Perilous port

Proposed seaport in Vizhinjam can spell disaster for fishers, tourism and biodiversity in Kerala

By M Suchitra
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Perilous port

More than 20,000 fisher families live in 11 villages in the vicinity of the proposed project site

Despite warnings, the Kerala government has decided to go ahead with the construction of Vizhinjam seaport which, according to marine experts, would be an ecological disaster. The international container transshipment terminal, highlighted as a dream project that would bring huge investments, would not contribute to economic development of the state either, say finance experts.

The Rs 6,595 crore project was showcased in Emerging Kerala, a global investor’s meet held recently in Kochi. The terminal would act as a cargo switching point for deep-sea vessels operating on trans-continental trade routes. The state will soon call international tenders for engineering, procurement and construction contract worth Rs 1,600 crore. The project is being implemented by the Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited (VISL), a special purpose company formed by the state government. In 2009, the government had chosen International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank Group as lead transaction adviser to assist in structuring and implementing the project.

“The Kerala government is committed to clear all hurdles and realise this project fast,” says K Babu, the state ports minister. An environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) study has just been completed by the Asian Consulting Engineers Private Limited, an accredited agency hired by VISL, and a public hearing would be called soon, says the minister. Civil works will begin once the government gets clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

The site is 18 km from the Malacca strait, which is one of the busiest international shipping channels, and the sea water along the southern coast of Kerala near Vizhinjam has a natural depth of up to 22 meters. These two factors will enable the port attract big container ships, says A S Suresh Babu, chief executive officer of VISL. “At present, almost 40 per cent of India’s transshipment is done at the Colombo port in Sri Lanka. If the Vizhinjam port is built, it can contribute significantly to the container transshipment business of the country,” he says. Since the seabed is rocky, the port does not need maintenance dredging either, he adds.


Nearly 80 hectares (ha) of the sea would have to be reclaimed and about 85 ha of land would be purchased for the project. VISL has already spent Rs 260 crore on purchasing some of the land from private parties and has completed the last stretch of a road leading to the port site, even though a clearance for the project from MoEF is awaited. The company even called tenders last year for a private operator and a consortium led by Welspun Infratech Limited (India) qualified. But the firm demanded Rs 470 crore for operating the port for 15 years and the negotiations failed. “After completing the construction we will again call tenders to finalise the private operator,” says the ports minister.

Ecological nightmare

The proposed port site is just 250 metres south of the ever-busy Vizhinjam fishing harbour. This would spell doom for the booming fishing industry and the marine biodiversity of the region. Over 20,000 fisher families live in 11 villages close to the site. Fishers say they will lose their means of livelihood if the government goes ahead with the ambitious project. Marine experts warn the port would damage the ecologically fragile coastal belt of southern Kerala, hurt the marine fauna and flora, change the shoreline and erode the popular Kovalam beach north of the project site.

Just like Vizhinjam, Adimalathurai, a village south of the port site, too, is an important fish landing centre. “If the port is built here, the area will come under the port authorities and fishers will be denied access to the sea,” says T Peter, the state president of Kerala Swathanthra Matsya Thozhilali Federation, an independent federation of fishers.

Marine scientists say that underwater rock dredging, rock removal, reclamation of sea, sand mining, construction of breakwater and quay walls for the port and the resulting pollution will cause substantial damage to the coastline and the fisheries resources. “The affected coastline will most likely extend to 10 km north and south of the proposed port,” says Sanjeev Ghosh, former additional director of the department of fisheries of the Kerala government. He points out that the Wadge Bank, the main fishing ground in southern India, is just 50 km off the Vizhinjam coast. “It is a breeding ground for over 200 varieties of fish and is the largest coral reef of the Indian Ocean,” he says.

The Wadge Bank is home to more than 60 species of ornamental fish and other oceanic animals. Commercially important fish such as squids, cuttle fish, carangids, tuna, anchovies and lobsters are abundant there. Ghosh wrote a letter to MoEF on July 10, 2012, pointing out the ecological importance of the area. “Wadge bank is currently being considered to be classified as a Marine Protected Area. The government should take the opinion of marine experts before going ahead with the project,” he wrote.

K K Appukuttan, retired scientist of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in Kochi, says several endangered, threatened and protected species like Leatherback turtle, Olive Ridley turtle, black pearl oyster and dolphins have been spotted on this coast. “The construction work will cause heavy silting up leading to massive biodiversity loss.”

