Saturday, October 26, 2013

Vox Populi for Vizhinjam

You would be forgiven for assuming that a combination of a comprehensive, hell no, a meticulous, three-year long environmental study, broad-based public and bipartisan political support and an undeniable economic argument (the best located, most naturally endowed port to save hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign exchange currently being sucked up by foreign ports) would be enough to fast track the Vizhinjam project's environmental clearance.

Unfortunately, you would be wrong. Because it seems that an unfortunate mix of Governmental intransigence and the deliberate actions of a small but dedicated and well-funded group of vested interests is threatening to trip up the project at its last hurdle. So, yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is a call to action!

So who are these "vested interests"?  The short answer is that they are a small bunch of resort owners whose small and medium-sized resorts are located in the Vizhinjam project area. They obviously fear that they will have to move their operations out of the area as soon as construction on the Rs 10,000 Crore mega-project begins. Whether these resort owners are acting in isolation is another question altogether. It has been painfully evident that various entities have been consistently trying to sabotage the project, as has been evident from the constant interference with past bid processes to select the project's developer/operator. In two cases, the bids were made to fail by a rather shady shell company which was obviously acting on behalf of someone. 

Rather than only raise their grievances, the resort owners have been playing a very smart game over the last few months and years, by putting together a diverse set of grouses ranging from the loss of livelihood of fishermen and resort employees in the area, to environmental damage to questioning the very economic viability of the project. To do this, they have engaged the services of a number of paid "experts", almost all of whom are retired Government servants, from fields such as fisheries science, geology and hydrography. They have also recruited religious and community leaders to create tensions among the people residing in the project area.

Tall Claims

The resorts claim that thousands of jobs will be lost and tens of thousands of Crores of revenue will be lost if the 31 resorts in the project area are closed down. It is quite evident that this is a ludicrous exaggeration. The resorts claim that the total number of rooms in the affected properties is about 800, in reality this is likely to be far lower since only a handful of the resorts are medium-sized. The rest have 10-20 rooms apiece. Even if there are 800 rooms in all, the usual ratio of personnel to key is about 1:1, so that means less than a 1,000 jobs at risk, not tens of thousands as these rabble-rousers would have us believe. The resorts are all three-star or below, so even accounting for a uniform 3-star cost/key of about Rs 30 Lakhs (and that's replacement cost, while many of the resorts are ten years or older!), the total investment at risk is about Rs 250 Crores, miniscule compared to the Rs 6,000 Crore investment in Phase I of the port. A back-of-the-envelope calculation - Rs 3000/night X 365 days X 60% annual occupancy X 800 rooms - yields a total revenue of about Rs 50 Crores/year, which is far, far below what the resorts claim would be lost because of the project. Even the documents submitted by the resorts are riddled with flights of fancy, one resort owner even claims a value of Rs 90 Crores for six acres of land and over Rs 50 Crores for a small, 26 room property! If they are to be believed, the 2-star resort costs more per room than a ultra-luxury Four Seasons hotel would!

In short, thousands of Crores of assets are not being demolished, thousands of jobs are not being lost and tens of thousands of Crores of tourist revenue is not being sacrificed. This is all nothing but a deliberate ploy to play up the impact for pure, theatrical effect and for the consumption of the community in the project area and the Environmental Clearance committee. In fact, the tourism industry would benefit immensely from the cruise terminal planned as part of the project because it would bring tens of thousands of high-paying cruise tourists to the area. Folks whose jobs may be threatened by the closure of the small resorts will find even better employment as the tourist industry expands capacity to cater to the influx of cruise tourists. Vizhinjam can be an ideal turn-around and base ports for cruise ships operating in the Indian Ocean region and tourists who embark or disembark at Vizhinjam will drive room demand as well as air traffic. A tourist who undertakes a day excursion (while staying on board the ship) spends about $150 on average while one who spends a night before/after their cruise spends upwards of $250/night. Vizhinjam could receive 60-100,000 cruise tourists/year to start with (Ernakulam already received about 60,000/year and that port is further from the international shipping lanes, is shallower and only has a make-shift cruise facility). This alone means an incremental spend of between Rs 50 - 150 Crores/year, more than making up for any loss of revenue from the resorts that will make way for the port. Finally, the resorts themselves can re-located elsewhere along the Vizhinjam-Poovar tourism zone so the loss of revenue and employment may at most be temporary.


The next argument raised by the resort owners and their crony consultants is that the project will cause irreparable damage to the environment during its construction and operation. Notwithstanding the fact that the comprehensive, three-season Environmental Impact Assessment (all 4000 pages and 8 kilos of it!) has identified, analyzed and recommended mitigation measures for any adverse impacts the project, the project is being made to seem far worse than Fukushima and Chernobyl rolled together. Those who allege such dire consequences blithely ignore key facts such the minimal capital dredging (why don't they complain about the several million cubic meters of material dumped each year off the coast due to the incessant maintenance dredging at Ernakulam port?), clean cargo types (containers, cruise and, possibly, LNG) and the lack of sediment drift in the area.

Another key weapon wielded by the resorts is that the port would result in the destruction of fish stocks, apparently most of which would be because the big, bad container ships would trample a rich fishing area called the Wadge Bank. Till it turned out that this area was on the far side of the international shipping lane along which hundreds of ships move each day. Indeed most of these ships pass over the Bank and it's been doing fine. So the 2-3 ships each day that call at Vizhinjam will hardly dent it. Oopsie!

One should also recall that pretty much each and many of the resorts who have suddenly turned into environmental evangelists are located within the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) designed to protect the coast and its environment. This means they have been violating environmental laws since the day they were built. A classic case of the hooker preaching morality a.k.a. being holier-than-thou!

