In Vizhinjam, fear of Hindutva bubbles over anger towards parties backing the Adani Port

A port being constructed by the Adani group is seen behind as fishermen work at Vizhinjam on the Arabian Sea coast in Kerala, on 6 December 2022. AP PHOTO
Elections 2024
26 April, 2024

In Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram, its Lok Sabha candidates are jostling to claim credit for bringing the country’s first deep-water transshipment terminal to the shores of Vizhinjam, a coastal town 15 kilometers away from the city. The official X account of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Thiruvananthapuram District Committee said that the port project had remained stagnant during the two terms of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. “Shashi Tharoor, the present Thiruvananthapuram MP and former union minister, did not lift even a little finger for this project as a board member of Vizhinjam International Transshipment Port Company since 2009,” a video released on the X account stated. Tharoor, who has been elected thrice to the Lok Sabha, is seeking yet another term to represent Thiruvananthapuram in the upcoming elections. He is competing with the BJP candidate and union skill development minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar, and the Left Democratic Front’s candidate Pannyan Raveendran, who was elected to the Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram in 2005.

In a progress report released by Tharoor’s team detailing what he has done for Thiruvananthapuram over the last 15 years, he takes credit for encouraging Adani Ports to participate in the tendering process to develop the Vizhinjam terminal. Among the reasons listed for backing the port, Tharoor’s progress report states that the port will bring significant revenue to Kerala, enhance national security and provide employment opportunities. The construction of the port began in 2015 under the United Democratic Front government led by the then chief minister Oommen Chandy. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) was strongly against the project as the principal opposition party in Kerala. After it was elected to power a year later, however, it has worked in cooperation with the Adani group to facilitate the project. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has made it clear that the port is imperative to the state’s development and cannot be abandoned at this stage.

The widespread celebration of the project is odd, however, because it has faced severe resistance from locals, many of whom will be voting in Thiruvananthapuram constituency. Since the project’s inception, there have been serious concerns about coastal erosion and the negative impact on the livelihoods of the fishing communities residing in the vicinity of the upcoming port. In 2022, the anxieties of the Vizhinjam residents had escalated into large-scale protests calling for a stop to the construction work and a coastal-impact study among other demands. The protest lasted for over a hundred and thirty days with the support of Latin Catholic priests, who mobilised their congregations. During this period, groups such as the Hindu Aikya Vedi—a member of the Sangh Parivar, or the BJP’s ideological family—led counter-protests attempting to delegitimise the concerns of fishing communities by claiming the agitation was funded by the church. Oddly, CPI(M) leaders, stridently critical of the BJP’s demonisation of religious minorities elsewhere in the country, supported the counter-protest and even shared stages with BJP leaders.

The largely peaceful agitation took a violent turn on 27 November 2022, when a section of the protesters clashed with police personnel at the Vizhinjam police station. The Kerala police registered around two hundred cases related to rioting and conspiracy against protesters including against Thomas J Netto, the archbishop of the Latin Archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram. In April 2024, the union government froze the archdiocese’s bank accounts. The active support for the Adani-developed port by the BJP and the Congress MP, in addition to the suppression of the protest by the police under the LDF government, made it evident that no mainstream political party was receptive to the concerns of Vizhinjam’s fishing communities.