When questioned about the possible damage to biodiversity, Ajith S, executive engineer and head of the environment division in VISL, says, “I don’t want to make half-baked comments. Let the ESIA report be published. Those who have objections can raise them in the public hearing. There are vested interests behind the allegations,” he says.

Trouble for tourism

There are 31 beach resorts on the Vizhinjam coast. They cater mainly to foreign tourists who come here for ayurveda treatment and employ nearly 3,000 people. The resorts will go out of business once the port is built. The owners of these resorts point out the proposed port would offer only 500 jobs.

The dynamics of sea currents along the southern Kerala coast is such that any construction into the sea would erode the coast to the north of the construction and cause the sand to collect on the stretch towards the south, says Ghosh. “This trend has been noticed wherever breakwaters have been constructed,” he says. This means the Kovalam beach, just 1.5 km north of the proposed port, would get eroded. Kovalam is one of the most sought-after international tourist destinations in Kerala.


Kerala Hotels and Restaurant Association has protested the project. Of the Rs 18,000 crore generated a year by the state’s tourism sector, over 30 per cent come from the Kovalam-Vizhinjam-Poovar belt, say the owners of the resorts on the Vizhinjam coast. At least Rs 20,000 crore has been spent for developing the tourism infrastructure in this belt and all of that will go waste if the resorts are shut due to the port development, says M R Narayanan, secretary general of the South Kerala Hoteliers’ Forum.

The hoteliers also allege that VISL has falsified the facts to get clearance for the project from MoEF. The firm had hired L&T Ramboll, a leading consultancy firm in the country, for a site selection study in 2004. “The study says there are only three resorts in the project area,” says Cyriac Kodath of Coconut Bay, a resort that falls within the project area. VISL seeks ESIA approval in the public hearing based on this study. The study does not say a thing about the possible environmental damage, biodiversity destruction and the peculiar erosion pattern in the southern coast, allege the hoteliers.

A debt trap for Kerala?

The proposed port is a public-private-partnership. The state will take up the civil work—sea reclamation, dredging, rock removal construction of breakwater and quay wall, land acquisition, road and rail connectivity and ensure water and power supply. The private party will just bear the expenses for superstructure of the port which includes cranes and equipment. Of the total revenue generated, the private party will collect cargo charges and the state will get vessel charges. Projections based on market studies show that the private player will make an estimated Rs 21,346 crore over 30 years that it would operate the port, leaving the state with a paltry Rs 2,181 crore.

This means the government would bear 80 per cent of the Rs 6,595 crore to be spent on the project but would collect only 10 per cent of the total revenue generated from the port. Not only is the idea illogical but would come at a very high cost to the public exchequer. The advisory body of the project, IFC, has itself warned the government against the project.

It submitted a report, “Vizhinjam : Strategic Options”, to the state government in 2010 that warns the project could push Kerala into a debt trap, considering the huge cost involved and the low returns for the state. The report says that being new in the business, the port would attract ships only if it gives at least 40 per cent concession over the charges in the Colombo port in Sri Lanka.

Interestingly, all the local political parties and people’s groups like Janapaksham strongly support the project. They insist the project would pave way for regional development. But the IFC report clearly says Vizhinjam will have stiff competition from Dubai, Singapore and Colombo ports. It also says that since the focus is on transshipment, the project will not contribute much to regional economic development.

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  • Comprehensive Article and

    Comprehensive Article and Firm in its Assessment.

    It is even more worrying that one of the reports by the IFC suggests to the Kerala Govt to call this port as "Gods own Port". Really an eye opener to the real agenda behind this development constantly called as a "dream project".

    If one takes into account the present condition of Vallarpadam, which had to recieve cabotage waiver to continue business, then it is doubtful that these port operators will ever make Vizhinjam Port a success. The project is an unviable loss to the state.

    Environmental damage and impact on fishing would be a real concern from this construction. We must consider why a few local groups and politicians are blindly supporting this project. Modern ports do not employ many people. There are some jobs but then it is unlikely that fishermen communities will recieve them.

