Today's Editorial

03 November 2016

Contradiction in terms



Source: By Sam Rajappa: The Statesman



Colachel is a historical natural port on the Arabian Sea coast, 20 km from Nagercoil, and district headquarters of Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. In the early days of European colonialism, the Portuguese and the Dutch vied with each other to take control of Colachel. It was part of the princely State of Travancore. The navy of the Dutch East India Company led by Admiral Eustachius D’Lanoy captured Colachel and moved into the hinterland as far as Padmanabhapuram, then capital of Travancore. King Marthanda Varma led his army in Colachel from the north-west, defeated the Dutch marines and took D’Lanoy prisoner of war on 10 August 1741. A pillar erected to commemorate the victory of Travancore against an European power, still stands at the entrance to the old Colachel port. Impressed by the valour of Marthanda Varma’s army, D’Lanoy offered to serve the king and ended as the Valiya Kappithan (Chief Admiral) of the Travancore Navy.


A draft of 20 metres close to the coastline and its proximity to international shipping lanes makes Colachel an ideal place to be developed into a major port. Caught in linguistic and political cross-currents, Colachel remained a neglected minor port since independence. Feasibility reports to convert it into a major port were prepared in 1998, 2000 and 2010 as it is hardly four nautical miles from the international East-West shipping route through which large container ships pass, but nothing came of it due to political neglect. The Congress had virtually given up Tamil Nadu ever since power passed into the hands of the DMK and the AIADMK almost half a century ago. Neither of the Dravidian parties could sink roots in Kanyakumari, the most literate district of Tamil Nadu. They too left Kanyakumari out of their developmental agenda.


Therefore, it came as a big surprise when the BJP government of Narendra Modi on 5 July issued a press release stating “the Cabinet approves setting up of an ultra-major port at Enayam, near Colachel”. The BJP drew a blank in the May election to the Tamil Nadu Assembly. The release said a Special Purpose Vehicle was being formed for the development of the port with initial equity investment by the three major ports in Tamil Nadu -- the Chennai Port Trust, Kamarajar Port Limited, Chennai, and the VO Chidambaranar Port Trust, Tuticorin. Subsequently, Parliament has been informed that the proposed deep sea trans-shipment port proposed to be developed will entail a cost of Rs 27,570 crore and work will start soon. It was also reported that the Prime Minister, along with the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, would lay the foundation stone for this mega project. There were also reports that an Indian conglomerate has started building a deep sea trans-shipment port in Vizhinjam, 30 km north-west of Colachel on the Kerala coast, at a cost of Rs 7,500 crore and that the Union government was granting Rs 1,600 crore as viability gap funding. The Prime Minister has stated that Vizhinjam will not affect Colachel and that both projects will function well. International clients were being offered discounts to attract cargo to both these ports.


Even three months after the announcement, there is no sign of the foundation stone-laying ceremony in Colachel while work is progressing in Vizhinjam. Questions raised under the RTI Act on whether the Union Cabinet has given formal sanction for the Colachel port costing Rs 27,500 crore evoked negative response. The government has not released even a rupee for the project so far. No detailed project report has been prepared so far nor any land acquired for the project. Environmental Impact Assessment and Social Impact Assessment are yet to be completed. Nevertheless, Pon Radhakrishnan, Union minister of shipping and Lok Sabha member from Kanyakumari district, based on the ‘in-principle approval’ by the Union Cabinet, has become hyperactive. He got TYPSA Consulting Engineers and Architects, through the VO Chidambaranar Port Trust, to study the techno-economic feasibility of developing Colachel into a major port. The earlier studies on the project are gathering dust in the corridors of the shipping ministry. But his agenda is somewhat different. In the name of Colachel, he wants the project to come up in nearby Enayam, centre of the fishing industry in Kanyakumari. He tweaked TYPSA to produce a tailor-made report to shift the location of the project from Colachel to Enayam.


To hide the shifting the location, he christened the project Colachel Port at Enayam. Colachel port can only be in Colachel. TYPSA went through the motions of studying the entire Kanyakumari coastline, identified four possible locations and zeroed in on Enayam, the most populated fishing village. Sandwiched between the fishing hamlets of Puthanthurai and Thenkapattanam in the north-west and Helen Nagar, Melmidalam, Midalam, Karumpanai, Vanyakudi, Kodimunai, Panavilai and Simon Colony in the south-east, people of this heavily populated area will have to be evacuated and resettled. All these villages will be permanently lost during the construction and operation of the project if Enayam was chosen instead of Colachel. The population of these villages is entirely made up of Catholics and Muslims. The fishing industry is a major contributor to the district’s economy. It will be ruined.


Unlike Colachel’s soft sea bed and least inhabited seafront to its entire south-east, the Enayam coast and sea bed are rocky, making dredging extremely difficult. Speaking on the economic analysis of the proposed port in Enayam at a recent seminar in Chennai, Sahitya Akademi Award winner and shipping consultant Joe D’Cruz said the sea around was vulnerable to natural calamities and the marine ecology would be destroyed if the project was implemented. Enayam is highly prone to sea turbulence, including tsunamis, said D’Cruz. Due to strong and continuous south-west water currents, artificial breakwaters would have to be constructed at Enayam where the sea is always turbulent. The available draft is only 18 metres whereas the requirement to berth large container ships is 20 metres. In the face of all the adverse factors, Enayam is least suited for the proposed major port but Radhakrishnan insists on Enayam, which comes under the Killiyur Assembly constituency. His plan is to change the demographic profile of Killiyur by resettling the fisher community numbering about 100,000 inhabiting Enayam and neighbouring villages in the hinterland which comes under the adjacent Vilavancode Assembly constituency, a Congress stronghold. The BJP’s candidate in Killiyur alone in the district was able to retain his security deposit in the May election. Radhakrishnan thinks he can make Killiyur safe for the BJP by this demographic change.

India has 72 sea ports of which 13 are classified as major ports and 10 as intermediate ports, but the country lacks a master plan for the development of ports. It needs to be addressed before clearing any new port. Vallarpadam container transshipment port next to Kochi port could achieve only 40 per cent capacity in the last five years of operation and has been running at a loss.  Another container trans-shipment port is already coming up at Vizhinjam on the Kerala coast hardly 30 km from Enayam. Hinterland connectivity is much more important than just putting up a port, which is badly lacking. Envisaged as a gateway container trans-shipment hub for cargo moving to and from India along one of the world’s major shipping lanes connecting the Suez Canal to East Asia, Colachel at Enayam, a contradiction in terms, is being projected as a competitor to Colombo, Dubai and Singapore. Given the fact that Vallarpadam, almost in the same shipping lane, has not been able to compete with Colombo, let alone Dubai and Singapore, it would be a challenging task to attract traffic for the new port. With close proximity to Vizhinjam which has a head start and Vallarpadam already in place, whether the Colochel at Enayam trans-shipment hub with a huge investment of Rs 27,570 crore can be justified in terms of traffic it aims to attract, is debatable. With global trade still becalmed by the worldwide economic slowdown, the outlook for container shipping remains cloudy. There is a pressing need for India to develop a cohesive strategy for holistic development of the port sector.