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Open Letter to Adani: Wipe the Tears of Port Victims

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
05 Dec 2022
In any case, the agitation at Vizhinjam is not against the project. It is now 20 weeks since the agitation began.

Dear Shri Gautam Adani Ji,

First of all, please accept my hearty congratulations on your becoming the most successful businessman in the country, nay Asia. It is a different matter that your wealth was growing exponentially as the poor were becoming poorer, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Let me add here, I never imagined that I would ever have to write an open letter to you. 

What forced me to make an exception is my growing distress over the happenings at Vizhinjam, near Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, where you have been building a trans-shipment port which, I am told, will be the largest in India. The port will always be known after your name, not Vizhinjam, where ships, big and small, had been berthing for centuries.

Why I mention this is because your name is inextricably linked to the port project and any untoward incident at Vizhinjam is bound to tarnish your image too. I do not have to tell you about what happened on Sunday last when for the first time reports of violence emanated from Vizhinjam. I am a pacifist like Mahatma Gandhi and would never approve of violence.

I do not know whether you know about the Punnapra-Vayalar struggle in Kerala in which Communist workers were at the receiving end of the government. 

When you meet Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan next, you may like to ask him about the struggle and he will tell you how the Dewan of Travancore, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer, tried to engineer violence so that it gave him a pretext to unleash the police and the military against the workers in which at least a thousand people were killed, to quote historian Sreedhara Menon.

The strategy used on November 27, 2022, was more or less the same. Except that it was a Communist government which used strategies that reminded the people of CP, who had to leave Travancore when he himself became a victim of violence. The moral of the story is that violence begets violence and there is no end to it.

Before I proceed, let me make a disclaimer. I am not against development, though the signs of development have changed. When I came to Delhi in 1973, the Indraprastha Power Station with its towering chimneys that billowed smoke in the heart of the city was a sign of progress. It was only many years later that I realised how dangerous the power plant was for the health of the people. Thank God it was closed!

I know that your port is almost ready to receive the first ship to anchor there. It will be literally a red-letter day for Kerala, where red is the official colour. To speak against the project at this juncture is to speak against the naivety of constructing a Congressman’s statue near Vadodara at a cost of $27 billion. Let me, therefore, leave the matter there.

In any case, the agitation at Vizhinjam is not against the project. It is now 20 weeks since the agitation began. I am sure that nobody would have reported to you about the fish workers raising slogans for winding up the project. They have their seven minimum demands. Not one of them is to send you packing from Kerala. Instead, they are all humanitarian demands. I write to you because you can easily settle the problem.

True, Shri Pinarayi Vijayan could have gone to Vizhinjam, met the striking fish workers, and given them a hearing. He could surely have solved their problems in a few hours. It would have, in fact, added a feather to his cap. Instead, he preferred to remain vainglorious, little realising the damage he was causing to the Leftist ideology that he now professes for convenience.

I am sure that you know about Newton’s famous law of motion which says that “for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction”. As I mentioned, ships used to anchor at Vizhinjam because it was a natural port.

Your port is huge and it is built against the natural inclinations of the sea. The reaction is felt on the northern side of the port where soil erosion and other causes induced by the construction have deprived the fish workers of their land and houses.

In short, they are the victims of your port. They have been temporarily housed in a cement godown where each family has a cabin of 10x10 feet with an open roof. I have seen a bungalow in Lutyens Delhi that you reportedly bought. I am not foolish enough to compare your house with their camp accommodation. All I want you to do is to visit their camp and see for yourself how they live. I am sure the agitators would peacefully let you visit their camp.

I saw a video that depicts the conditions in which they live. An elderly woman was agonising over how her granddaughter lacked privacy in their cabin with Peeping Toms all around. Their living cabins also accommodated scorpions, lizards, rodents and occasional guests like cobras and pythons. They had just two toilets for 30 children, many of whom couldn’t go to school every day.

They have been living in this miserable condition for the last four years. If they have become desperate, can you blame them? Imagine how you would feel if the air-conditioning system in your private aircraft fails once it takes off. You will feel out of sorts because your tolerance level is much below that of the fish workers who live by the sweat of their brow.

You may not know these fish workers but the whole of Kerala knows them. What occasioned it was the 2018 Great Flood that visited the state. When the rains continued ceaselessly, many Christians, who grew up reading Noah’s account in the Bible, wondered whether they, too, needed to build an Ark. Fortunately, the downpour ended but not before flooding areas that were not even flood-prone.

One of my distant relatives — an elderly couple — was trapped inside the first floor of their house and there was no way they could be rescued. Their tech-savvy daughter-in-law contacted Pinarayi Vijayan’s office and she was promised help. Soon, an Indian Air Force helicopter hovered over their house at Ranny but because of trees and other obstacles, they could not be rescued aerially. 

