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Church sucked into port row

Thiruvananthapuram, June 30: A Kerala fisherman who had moved court challenging the green clearance to a showpiece port project has claimed his parish priest tricked him into signing the petition and that he knew nothing about its contents.

A delighted state ports minister, K. Babu, has demanded a probe to find out if any “foreign country” was behind efforts to “sabotage” the Rs 6,500 crore Vizhinjam port project near Thiruvananthapuram.

The vicar-general of the Latin Catholic Church archdiocese under which petitioner Mary Dasan’s parish falls has rejected the fisherman’s claims and termed Babu’s statement “irresponsible’’.

The controversy comes weeks after an Intelligence Bureau report, which was leaked, accused foreign-funded NGOs campaigning against various projects of posing a threat to India’s economic growth.

“One night, I got a call from the parish priest, Mathyas Oliver, who asked me to meet him,” Dasan, resident of a coastal fishing hamlet in nearby Adimalathura, was quoted as telling Asianet News.

“When I met him, he made me sign on a piece of paper and said it was for some case relating to the project. I’m not educated and had no knowledge of its contents.”

Dasan said when he later realised the matter was serious, he “requested the priest to let me withdraw from it” but the priest kept evading the matter. “I don’t even know who the lawyers are. I just don’t want to be involved with it in any way,” he said.

Dasan and Wilfred — both fishermen — are the two petitioners in the case, to be heard by the Chennai bench of the National Green Tribunal tomorrow. The Union environment and forests ministry had issued the green clearance to the project last January.

Minister Babu did not hide his glee at the latest development and said he would request the Centre for a probe.

“Recently, there were reports that groups like Greenpeace were getting foreign funds to scuttle projects in India. (Dasan’s allegation) should also be probed in detail,’’ he said.

The Latin Catholic Church said the petitioner’s “flip-flop” could have come under “threats or other influence” and there was “no need to drag the Church and local priest into it”.

“The minister’s allegations… that the Church and Latin community were trying to sabotage the Vizhinjam port project are baseless. It is irresponsible to say that fishermen’s associations under the diocese were operating with foreign funds,’’ the statement by vicar-general Eugene H. Pereira said.

He added that the Church was not against development projects but wanted adequate compensation and rehabilitation for those “who lose their livelihood and houses when big projects are executed”.

“The fisher folk had expressed their concerns about the project on various occasions. Different agencies that conducted environment impact studies had also expressed their apprehensions about the loss of seashore north of the project and the adverse impact that the proposed four-km-long wharf will have on the fishing community,” the statement said.

“The wharf and the freight traffic will radically alter the availability of fishes and rob the roughly 50,000 local fisher folk of their livelihood. Though these concerns were brought to the notice of the state government and local MP, they are yet to be redressed.”

Pereira added: “In the meanwhile, a green clearance was secured by influencing the central government. It is in this background that Father Mathyas Oliver took up the concerns of the community. There are no hidden motives behind it.”

The deep-water port project, to be executed in the public-private partnership model, was conceived about three decades ago. Two rounds of tenders have been completed but the project has failed to take off because of security issues relating to a foreign contractor and court cases.

What makes Vizhinjam attractive is that it is only 12 nautical miles from the busy Persian Gulf-Malacca shipping lane, and has a natural depth that would allow even the biggest container vessels to dock there without much dredging.