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Protest at Vizhinjam port construction hampers India’s container transhipment ambitions

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THIRUVANANTHPURAM : The Adani Group-helmed Vizhinjam International Deepwater Multipurpose Seaport, already delayed by over two years due to a agitation, is facing a protest led by those who preach the word of God, putting to test the country’s ability to build signature infrastructure projects such as the upcoming container transhipment terminal near Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram.

n August, more than six years after Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd (APSEZ) started construction on the Rs 5,552 crore port in December 2015, fisherfolk groups backed by the influential Latin Catholic Archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram launched an agitation at the construction site, alleging that the project had resulted in intense shore/coastal erosion on the northern side of the port, affecting their livelihood.

The agitation stopped the construction work from 16 August.

The protests erupted around the time when Mr. Karan Adani, Chief Executive Officer of APSEZ met Kerala Ports Minister Ahamed Devarkovil on 24 July in Thiruvananthapuram to discuss the progress of the project after which Ahamed said that the first phase of the Vizhinjam port will be commissioned by September next year.

The protestors are demanding that work on Vizhinjam port should be halted till a fresh scientific study is undertaken on environmental and social aspects.

Those tracking the marquee project suspect an “external hand” in the protests, pointing to Chinese interests in Colombo Port to thwart India’s attempt to build the Vizhinjam container transhipment port.

“Intelligence agencies are closely watching the agitation; foreigners have been spotted near the site,” said a reliable source.

China played a similar trick to jeopardise India’s bid to develop the East Container Terminal (ECT) in Colombo Port by allegedly provoking Sri Lankan port workers to oppose the deal.

Following this, India had to settle for developing the West Container Terminal at Colombo Port with APSEZ winning the government-to-government deal last year.

Officials overseeing the construction of the port termed the protesters’ claim on beach erosion as “baseless” without any scientific backing.

“They have hijacked the project and are holding the State government to ransom,” said an official.

Many studies, the official said, have concluded there is no correlation between beach erosion and the planned mega port. Shore erosion had occurred even before the port construction started, he pointed out.

Besides, the planned project was subjected to intense scrutiny by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) ahead of securing environmental and coastal regulation zone clearances in 2014 from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change.

Still, certain groups opposed to the project approached the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal between 2014 -2016, casting doubts on the studies that led to the environment clearances.

These apprehensions were set aside by the National Green Tribunal in September 2016. The NGT also tasked a 7-member expert committee comprising scientists from some of India’s top research, scientific and regulatory agencies and a 10-member shoreline monitoring cell with representatives from Kerala government bodies to oversee the work and ensure that the conditions stipulated in the environment clearance and by the NGT are being followed while implementing the project.

Vizhinjam International Seaport is thus India’s first project to be monitored directly by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) committees for its environmental and social impacts during the construction phase.

Till date, these committees have not found anything to suggest that the shore erosion at Valiyathura and Shangumugham beaches – as claimed by the protestors – are in any way linked to the construction of Vizhinjam port.

The Vizhinjam port, according to port and shipping industry sources, is best suited to cut India’s dependence on Colombo — a regional transhipment hub — to send and receive cargo containers entailing extra time and costs for exporters and importers.

Annually, around 3 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of India-bound cargo containers are transhipped at neighbouring country ports especially Colombo, Singapore, and other regional ports, according to government estimates. Colombo, Singapore, and Port Klang handle more than 85 percent of this with Colombo alone handling about 2.5 million TEUs.

“Given the extra port handling charges incurred at the transhipment hubs, transhipment of cargo results in logistic cost inefficiencies for Indian industry. The additional port handling cost is to the tune of $80-100 per TEU, which could be saved if the container was imported/exported as direct gateway cargo instead of being transhipped,” the Maritime India Vision 2030, a ten-year blueprint for the maritime sector, pointed out.

Vizhinjam is being developed as a container transhipment port with an investment of Rs 5,552 crore to compete with Colombo because its basic infrastructure such as water depth and proximity to the main shipping lane is better than Colombo — the biggest transhipment facility in the region.

Vizhinjam has 20 meters of natural water depth that allows big mother ships to dock, a key requirement for hosting a transhipment hub. Further, the port is only 12 nautical miles from the international shipping channel, giving direct access to the international trade route.

According to the concession agreement signed on August 17, 2015, Vizhinjam port was slated to start operations on December 3, 2019, which could be pushed to August 3, 2020.

Adani Vizhinjam Port Pvt Ltd (AVPPL), the APSEZ unit developing the port, has blamed force majeure events arising from acts of God such as Cyclone Ockhi, Cyclone Tauktae, the Coronavirus besides high waves and reasons attributable to government authorities for overshooting the commercial operations date (COD) set by the concession agreement for the project.

Force majeure clause absolves firms from meeting their contractual commitments for reasons beyond their control.

The economic crisis in Sri Lanka is seen as a golden chance for India to push ahead with the Vizhinjam container transhipment port and reduce its reliance on the island nation.

“By all accounts the container transhipment port at Vizhinjam is very vital for India and should come up. Each day of delay is costing the country very badly,” said a port industry consultant.

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