KERALA

UDF bid to stave off protests over tourism project

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM MAY 9. The United Democratic Front (UDF) convener and senior Congress leader, Oommen Chandy, visited the Kovalam canal area following a spate of protests from local people against the Government's decision to lease out a major portion of the canal and its banks to a Mumbai-based group for the construction of a tourist resort.

The residents of the Thiruvallam village have been agitating for the past several months alleging that the private resort developers were resorting to largescale encroachment of the canal which is traditionally used for retting coconut husks. The local coir industry supports tens of thousands of families in the area.

Mr. Oomen Chandy inspected the place and listened to the woes of the local people. He also spoke to the representatives of the private promoters of the project who were present at the site.

Later, speaking to mediapersons, Mr. Chandy was totally non-committal on the entire issue. He said that the Government was not against the project for it would bring in tourist revenue. "However, development should not be at the cost and expense of the livelihood of the people and prospects of traditional sectors such as coir. The Government would work out a programme for rehabilitating those affected in the coir sector. The UDF would try to bring in a consensus into the issue by taking the local populace into confidence,'' he said.

Mr. Chandy refused to comment on issues relating to coalition politics despite being beset by the reporter of a television channel. "I am here to study this local issue. There is no space for politics here. I will not take questions on the recent developments in the UDF,'' he told the persistent TV reporter.

The main grouse of the local people was that the resort developers were using the lease agreement with the Government as a cover to reclaim a whole stretch of the canal and appropriate public land.

The agreement to lease out the canal for the hotel project was finalised at a meeting convened by the Chief Secretary on January 18. The project envisages the construction of 20 stationary floating cottages on the canal which stretches from Panathura to Hotel Samudra for over three kilometres. The lease agreement is for 30 years with provisions for revising the rate at appropriate intervals.

The Kovalam Canal Samrakshana Samithy, comprising coir workers and local people, had embarked on an agitation to oppose the hotel project. Last month, police had to intervene after samithy volunteers demolished a wall constructed by the hotel group on the road bordering the canal. The samithy alleges that the illegally constructed wall had blocked access to the public road used by coir workers to bring in coconut husk and take out the coir. The five coir cooperative societies in the area employ about 20,000 workers.

Mr. Oomen Chandy was accompanied by Thampanoor Ravi and Shakthan Nadar, both Congress MLAs. The UDF convener said that the road owned by the Irrigation Department should not be blocked by the resort developers. Local people, including coir workers and fisherfolk, should have free and un-restricted access to the beach.

The developers were at a loss to give an answer when Mr. Chandy quizzed them regarding the closure of the road. He said such unilateral actions would not be brooked by the Government. The developers should take the local people into confidence and allay their fears and doubts, he said. The hotel project is part of a comprehensive tourism development package and involves dredging and widening the Kovalam canal to facilitate uninterrupted flow from the lagoon. The proposal may be tied to the Canal Walk project and is expected to improve infrastructure for the much-needed development of the Kovalam beach. The Government is seeking a Rs.50-crore assistance from the NABARD for the dredging work.

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