    I wish the government would spend this much money on something that the people would benefit. Look at the waste problem in Trivandrum.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • It is sad to see the

    It is sad to see the Government trying to destroy the thriving industry of tourism in Vizhinjam and Kovalam. It is even sadder to take part in a special meeting organised by experts from IFC and only to be prevented from voicing our concerns properly. The real question is how VISL and IFC could invite us for a sorry excuse of a stakeholder grievance meeting and purposefully arrange about 30 people to shout and prevent affected parties from speaking.

    Tourism in Vizhinjam and Kovalam is based on the natural beauty and the beaches here. It is a laughable concept to hear so called industry ÔÇ£cheerÔÇØ-leaders who are in no way connected to the project voicing blind support. There is a need for transparency and informing the affected community and the public at large about the true nature of this project.

    There is a bias within this study and the impact on tourism has been portrayed in a very light manner. VISL officials are involved in trying to create false impressions of "development" and refuse to answer how many direct jobs the port would bring in. The same officials allege that vested interests are the reason why environmentalists question the impact on marine resources and biodiversity and that there will be no erosion upon Kovalam or further northwards before a shoreline impact study is even completed.

    It is also amazing to hear people groups who supposedly represent the fishermen community support the project. Several members also recommended that there is no further need for the studies and that within a few years all the fishermen will get jobs as Engineers in the port. The reality is far from this.

    Honestly it is the duty of the Malayalam media to inform the people about this reality.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Very well written!!! Trouble

    Very well written!!!

    Trouble for tourism, ecology and above all for fishermen Community !!!

    Let us fight to make Kerala a beautiful Museum and serve it to the coming generation... Let them go & work at the Dubai port make money for us... Let us live as a parasite for ever...

    But my humble request is not make the fishermen an instrument for establishing you theories...

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear friends, In the current

    Dear friends,

    In the current situation, country like India which is emerging in all sectors and becoming a major player in international market, there are certain factors country need to have, like high skilled man power, infrastructure, good transportation etc. When people in india have to depend on outside community for basic things like education, job, vehicles, dress, communication, equipments like gun, missiles to aircrafts etc foreign countries do have commanding power over the nation. They decide how things should happen in country. Only way to be free our self from foreign strength is to become self sufficient. people should become educated, country should have its own production companies in all sectors.

    About Vizhinjam, its only 1 of the many projects country needs for the future generation. For the last 50+ years what ever goods people in india need are brought through dubai, singapore or colombo like dress, vehicles, manufacturing goods, tv, toys, what ever you name it. For example, if the country that sells a toy for 100rs, they load it in a ship it will go to dubai/singapore/colombo, from there it will be loaded to another ship which will carry to mumbai/kolkata/kochi. From there in train or goods vehicle it will take to different parts of country. When it reach the hands of consumer that toy will cost 150 to 200 rs. Hope you can understand the wealth the container port/country earns if one looks at dubai/singapore. When our country will have a port we can directly bring goods from producer there by goods price will be reduced and also do the work dubai/singapore is now doing. If one looks deep and try to understand why millions of men/women leave there home and travel to countries like dubai/singapore/australia/usa/britian for a job. how and from where is those country produce that many jobs?

    through Vizhinjam, India will have the deepest port in the world which can even accommodate the biggest container ship in the world which is under construction.

    Its necessary to hear those people who stand against having a vizhinjam container terminal. there points like fisherman losing there jobs, people losing land, resorts losing business, life's living in water get effected etc are very valid and an alternate way need to be find out for each and every thing and that no one have a loss. Development should happen, its for every single men in this country, at the same time nature have to preserved, people have to be taken care.

    There is a solution for every problem. The one who handles should be capable of making the right moves. those kind of people are less in our country, its that much less that there is only one grand master Viswananth in india.

    There are many countries in this world which takes care of nature and constructed container terminals and fishing community also lives with out problem. Ports like kingston, ghana, sana, sines, tema, aden and few more can be studied to understand how those countries take care of nature, people, business community and developed world class infrastructure. when country start using the natural resources in right way, there will be a change in every life that exist and those life yet to come.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The international Ombudsman

    The international Ombudsman has arrived in Kerala to investigate these complaints.

    There is reports that rock blasting will be needed for port construction. Where will the traditional fishermen who are in the Vizhinjam area go for their livelihood.

    The media channels and newspapers are saying that the resort lobby is trying to stop the port. Why is nobody understanding that the real question is what will all the staff who are working in the tourism sector do.

