Adani 'model of development': Kerala port rides political rapids

Adani 'model of development': Kerala port rides political rapids

By: || Updated: 06 Dec 2015 08:47 AM
Thiruvananthapuram: Not every day does an industrialist who counts Narendra Modi among his well-wishers venture into the lair of V.S. Achuthanandan, Kerala's communist lion who gives the impression that his backyard is littered with the cleaned-out skeletons of capitalists.

But on August 17, Gautam Adani, the industrialist who shares his home state as well as a good rapport with the Prime Minister, and his son Karan Adani called on Achuthanandan. Adani Senior carried a bouquet of flowers, the son touched the nonagenarian's feet. Watching the proceedings from close quarters was a person called T.G. Nandakumar, whose critics call him "Dalal (broker) Kumar" for his skills at lobbying.

Three months later, on Saturday, the foundation stone was laid to construct a deep-water port on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala.

The proposed port in Vizhinjam is expected to cost Rs 7,500 crore (a part of which will be borne by the government) - an investment of considerable size for a state which shares Bengal's political baggage as well as fate in attracting private capital. To put matters in perspective, the Nano project that Singur lost would have entailed an investment of Rs 1,500 crore by the Tatas.

Kerala's "dream project", called Vizhinjam International Deepwater Multipurpose Seaport, is expected to bring about sweeping changes. The port is hoping to attract some of the motherships that now disgorge cargo at ports in Singapore and Colombo, which is ferried to India in smaller vessels.

The project traces its roots to pre-Independence days, conceived to regain the glory of what many believe was an ancient port in Vizhinjam. What has also tickled the picturesque state, other than the usual spin-offs projected, is the prospect of an armada of cruise ships packed with foreign tourists dropping anchor at the port.

The Adanis have promised to make the port operational in "1,000 days" from today, as against the prescribed deadline of 1,461 days. The "1,000-day" target has fired up the imagination of a state where the refrain used to be "politics won't let anything happen here" - a cynical certainty that will ring a bell in Bengal.

It is against this backdrop - and coinciding with the rancour in Parliament between the BJP and the Congress - that the port initiative and the way the Adanis have negotiated the political rapids have stood out.

The Malayala Manorama, the newspaper with an influential voice, today carried a signed article on the port project by chief minister Oommen Chandy who thanked Adani Ports and expressed full faith in the infrastructure company owned by the Adanis.

This, from a Congress leader whose party at the national level has rarely missed a chance to attack Adani because of his perceived proximity to Prime Minister Modi.

Chandy is a Congress veteran and chief minister. Achuthanandan is a communist veteran and Opposition leader. Today, before the foundation stone was laid, the Adanis called on Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the state CPM secretary.

"He has some reservations about the overall... but as far as the project is concerned, definitely he is supporting it," Gautam Adani said after meeting Balakrishnan.

The CPM state chief said he had communicated his party's stand to the Adanis. The CPM is not opposed to the project, but to the manner in which it is being implemented, which the party thinks offers undue advantage to the Adanis. Charges of "real estate lottery" have also been levelled.

Imagine chief minister Mamata Banerjee and Bengal CPM secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra discussing a project with Ratan Tata on the same day. (At no point in the run-up to the Singur project and during the subsequent crisis was there a meeting between Tata and Mamata who was in the Opposition then.)

Not that Chandy and Achuthanandan stood shoulder to shoulder today or the CPM has embraced the project without reserve. Make no mistake: politics, trench-war politics, is still alive and kicking in one of the most politicised states in the country.

The CPM officially boycotted today's foundation event. But the stated reason was that it was presided over by a minister, K. Babu, against whom bribery charges have been levelled. Chandy himself is caught up in an unseemly scandal called the "solar scam".

Matters have reached such a stage that there is general consensus that the port project is "unstoppable" even if the CPM comes to power after the mid-summer Assembly elections in Kerala next year. At most, the Left might try to tinker with some of the terms.

No party can afford to be seen as derailing the project after Kerala spent decades in exile in industrial Siberia because of political and other reasons.

If the CPM doesn't want to be seen as "anti-development", the scandal-hit Congress-led coalition is looking for redemption in the port project when it approaches the voters again. The BJP, seen as a rising force, is unlikely to have any issue with the Adanis.

Union minister Nitin Gadkari, who took part in the foundation event today, promised to relax cabotage - rules that regulate coastal shipping - which will be crucial for the viability of the new port. "At the time of elections, we can fight. Now we offer all support from the core of our heart," Gadkari said, triggering applause.

"No politics in development," Chandy reciprocated. "We must make sure our youths can use their skills on this soil," added the chief minister of a state where many able-bodied men and women go to the Gulf in search of work. (The manpower deficit in Kerala is plugged by young migrants from Bengal and some other states.)

Electric excitement and the weight of expectations are palpable in Vizhinjam. People are pinning hopes on a surge in land prices - space is precious in the small state - more economic activity and tourist arrivals eventually.

Newspapers are writing leading articles thanking those displaced for cooperating with the project. Most of these are fisherfolk, the same community that had once sacrificed land for the greater good and paved the way for the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, one of the key space research hubs in India.

The complete story of how the Adanis managed the smooth sailing so far may never be known. In the absence of details, the presence of the lobbyist during the August meeting with Achuthanandan had drawn considerable attention.

The CPM veteran had then said that he had not invited Nandakumar, implying that he must have been an Adani guest. Whatever the truth, the initiative was seen as a pragmatic attempt by the investors to induct those who know their way around - the inability to handle "local" issues has been the bane of so-called national players in many a state.

Another "local" factor was at play too: state satraps - in both the Congress as well as the CPM.

Sources said the Congress central leadership had tried to exert pressure on chief minister Chandy to keep the Adanis at bay. But Chandy, who badly needs a talking point unrelated to scandals, held his ground. That Kerala accounted for a significant chunk of the Congress's depleted strength in the Lok Sabha strengthened Chandy's hand. Today, Chandy singled out Union minister Gadkari for praise.

In the CPM, the central leadership was in favour of executing the port project in the public sector because of national security. But the state CPM, knowing well that too vocal a protest may make it look "anti-development", confined itself to token protests.

If everything goes well, a race is certain to start for claiming credit for the port project. If anything goes wrong, no quarter will be given -nor is it expected - on the waterfront of Kerala politics.

From a small but vanguard state in India sails a ship with a message for Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee and Surjya Kanta Mishra. Not to mention industry and potential land-losers.

The Telegraph, Kolkata

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