port should have:
1. Berths and wharf to facilitate loading and unloading the cargo
2. Navigational aids to ensure safe navigation for vessels entering and exiting the port and maintain proper Channel depth to accommodate larger vessels and prevent groundings.
3. Safe anchoring areas for vessels to wait before entering the port
4. Adequate cargo handling equipment, such as cranes, forklifts and conveyor system for efficient loading and unloading of containers
5. Container yards and warehouses for temporary storage of cargo before it is further transported to its destination.
6. Customs and inspection facilities
7. Security measures
8. Efficient road, rail and air connectivity to and from the port for seamless movement of cargo to the hinterlands
9. Trained and skilled personnel for operating the port effectively
10. Environmental regulations to mitigate potential environmental impact.
So the panel notes that the high-profile inauguration of the port in October, spending Rs 66 lakh, is "akin to opening a shopping mall while its shelves are being built".
Eminent historian Ramachandra Guha will release the report in Thiruvananthapuram on World Fisheries Day on November 21.
Status of Vizhinjam project
The existing environment clearance (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 percent. During Phase I, a 3.2 km breakwater has been proposed. Not even 70 percent is complete. Even dredging and reclamation is less than 70 percent 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.