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An Open Letter to Mr Adani on the Occasion of Onam

Dear Mr Adani

Writing to you from Thiruvananthapuram, where you recently signed an agreement with the Kerala government, undertaking the construction of the international container terminal at Vizhinjam off the Thiruvananthapuram coast.

The Malayali press went wild in their delight ; the politicians beamed in triumph (well, most of them. Some of them –guess who — could not, having discovered that they had shot themselves in the foot); the contractors and sundry middlemen in the construction sector rubbed their hands in glee. This is Onam season in Kerala, and Onam, you may know, is our national festival. You are very much in the talk here. To the contractors and our miserably corrupt and craven political class, you are Maveli reborn in flesh and blood. To the poor fisher people on what is arguably Kerala’s poorest coastal stretch, you are a newer version of evil Vamanan himself, threatening to banish them to the nether-world. There was a time when the political left in Kerala reinterpreted the Maveli myth as a vindication of the Welfare State. But since the welfare state has been almost as good as dead in the minds of Kerala’s mainstream political classes, the throne has also been conveniently empty.The mainstream press has set you up on it indirectly but definitely, and that’s pretty much evident. But Malayalees who love this land and are not blinded by hollow –false– national sentiment can see that not only are you the very opposite of Maveli, but also that this Emperor-figure has no clothes at all.

You know it too, Mr Adani, and I hope you will not deny it.Though I am quite opposed to your ambitions, I find it pathetic that you have been set up so comically, really, with your ambitions quite naked, upon a dilapidated old throne too narrow and too plain for their ample buttocks. Do not have any illusions that the grandeur of Bali Chakravartin is now yours. In Kerala the image of Maveli — the wise and immensely generous asura Mahabali- has been sadly appropriated by advertisers and degraded into that of a peddler of petty consumables.That is not very far from you. Unwittingly or wittingly, you are today the peddler of false dreams and exorbitant desires in Kerala. Mahabali Chakravartin’s majesty will never be yours and rightly so – for you probably do not even know what it is. And you are not the first to be paraded so. Many decades ago, Birla was welcomed here by our political class with much fanfare as the new-age Maveli. Like you who appear invincible because of your association with the hegemonic politics of our times, he too appeared to be far above ordinary Malayalees because of his association with hegemonic nationalist developmentalism of those times. He did not last much despite his minions’ best efforts. You will not last too.

You will not last because Kerala is too ecologically fragile a place to bear your ambitions silently. Wily officials and politicians must have told you (at least that is what they have told the people here) that the project will affect only a small stretch of the coast, which is cut off from the mainland. They have probably assured you that the fisher community alone will be affected and that since they are a minority, there is no scope for strong coalitions against the project. How foolish! Hasty tampering with Kerala’s fragile ecological balance will be rapidly transmitted to the mainland as well; the fisher community on that coast, especially, has a history of one of Kerala’s most spectacular anti-capitalist mobilisations ever, with strong international connections almost from the time of its inception. Such histories may be dormant but they never really go away, so no one should even imagine that dispossessing those people is easy! And the big plus, your advisers must have pointed out, that in this instance of dispossession, the state is entirely on your side. But here too history is not on your side. States too have specific histories, and the state in post-independence Kerala has always been the welfare state in the popular imagination and it has indeed persisted, despite the incessant attempts of most politicians and many bureaucrats, as well as the police, to convince us that it has changed. There is great popular resentment against these forces and their idea of the minimalist state that seizes public resources for big capital, and your project provides the perfect opportunity for them to coalesce and converge. Yes, the lies about the Vallarpadam port were swallowed rather passively – but its total, complete failure now that is solid evidence that shows how politicians and officials lie through the skin of their teeth. The Vallarpadam evictees are living proof of the state’s callousness. The scale of loss in your project is of course much higher in comparison.

