Church opposes massive port project in southern Indian state

Government agrees to talks after archbishop says plan will hurt fishing communities
The Kerala state government is now open to discussions with the Catholic Church after a local archdiocese said it would oppose a multimillion-dollar port project because it would displace thousands of fishermen.

"We will continue our discussions and remove all their fears and grievances," K. Babu, state minister for fisheries and ports, told ucanews.com after initial discussions with leaders of the Latin-rite Trivandrum archdiocese.

He said that the Kerala government is open to discuss issues raised by the Latin Catholic Church against implementing the Vizhinjam port project, which is expected to cost 7 billion rupees, or US$109.5 million.

The minister's comments followed a pastoral letter issued by Latin-rite Archbishop Maria Callist Soosa Pakiam of Trivandrum against the proposed Vizhinjam port. The letter was read during all the August 2 Sunday Masses in his archdiocese.

In his letter, the archbishop warned the government that he could not condone the massive port project in its present form, as it would displace 32 fishing villages in his archdiocese and adversely affect some 50,000 families.

If the project is implemented, coastal villages along a 13-kilometer stretch will be wiped out, he said. Construction on the project is scheduled to start Aug. 17.

"The project has already been delayed for almost 24 years, but the government would initiate fresh rounds of talks with all aggrieved stakeholders," James Varghese, principal secretary to the Ministry of Ports, told ucanews.com

The project area covers the majority of fishing settlements under the Latin-rite Trivandrum archdiocese.

"We are viewing this as a human rights issue. We are not against development. What we demand is the protection of the rights of a group that is going to suffer the most," the archbishop said.

He added that he believes the government wants to ignore protests and go ahead with the project. 

The environmental impact assessment report that justified the project "turned a blind eye to many important aspects, such as how the fishermen will be affected when the project is implemented," the archbishop said.

T. Peter, national secretary of the National Fishworkers' Forum, told ucanews.com that "things stated by the archbishop in his pastoral letter are factually correct."

Kanam Rajendran, state secretary of the opposition Communist Party of India, told ucanews.com that the Vizhinjam project would endanger the livelihoods of fishermen.

The Catholic Church in Kerala state is home to three rites, namely the Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and Latin rite. Two archdioceses belonging to the two different Syro-Malankara and Latin rites have the same Trivandrum name.

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