The 2021 Assembly election promises to be a gripping one for Kanyakumari voters, as they have to simultaneously cast their vote for a Lok Sabha bypoll.
In the bypoll, the voters here know that if they vote for the BJP candidate Pon Radhakrishnan, he may become an Union Minister of State and bring in a number of development schemes to the coastal district. On the other hand, if they elect the Congress candidate Vijay Vasanth, they will get an MP who will have to constantly battle with the Centre to develop his constituency. Vasanth is the son of the late H Vasanthakumar – whose demise due to COVID-19 in 2020 – has led to this bypoll.
Radhakrishnan first won from this constituency in 1999, and in 2014 as well. During that time, he has been Minister of State in ministries such as finance, shipping, highways, urban development and youth affairs.
But, according to some residents his chances of winning this bypoll are low. “It is doubtful if Radhakrishnan will even get back his deposit,” said Ephrem, an activist at the office of the 100-year-old St Ignatius church in Kovalam. He was in the midst of organising a massive protest against the Kovalam International Container Transshipment Terminal (KICTT) on March 27.
“If the KICTT project gets implemented, the whole village will disappear,” said Ephrem, a member of the People’s Movement Against KICTT.
Campaigning for a Container Port
During his campaign trail, Radhakrishnan however continues to promise that work on the KICTT will begin in full swing once he comes to power. While Radhakrishnan may be banking on this promise of a port to garner votes, this move may also backfire on him. There is huge opposition against the project particularly among the fishermen.
“The fishing community’s votes play an important role in deciding Radhakrishnan’s victory,” said Kurumpanai Berlin, founder, Neidhal Makkal Iyakkam, an organisation working to protect the rights and livelihood of fishermen in Kanyakumari.
According to Berlin, a similar container port was built in Vallarpadam in Kerala, in which 300 families were displaced, while just 600 people had employment opportunities. “The port shut down later. People in Vizhinjam too had welcomed a port and about 1,500 got employment. However, the villages there are facing problems like coastal erosion. The same kind of problems may happen here,” pointed out Berlin.
Due to opposition from the fishermen, the container port, which was initially slated to be built at Enayam, has now been moved to Kovalam.
Berlin said, “The container port is a part of the ₹ 8 lakh crore Sagarmala project. The detailed project report for this port was conducted by TIPSA, a Spain-based company. According to the report, there should not be any villages on both sides for 15 km from the centre of the port. But there are many families residing near the project area. However, the government continues to maintain that there are no villages around the area and no one will be affected.”
From 1962, Kanyakumari residents have been demanding industries and factories related to coconut, rubber and flowers. But the governments have disregarded their plea and instead brought projects that are destructive both for environment and human lives, said Venice, a Kovalam fisherman.
“When a fishing harbour was planned at Radhakrishnan’s hometown, Alathangarai, he had opposed the project because it could spoil the groundwater. Now he brings the container port project, that requires 40 sq km of land. The total area of the district itself is 1,684 sq km, out of which 1,175 sq km is occupied by paddy fields, reserve forests, rubber plantations, water bodies and mountains. So the density of the population is already high with 1,119 persons living per sq km. The density is bound to increase with this project,” he said.
The Congress candidate Vasanth is not as charismatic as his father. Neither is he very articulate, and according to one section of the voters, his chances of winning this election are slim. Their point of view is that Radhakrishnan who is a well-known face in the region had developed the constituency during his tenure.
“It was during Radhakrishnan’s tenure as Minister of State, various infrastructure projects such as four-lane roads and bridges were constructed. If he had won in the 2019 elections, our dream of getting an airport would have materialised by now,” said Johnson, a bike mechanic.
However, these development projects have come at a cost to some residents. For example, though the bridges Radhakrishnan built in Parvathipuram and Marthandam eased the traffic and transportation, it adversely affected the business of shopkeepers and traders operating in the area.
“After the construction of the bridge, we are unable to attract customers,” said R Be Ganesan, president, Parvathipuram Traders Welfare Association, Nagercoil. Despite the negative impact on their business, Ganesan said they would still vote for Radhakrishnan.
“If he gets elected, he can become a minister and may speed up the existing projects like airports and container port, which may open up new employment opportunities,” he said.
Though the late Vasanthakumar had raised the issue of developing tourism in Kanyakumari in Parliament, he was unable to implement any of the measures he had suggested. To give him his due, his time was very short. “Also, despite the fact that the MPLADS funds were slashed, he did help the constituency by dipping into his privy purse,” said Berlin. The voters may remember this while voting for his son.