I closed my eyes, taking in the soft breeze that flows from the Arabian Sea, moving through and over the crashing waves. The rumble of lorries carrying tonnes and tonnes of heavy rocks to the seashore forms a droning buzz, as the ground bakes under the hot sun. This is Vizhinjam since the beginning of port construction. Mere months ago, Vizhinjam was one of the many small fishing villages which dot the beaches of Thiruvananthapuram. Today, it is a site of displacement and upheaval.
25 years ago, Government of Kerala approved Vizhinjam Port, a deepwater, international seaport project (you read that correctly – a quarter of a century ago) that only found a bidder in the infamous Adani Group in this past June. The same Adani Group that was forced to shut down in Gujarat for violating environmental guidelines, that has been noted for its close ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and happens to be the only bidder for a highly risky investment which “not many credible and experienced investors will be willing to bid for”.
Did I mention the project’s been greenlit for ₹7,525 crores? Because when you know that, you start to understand what’s underlying the Government of Kerala’s baffling decision to sanction a project that will quite literally run the state into debt with little prospect of realising any profit. This is big money.
The Government of Kerala has justified this massive expenditure by pointing out India’s lack of deep-water ports that can handle trans-shipping and international shipping needs as well as India’s reliance on ports in other countries like Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia which could one day become, geopolitically problematic. Vizhinjam has a naturally deep draft of 21-24 metres and is located at the tip of the Indian peninsula along international trade routes, which makes it a strong candidate for port construction. All this translates to greater control and profits with respect to imports and exports, strengthening international trade ties as well as a more ‘developed’ India.
However, the major stakeholders of the region – the fisherpeople, the tourism industry, and environmentalists – have registered strong disagreement with government actions and actively protested the project consistently over the past 25 years. Despite this, the Government of Kerala has allowed the Adani Group to begin work on Vizhinjam Port this past December. Since then, dredging and the construction of the breakwaters have been undertaken in earnest, already impacting the livelihoods of fisherpeople and tourism resorts along the Vizhinjam coastline. As work continues, further silting and erosion of the beachfront is expected as well as disruption of the already fragile ecosystem – which is not to even mention the direct human costs of displacement. Although 18,000 cases seeking rehabilitation and compensation have been filed, the government has yet to make any payouts, citing the current election as reason for delays.
Lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who is representing a fisherman near Vizhinjam, has taken these issues of government oversight to the National Green Tribunal, which oversees cases regarding environmental issues. While Bhushan’s team requested a stay on port work until the environmental impacts of the project were reassessed, the Supreme Court ruled instead that work would continue and that Adani Group and the Government of Kerala would be held responsible for “restoring the environment to its original position if the court thought it fit to interfere with construction activity”. Any indication of how this sort of time travel would occur was not included in the ruling.
Even a brief investigation into the Vizhinjam Port project makes it starkly clear that no one within the state of Kerala stands to benefit. As Adani Group will be bringing in their own trained employees, the net job creation for Keralites is estimated at around 2,000. Compare that to the estimated 50,000 fisherpeople who stand to lose their livelihoods. Additionally, the thriving tourism industry, which has had heavy government investment and seen substantial, profitable returns stands to lose around 30 resorts, thousands of jobs and crores in revenues as The Hindu reports.
Additionally, the Kerala government has agreed to undertake the costs of all civil work under the public-private partnership model and will also be responsible for underwriting the rehabilitation and payment packages for displaced populations. And of course, when I say the ‘Government of Kerala’, I don’t mean the politicians who have approved these laws – when I say the ‘Government of Kerala’ here, I mean the taxpayers of this state who will be subsidising a private enterprise, the taxpayers who will not be receiving any profits of this venture, the taxpayers who will not be able to get jobs through this project, the taxpayers who will be left with a destroyed environment in a state that is already suffering from the impacts of ‘development’.
And it’s this word ‘development’ which prevents politicians and taxpayers and Indian citizens from standing up and questioning these kinds of decisions which stand to profit the very few at the very top. Because from the very beginning of our independence, we’ve been striving to reach the status of others, to reach a state of ‘development’. And that goal is very, very vague and very, very illusory.
You see, I’m an economics major. I’ve sat through these classes which explain away the uprooting of peoples, the destruction of land, the ever-increasing wrath of nature by using one simple word: ‘development’. And I’ve noticed that there is something undeniably seductive about the word – it seems to contain hope, progress, change, a brighter future – all within four syllables.
And this seductive idea of a better tomorrow, a prouder tomorrow – is what has allowed the Vizhinjam Port to continue work in Kerala despite the fact that those who stand to gain are very few and very removed and that the project represents heedless, government-sanctioned destruction of an already fragile ecosystem in a state that is currently experiencing drought and intense heat waves. No one is ready to challenge the assumptions of development, the hope that it provides for India.
And I’m not saying that all development is bad – quality public education, gender equality, structurally sound housing for all – all these can be positive if done carefully and with justice, all these can take us to that better tomorrow. But Vizhinjam Port? I don’t think that that’s what development should look like and I don’t think that’s what takes us to a better tomorrow.