    No one is concerned about the resort owners who are going to get compensated. But there is a real issue of where a large work force of workers are going to work once these resorts are shut down.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • In my humble opinion, this

    In my humble opinion, this port is a total waste of public money. The project is financially unviable and will not generate jobs as promised. Ports have a very long gestation period, and especially in Kerala the impact of a strike or trade union agitation can send a damaging signal to the motherships that government is hoping to attract.

    Instead, let us forget all sense and sensibility. Let us blindly follow our leaders who are going to give us development and this Dream Project which will solve all our problems.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The problem with these kind

    The problem with these kind of projects is that there will always be some behind the curtain agendas. A clear example is waste management plants in Kerala always fail so that new orders for new projects and plants can be given for latest technology.

    Then there will be some other interests involved where actual deserving people are sidelined and silenced and whatever benefits flow to a small minority like the ration system where BPL families who should be getting rice for Re 1 and Rs 2 per kg do not get anything. The rice meant for them is sold in the black market.

    The problem with Vizhinjam is that there is massive expenditure in construction works which is the real dream for many.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The Vizhinjam Fishing

    The Vizhinjam Fishing community will be permanently affected and displaced. There is no doubt in my mind about this reality

    Recently I saw this link on youtube.

    I feel the story is very much accurate. India and especially Kerala is not a place where rehabilitation is done properly. Moolampalli evictees are still struggling for their livelihood.

    Vizhinjam Port will result in increased hardships for the fishing community as a result of the drinking water shortage in the area. It is only a matter of time before all the fishermen realise the serious negative impacts they will face from this project.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I read in the Hindu that the

    I read in the Hindu that the government is planning to build a cruise terminal to improve tourism here. I was working for 8 years with a well known cruise liner before deciding to retire and come home to Trivandrum. The cruise business has a few serious drawbacks ÔÇô several anti social activities are rampant on vessels because while at sea, there is no danger of police or being raided. Several of my colleagues contracted AIDS due to their mistakes in the course of work. The same passengers, when they arrive at a port, engage in a day's visit to many places in and around the local area. There is a very high possibility that Trivandrum will suffer an AIDS explosion once cruise liners arrive with their tourists. Secondly, in places like Singapore where there is strict regulation, cruise liners are careful not to discharge their wastes or dump anything into the sea. However you can be sure that to save money and for their objectives this will not be followed in Kerala. I have seen the same cruise liners with certificates of environmental best practices dumping all their wastes without any remorse.

    The overall potential for cruise terminal is low here, Cruise passengers look for night clubs and midnight parties when they arrive at a new location. They are rarely considerate about local customs or social importance of the traditional people.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • After travelling all over

    After travelling all over Kerala and seeing the beauty of our state, I have come to the conclusion that one of the most beautiful places in the entire state is the Kovalam-Vizhinjam-Poovar stretch. The area is so fantastic to witness a sunset and to just walk on the beach.

    Should we really destroy such a beautiful place, There is not one Malayalee in the world today that believes this port will be run without polluting the entire area. Our governments are always making big promises.

    Really it is a Gods gift and a true example of Gods own country. No one can deny that.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The Vizhinjam area is known

    The Vizhinjam area is known for its epidemic threats and highly polluted drinking water supply. Malaria and epidemic outbreaks is a well known phenomenon here. Health and hygiene is a foregone conclusion with zero sanitation for the residents of the fishing harbour. There is severe water shortage in Vizhinjam. It is almost like 10,000 people stuck in a desert. How can someone blindly propose an activity such as a port which will consume all the water available in the area? A comprehensive draw down test must be conducted to assess the water resource availability which is already known to be scarce, given the consumption demands for the port.

    This is a dangerous activity that has potentially permanent and irreversible social implications. I would request the experts conducting the study to study these aspects of environmental impacts in detail.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Vizhinjam project is not

    Vizhinjam project is not viable. I read in a PPT online that that the project Advisor IFC has written that the Port will not generate much revenues for the state. Also, it was mentioned in the report that the main business for Vizhinjam will come from Cochin traffic that will now be rerouted to Vizhinjam. Colombo-level business will never be achieved due to massive competition and the advantages of already being established in Colombo.