A day or two earlier, the church bell at Vizhinjam rang and on the request of their bishop, the same fish workers set out for areas like Ranny, Chengannur, Pathanamthitta with their boats to rescue the marooned. They did not seek any reward or glory. They had to suffer loss of income and injuries. Many of their boats were damaged but they saw it as their duty. 

The whole of Kerala saluted them for their heroic action that saved the lives of many. What a misfortune that they are today called by some in the government as anti-socials. Social media are full of posts calling them and the priests providing them moral courage anarchists, if not terrorists.

If you think Vijayan was your supporter, you are mistaken. You may not be able to read the CPM mouthpiece Deshabhimani. I have seen a day’s issue devoting the whole front page to Vizhinjam. The newspaper described the port as an anti-people, anti-environment project. The fish workers were Vijayan’s voters when he sought re-election a year ago. In a way, he owes his return to power to their support.

It was Bismarck who said that "what we learn from history is that no one learns from history.” Vijayan should have learnt from what happened at Singur in West Bengal. The CPM was in power at that time. The house of Tatas wanted to set up a plant at Singur to manufacture the world’s cheapest car called Nano.

They wanted 1,000 acres of land for setting up the plant. I visited Singur. The Tatas eyed fertile, agricultural land. The government used a British-era law to forcibly acquire land. There was resistance from the people. The government went ahead with acquisition and the factory began coming up. The farmers were not happy with the compensation offered.

They expected the Tatas to chip in some money, but they refused to give even a rupee per acre. Around that time, the Tatas acquired the European steel plant Corus. Let me quote from the official Press note: “Tata Steel is happy to announce that the Company has completed its £6.2 billion (US$12 billion) acquisition of Corus Group at a price of 608 pence per ordinary share in cash”.

At that time, Ratan Tata told the media that he was prepared to pay much more to buy Corus. He did not say how many more millions or billions of dollars he was prepared to pay. He was the same person who refused to give even Re 1 per acre of Singur land.

Vijayan may not remember what happened later. When Narendra Modi offered a better deal in Gujarat, Ratan Tata shifted the plant overnight to Gujarat. The Marxists lost money, reputation and eventually their government. Even the Tatas did not gain. Nano was a total failure. Even Corus turned out to be a burden for the house of Tatas. No, I won’t say that it was the result of the curse of the farmers of Singur!

Now what can be done to retrieve the situation? Nobody can ask you to wind up your operations at Vizhinjam and leave Kerala. That would be a gross injustice. I know much of the Rs 75.25 billion required for the port would come from the public exchequer, not from your pockets, however deep they are.

I am sure you would be able to recover much more than your investment during the 40 years that you would run the port. Now, let me make a suggestion. The heavens would not fall if you include compensation for all the fish workers who lost their “habitat” and are now braving verbal and physical assaults, while agitating for their rights, in the project cost.

If the rehabilitation of the fish workers would cost, say, Rs 50 crore or Rs 100 crore, please include it in the project cost. Nobody would object. If each displaced farmer gets a plot of land where he can build a permanent house, not far from the sea, he would be more than happy to withdraw the agitation.

Do you think I am asking for the moon? I remember reading in the Economic Times that you created wealth at an unprecedented speed of Rs 1,612 crore per day to double your wealth in the last one year to beat Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos as the world’s second-richest man. What I request is peanuts for you and your company.

Vijayan could also have done the same thing but he is virtually bankrupt. His interests are different now. One of the priests spearheading the agitation made an unfortunate comment for which he apologised. He has allowed his ministers to call the fish workers names and use abusive words like “Chri-Sanghi” for the priests.

Let me conclude this letter telling you that wealth has a little problem. As you know, it was Anil Ambani who built the Delhi Airport Metro Line, easily the best in the world at that time. Today, he is virtually bankrupt. He had to admit in public that he relied on his mother’s munificence to manage his day-to-day affairs.

This reminded me of the great Malayalam poet Poonthanam’s Jnanappana (The fountain of wisdom) written in the 16th century which has these thought-provoking lines: “If God wishes, the people we see now or are with us now, may disappear or be dead in the next moment. Or, if He wishes, in a few days a healthy man may be paraded to his funeral pyre. 

“If God wishes, the king living in a palace today may lose everything and end up carrying a dirty bag on his shoulders and walk around homeless”. He reminds us about the fleeting nature of wealth. Now that you have the wealth, you have the capacity to wipe the tears off the face of all those who suffer because of the Vizhinjam port. May I hope that you will not let down the poor fish workers?

Yours etc

ajphilip@gmail.com

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