True, Malayalees may be now dazzled at present by all the promises that their political classes and the mainstream media have flashed before their eyes. But we have always been a curious lot, and late modernity here makes us all hypersensitive to risk. Do not think that the media here will blow your trumpet forever even if you placate them forever. Given its entanglement in the market-centric competitive business of turning everything into entertainment, the mainstream media here will soon become hungry for newer stories, and those will include ones that expose all the wheeling-dealings that have made this deal possible. Literacy, unfortunately, cannot be rolled back, nor can media and cellphone penetration be easily reversed. Kerala has some of the world’s highest figures in all three, and that’s not good news at all for you, Mr Adani.

Very soon, people will begin to notice the huge gaps between the figures that circulate in the mainstream press about Vizhinjam and the figures quoted in official documents like the Draft Construction Agreement. They will begin to wonder why so few of the world’s prominent transhipment port operators were so uninterested in Vizhinjam if it had so many natural advantages and despite the Kerala government’s determination to see it through at any cost. They will learn more of the feasibility studies conducted first by the Vizhinjam International Seaport Ltd. and the AECOM, both which found it totally unviable financially. They will be appalled by the lack of transparency of their own rulers who still do not want a full public discussion of the third feasibility study they commissioned, conducted by the firm Ernest and Young – which clearly points out that the project will be financially viable only if the government makes huge concessions on port tariff, bears a larger share of the Viability Gap Fund (VGF) than that’s permitted by the law through indirect methods like letting you develop real estate on land acquired for the port (as environmental activists have pointed out, 12 out of 126 pages of this report are about this real estate prospects). They will be shocked by the knowledge, evident from the minutes of the relevant meeting, that authorities in the central Finance Ministry had opposed this when Kerala applied for VGF. Further, they will learn of the informal parleys that our rulers have had exclusively with you, and even more importantly, they will recognize that you and the government are trying to fool them into thinking that the official environmental clearance for the project has been secured! Once these lies are exposed and the bluff called off, they will become more receptive to the concerns that environmentalists and the fish worker community have been raising, currently drowned by the high-pitched calls for growth at any cost. Yes, Mr Adani, that will happen, no matter what your advisors tell you, no matter what the dirty tricks department of the Kerala government have up their sleeve, no matter what the local beneficiaries of this destructive project do– the contractors, predators who are already sizing up our hills and rocks, the vile class of government officials who plan to fatten off its pickings.

I am sure our crafty rulers have told that you will not suffer like Coco-Cola since you are Indian – Coco-cola was readily projected as foreign and hence could be projected as an intruder. Ah, Mr Adani, what sad ignorance of history these officials show! While we are now politically part of India and share many cultural features with other Indian peoples, we have always been more open to the rest of the world through the Arabian Sea. Nothing Indian has been unconditionally accepted here, especially Indian big capital. If Hindutva seems to have become more acceptable here, that is not because we have suddenly woken up to its truth, but because very local circumstances have allowed it. In this example, the great insecurity of sections of the upper caste Hindu population at the assertiveness of the dalits and the prosperity of the minorities, especially Muslims. Others have of course seen advantage in pandering to the party in power but that is a temporary phenomenon. Whatever that may be, there are no local circumstances except the general increase in greed  typical under neoliberal hegemony, that favour national big capital here. And in any case, in the high Hindu imagination, Kerala has always been in the margins, sometimes even classified along with various Mlecchas including the Yavanas and the Hunas, and it hasn’t changed a lot in the present- day Hindutva imagination.

Even the general concern for ‘vikasanam’ – translatable as both ‘development’ and ‘expansion’ – cannot be relied upon for too long. Here is where the discourse will boomerang, actually. The project is already exciting small-time development predators, and very soon, people will see through your claims about bringing ‘development’.

Let me tell you about the picturesque village of Vellarada nestling at the feet of the Sahya on the eastern side of Thiruvananthapuram district. A region of stunning natural beauty, one would have thought it an ideal eco-friendly weekend or picnic destination for city-dwellers and others, but that prospect seems to have disappeared in the high-tide of greed in the wake of the Vizhinjam port project.

The Sahyadri at Vellarada which shields Thiruvananthapuram from the harsh summers on the other side.