    Where is the need for one more un-viable port in Kerala, just 200 km from Vallarpadam. I believe that recently there was a big hue and cry about cabotage waiver being given to transhipment in Vallarpadam. Cabotage waiver is not an achievement, it is an indicator of a massive failure of Kerala's port sector to operate viably within the market framework.

    The student has failed the exam and grace marks are being given to continue. In spite of these realities, the govt wants to go ahead with Vizhinjam. Cabotage waiver with the new security requirement to scan all containers will prove of no use. There is no scope for Vizhinjam to be able to get the same cabotage waiver and most importantly in the case of Vizhinjam the student is asking for grace marks before even writing the exam.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • There is one aspect of the

    There is one aspect of the Environmental Impact Study that is clearly mentioned in this article that is very important. The resulting shoreline changes. Indian Express had carried an article where it was mentioned that an RTI reply revealed that the Shoreline Study was not yet completed.

    This is a case of very bad environmental management and judicious public expenditure. The southern tip of Kerala is prone to littoral drift and Erosion as a common phenomenon. A visit to Poonthura will make one realize this aspect. The problems of Poonthura and areas in and around this region started once the Vizhinjam Fishing Harbour was built. The Vizhinjam port if built will cause massive cumulative shoreline impacts including erosion.

    The Pondicherry Citizens Action Network (PONDYCAN) and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) with National Coastal Protection Campaign (NCPC)and BNHS had recently released a report on the cumulative impact of ports in India and their shoreline changes. This information is new to the Environmental Impact Assessment Data so far released or considered. The MOEF will necessarily have to call for the consideration of this information as the cumulative impact of the ports in India leads one to question the rationale of the Vizhinjam Port. No agency has conducted as comprehensive a study as the report prepared by the above groups.

    The report is available here

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Why all these are not

    Why all these are not applicable to Tuticorin port or the one planned in AP or WB ?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • This project conducted a

    This project conducted a public hearing last month in Vizhinjam which was a total display of goondaism. Friends we are not against development but several vested groups are trying to create a false impression of support for this project in the name of fishermen and locals. And not allowing genuine people to speak.

    The local fishermen and residents are opposed to the project in full manner but lobbies of the real estate and land brokers are playing behind the scenes creating a false support impression. What is the need for these threats in a democracy. If anyone has the video of the public hearing I request you to upload the same in the youtube etc.

    Hope this disaster never becomes reality. 10 years back all the media proclaimed that Vallarpadam would be the greatest port in India with Transhipment and bring great development for Kerala. Today the same newspapers are writing the loss to State is 1000s of Crore and counting. Why the experts are making fools of the people here. This project is bad for the local community and State Budget.

    Already one road constructed has totally dried the ground water wells in the region. I feel sorry for the people going to be affected.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Clearly, Cochin Port isn't

    Clearly, Cochin Port isn't profitable because its far from the international shipping route and is not even considered as an option by the bigger vessels that continue to prefer Colombo. Here is why an International Harbour in Trivandrum makes more sence due to its proximity to the ISR. A major port in TVM will provide enough competition to Colombo which by the way handles almost 85% of the container transport within South Asia. So with a decent infrastructure in place TVM will attract a major portion of that because India contributes to over 70% of the container transhipment at the colombo port. India also is the biggest consumer and manufacturer in South Asia.

    Concerns about tourism and fisher men getting affected is pointless. Please go to places like Dubai, Singapore or Beirut and you'll see major mega ports, fishing harbours and tourist beaches all functioning peacefully in close proximity! All it takes is some sensible planning and sure fishermen and tourists will not be affected by the port. And also, those 500 new jobs mentioned is not true. A major port will employ over 1500 direct staff and many other temporary workers. Several other adjascent businesses will spring up in and around the port that will employ thousands. So we are talking about employment opportunities to atleast 200000 people apart from the millions we save from not using the Colombo Port.

    So we can either make use of this opportunity OR keep worrying about fishermen who by the way will lose nothing if planned properly.

    I strongly think TVM Port should be opened ASAP even if that means they close down the enitre maritime operations in Cochin, which by the way, is still on loss even after 30 years!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
    • The port should be developed in Vizhinjam. Period.

      Posted by: Anonymous | 6 months ago | Reply
  • Agree. The port should come

    Agree. The port should come up. Let us do not allow the vested interests to destroy the project.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
    • The port has to come up,

      Posted by: Thelappillil Kurian Linson | 4 years ago | Reply