Now that they have spilled the skeletons out of their cupboards, one hopes that the resorts will be prosecuted with extreme prejudice with respect to their gross negligence for environmental laws.

The Puthur Effect

Among the motley crew of "experts" cobbled together by the resorts is a retired Indian Navy hydrographer by the name of Commander John Puthur who has put forward an array of alleged issues with the port that range from the nonsensical to the ludicrous. The good Commander starts off by claiming that "sediments running off the land into the sea" would fill up the port basin in no time and would necessitate expensive maintenance dredging. It doesn't take a degree in hydrography from Wood's Hole to realize that there's no river in the project area to transport sediment and that the quantity of material run off into the sea is negligible (for the volumes of run off alleged by Puthur, the resorts that employ him would have been swept out to sea years and years ago!). Similarly, his claim that sediment drift along the coast will fill in the shipping channel also fall flat once we actually take a look at the comprehensive studies conducted on sediment movement, which clearly show that sediment movement is minor and will be prevented by the South breakwater.Puthur has no data to back him up, yet he does not stop short of making serious allegation. Perhaps he thought he was supposed to be talking about the port at Ernakulam, which is on the verge of going bust because of dredging costs.

Next he claims that the use of barges to transport the millions of tons of rock needed for the main breakwaters will themselves necessitate capital dredging at the loading point. Firstly, dear Commander, movement of rock by barge is but one of several options considered by VISL. Secondly, the barges in question have drafts of 3 to 5 meters, not exactly supertankers. Of course, if you're talking about the Ernakulam or Azhikkal ports, even that depth may be a struggle!

Next, he shifts gears and makes a couple of rather lame points. First, that being exposed to the sea wind will corrode the containers and the cranes that handle them. Of course, these same containers are never exposed to sea air while they spend the bulk of their lives on the decks of ships crisscrossing the seas and all ports other than Vizhinjam do not suffer from sea winds. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, ONLY Vizhinjam has this peculiar thing called a sea wind. 

Second, our good Commander feels that monsoon winds will make operations impossible, despite the fact that the fastest sustained wind speeds recorded at Vizhinjam is only between one-third and half of the wind speeds at which container can safely be carried out. For most of the year, Vizhinjam sees relatively sedate winds and ports like Hong Kong and Shanghai do quite well in the faster winds (not to mention raging typhoons) of the Pacific Ocean, Vizhinjam is very safe indeed.

A final straw that the resorts clutch at is the claim that the project is not viable. They apparently base this on the fact that from the Government's perspective, the project returns a negative Net Present Value based on its investment of the 75% of the project cost needed to fund its share (the breakwaters, dredging and reclamation, berths and road-rail connectivity) as the port's Landlord. This will always be the case because most the revenue that flows back to the Government comes from indirect sources such as taxes and duties, that arise out of the increased economic development that the port will spur. This amounts to tens of thousands of Crores during the lifetime of the project. For example, if the South Indian Industrial Corridor can be extended southwards to use Vizhinjam as one of its hub port, this will spark massive industrial development in southern Kerala and Tamil Nadu. All of this is blithely ignored by the project's detractors.

The sad thing is that paid consultants like Puthur receive a very detailed hearing in the media, possibly because of the old adage that money talks. More than being carted around to speak at various meeting organized by the resort owners and their proxy organizations, that go by such names as "Coastal Watch" and "Exnora", he was also sent off to Delhi to gate-crash the Environmental Clearance committee meeting (and I do literally mean gate-crash), where he apparently handed out copies of his own book (possibly the only copies every disseminated of that seminal work!). 

The fact that the resorts have clout is beyond dispute. After all, a close relative of one of the owners once occupied the senior-most bureaucratic position in Kerala. That said, we cannot rule out the possibility that they are aligned with other vested interests who have a lot more to lose when Vizhinjam becomes operational, ranging from nearby ports, such as Ernakulam and Tuticorin, which stand to lose most, if not all of the container traffic because of Vizhinjam's cost advantages as a hinterland port, to regional transshipment hubs like Colombo and Dubai which will lose traffic to Vizhinjam. With the Chinese now effectively controlling the new container terminal at Colombo and the addition of Indian Navy and Coast Guard facilities, intended in part to counter Chinese expansionary initiatives in the Indian Ocean region, to the Vizhinjam project, one cannot rule out a threat to national security from the actions of this small band of people.

In short, a small set of selfish people, who are themselves guilty of environmental transgressions, and who may be in cahoots with anti-national interests are trying to sabotage the Vizhinjam project. But WE can fight back, by making sure that the opinion of the people supporting the project is heard loud and clear by the MoEF committee. In fact, properly applied vox populi will easily drown out the machinations of the resorts. 

An online petition has been started to collect signatures in favor of granting expedited approval to the project. 3,000 signatures have already been collected and the first copy of the petition, with 2,059 signatures has already been dispatched in hard copy form to the committee. The signature collection will continue till the 29th, when the committee is expected to consider the project, and the consolidated list of signatures will be submitted once again.

This is the time to act, the time to make a difference to Trivandrum, Kerala and India without having to spend much time or any resources on it. Cynics often wonder whether the signatures will make a difference. While they may not necessarily compel an immediate green flag for the project (I hope it does!), the fact of the matter is that public opinion is definitely a parameter consider for granting environmental clearance. The resorts have drummed up limited public support, either through spending big bucks or through misrepresentation, or both. VISL nor the Government can match that, so it's left to NGOs and folks like us to make a difference. Vizhinjam has already benefited from crowd-sourcing, albeit on a much more focused way, this time it will need a far bigger effort.

So please sign the petition and then please get everyone you know to sign as well.

Let's get it this done!