The tranquil lake at its foot.

vellarada 6

Vellarad 4

The imposing rocks atop the Sahya in this village have been eyed by predators for some time and activists there have strongly resisted it. The threat is now magnified with property brokers buying up large chunks of land there for quarrying, explicitly citing the massive need for rock to build the breakwater at Vizhinjam. Though authorities have claimed that the rock needed for the breakwater would be obtained from Tamil Nadu and brought to Vizhinjam through the sea, it leaves the decision finally to contractors, and so this seems very plausible. The citizens of the Thiruvananthapuram who have been witness to the terrible devastation wreaked by predatory quarrying mafia at Mookunnimala and the near-impossibility of dislodging the mafia once it manages to sink its claws into the region, cannot be expected to take very kindly to the arrival of these parasites. A major all-Kerala anti-quarrying struggle may well take shape, which will definitely expose the fact that the ecological costs of Vizhinjam will be paid by not just the coastal people but by Malayalees located far away from the coast.

In other words, your project will further devastate our land – after all it is a narrow strip of land between the hills and the sea. As fragile as the image of this land as imagined by the poet Balamani Amma: a narrow green banana leaf spread out at the foot of the mighty Sahya mountains. Yet you are projected here as abhinavaparasurama, the new birth of the Brahmin warrior of Hindu legend. The inheritors of his violent legacy have long claimed of course that he is the ‘founder’ of Kerala. But just you can never inherit Bali’s legacy, you cannot also claim Parasurama’s, for even though your project may raise some land, it will destroy much more. Secondly, versions of the Parasurama myth relate the story of the warrior-sage making peace between human beings and serpents, assigning them separate spaces and linking them in bonds of mutual respect, tolerance, and care. Your presence, in contrast, is not only destructive of Nature, it is also hugely divisive as far as human beings are concerned.

Indeed, this brings to my mind that you are by birth of the Jain community (I do not know whether you are a believer but I see that Jain websites have claimed you proudly and surely the Jains are a community of believers, not just a Hindu sub-caste). I wonder if you know the significance of the anti-brahminical heterodox faiths in Kerala. These were largely eradicated by Brahminical Hinduism here but their legacy lingered on in a kind of indigenous ecological ethics. For instance, the Buddhist tale of Jimutavahana which rewrites the story of Parasurama’s peace-making in the founding of Kerala . It is distinctly different from the Brahminical Hindu version in that it extols self-sacrifice and unflinching commitment to peaceful and loving co-existence instead of the conquest and colonisation that the Parasurama myth celebrates. Not for nothing was Harsha’s Naganandam adapted by Kerala’s tradition of Sanskrit theatre.

In Kerala, it is impossible to imagine the plot of Naganandam except as unfolding precisely on those mountains that now face destruction. It is a greatest moral tragedy of our times that members of the Jain faith who once took to trading and eschewed agriculture for fear of killing even the tiniest of life – and thus reminded everyone of the ultimate interconnectedness of all living creatures – now engage in business that will ruthlessly decimate plant and animal life and cause immeasurable harm to human populations on the coast and in the mainland.I am told that some mountains in the Vellarada area are relatively free of threat because they have been claimed by Christians and Hindus as sacred spots. But all of the Sahyadri ought to be sacred for the Jains, and yet a prominent member of that community clears the path for its devastation! What a tragedy, Mr Adani!

The present in Kerala demands Jimutavahanas who will establish a society based on mutuality and mutual respect between human beings and all other forms of life. We need a dispensation which will make coastal sea and land sustainable community resources, which will bring them back to life. We need to create livelihoods for people that will require reverence of Nature. Don’t place too much faith on our political class; they will swing according to the tide. And certainly don’t place too much store on Shashi Tharoor. He’s a smart one for sure, slicking back his cool coiffure to charm Mallus and keeping them guessing about where his political affiliations really lie – but he just demanded that the British should pay India reparations for all the damage they did. Mark my words, one day he will secure his applause by speaking eloquently of why you, Mr Adani, should pay us Malayalees reparations for the terrible consequences that this port project would have by then, unleashed on us.

With the sincere hope that you take your ship away from here so that it does not sink beneath these murky waters,

J Devika


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