Vizhinjam Port: Rail to deliver the goods

Konkan Railway may build line linking port to the national rail network

Adani Vizhinjam Port

Mid-March offered a bitter-sweet spell for the Rs 7,525-crore Vizhinjam port project even as the Adani Vizhinjam Port Private Ltd (AVPPL) hurried to get what’s pegged as the world’s deepest seaport commercially live by October, 2020. Bitter, because of a controversy erupting over the Adani Group’s successful bid for the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport and sweet because of the bonanza of a Rs 1,069-crore rail-to-port connectivity plan rolled out by the Konkan Railway.

To take up the positive development first, the Konkan Railway Corporation Ltd (KRCL) has submitted a draft DPR (Detailed Project Report) for rail connectivity between the port and Balaramapuram station, south of Thiruvananthapuram, on the national rail network. As per the DPR submitted to the Vizhinjam International Seaport Ltd. (VISL), the Kerala government’s nodal agency, the railway line would transport about 10 rakes per day, over the next 20 years. “The 10.7-km rail line would include a tunnel of 9.02-km length. When complete, the tunnel could emerge as India’s second longest rail tunnel,” says Jayakumar, CEO, VISL. A project that former Railway Board chairman Ashwin Lohani had evinced great enthusiasm for, the railway link is expected to be in place by May, 2022.

It was in 2018 that KRCL inked a pact with the Kerala government to build the rail link from Vizhinjam port — the state government holds a 6% stake in KRCL. Excluding the price of land, the link would cost Rs 555 crore, say KRCL officials. A panel comprising state officials has been asked to study the DPR and the link’s alignment is likely to be fine-tuned later.

As for the negative development of mid-March, the controversy reared up when Adani Enterprises picked up 50-year lease contracts to run six Airports Authority of India’s (AAI’s) airports, with the Thiruvanthapuram airport being one of them. The Kerala government, which came second in the competitive bidding for the airport, has gone to court, questioning the decision. “Since the Adani Group is building a seaport at Vizhinjam, they may convert it into a cargo airport,” alleged CPI(M), which steers the ruling coalition in Kerala. But industry and trade organisations in the state, including the CII and Group of Technopark firms, were quick to rush to the Adani Group’s defence. “A commercially motivated private operator would be better placed to maximise the development potential of the airport than a state-run enterprise,” Shashi Tharoor, MP, tells FE.

“With a quickly accessible airport and the proposed rail connectivity, there is no reason why the Vizhinjam mother-port cannot develop as Asia’s key port hub,” feels P Ganesh, former chairman, CII (Kerala). The state capital has the potential to develop as a fuelling point for cargo planes, as also for cargo ships, he says.

Meanwhile, the port has been a beehive of activity as AVPPL hurries to meet the deadline. The first phase of the project includes construction of a 3.1-km breakwater, an 800-m container berth and a fishing harbour. Breakwater construction had faced several setbacks including the Ockhi cyclone, change of guard at the organisation and shortage of granite. Granite sourcing issues have since been sorted out.

Rajesh Jha, CEO, AVPPL, sees Vizhinjam as a game-changer, it being expected to account for 80% of India’s transhipment cargo. It is projected that the port could help the country save at least Rs 1,500 crore per year in foreign exchange. “Apprehensions and controversies are temporary. I’ve seen ports like Mundra develop into super industrial zones with social spin-offs. The commissioning of Vizhinjam too would transform the economic geography,” he feels.