Thursday, April 24, 2008

Port project threatens Kanyakumari’s fishermen

Kanyakumari (Tamil Nadu), sitting on a 36,000-year-old coral reef at the very tip of the subcontinent. But it could lose its pristine identity to an upgraded port, also threatening the livelihood of its fisherfolk. There are plans to set up a “mother container hub”, upgrading the tiny Colachel fishing harbour in Kanyakumari district. The site of the port is about 80 km south of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala.

Around 2,000 acres of coastal land will be taken over for the port, making the adjoining sea face unavailable for fishing communities.

“It is intriguing that the Colachel plan has been revived despite earlier opposition by people’s movements to the proposal,” Sudarshan Rodriguez, senior research associate with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), told IANS.

“Also, two other ports - Vallarpadam and Vizhingyam - in next door Kerala, very close to Colachel, are already being developed by the government.”

“After the Sethusamudram canal, this seems to be yet anther project not making either environmental or economic sense and, more importantly, severely affecting the livelihoods and the very survival of fisher folk,” he pointed out.

Kanyakumari district is home to nearly 1.7 million people. In 44 villages, 36,000 families are dependent on fishing. Nearly 4,000 hectares of land is under inland fishing.

“Colachel has always been a fishing harbour. The livelihood of most people around this harbour is fisheries dependent,” Ossie Fernandes, convenor of Coastal Action Network, an umbrella organization for 7,000 fishing hamlets on the Tamil Nadu coast, told IANS.

People here took to trawler fishing in a big way, until in the 1990s, he explained, “when fishermen with small boats began to assert their rights to the marine wealth in these waters”.

“This is a harbour for sustainable fishing and development. If 2,000 acres and the related sea front becomes a container port open to international shipping, just imagine the displacement that will take place for the fishing community,” he added.

The area has already seen two massive statues built over the decades - moves that conservationists called a blow to the pristine beauty of the place.

With an area of 1,672 sq km, it has about 70 km of shoreline on the west coast, beginning at the Vivekananda Rock. On this rock, in 1893, early Indian nationalist Vivekananda sat in meditation.

Not to be outdone, the DMK put up a massive memorial to Tamil saint Thiruvalluvar at the site in 2000.

And now comes the Colachel port project.

On April 17, the Rajya Sabha was told that “non-major ports are under the overall jurisdiction of the respective state governments” and that the government of Tamil Nadu had requested permission to develop Colachal as a “major port”.

“M/s Sethusamudram Corporation has been directed to conduct Techno-Economic Feasibility Studies, prepare a detailed project report as well as environmental impact assessment studies for this purpose”, Shipping Minister T.R. Baalu, who is from the DMK, said in a written reply in the house.

On April 18, the secretary in the department of shipping, A.P.V.N. Sarma, made a site visit and told the media that “2,000 acres of coastal land will be needed” for the container terminal, destined to become “one of the world’s eight major cargo-handling ports”.

Earlier the central government’s Sethusamudram project off the Tamil Nadu coast had run into controversy with conservationists and Hindu right-wingers. The project involves dredging a canal in the narrow strip of sea between India and Sri Lanka. Environmental groups opposed it, saying it would destroy the fragile ecosystem of the area.

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