Web of fishermen’s issues to the fore in Kanyakumari Lok Sabha constituency

Proximate to ‘God’s own country’ — Kerala — Kanyakumari, which shares several of its geographical features, including the famous wetlands on the southern tip, is in for a breathtaking, six-cornered contest in the coming Lok Sabha polls, where national parties have traditionally held sway.

For all its greenery, the low returns from agriculture, migration of fishermen in search of employment to the neighbouring districts and abroad due to lack of infrastructure facilities, the inter-State water dispute (between Kerala and Tamil Nadu) and failure to tap the tourism potential in and around Kanyakumari are among the major issues that dominate the poll scene here.

A fortress of the Indian National Congress (the constituency was called ‘Nagercoil’ until the delimitation of 2008) for over four decades since the first General Election in 1952, that returned late veteran Congress leader K. Kamaraj twice, this parliamentary constituency was won by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Pon. Radhakrishnan in 1999, as part of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-BJP alliance. In 2004, Nagercoil was wrested by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) candidate, A. V. Bellarmin, as part of a DMK-led alliance, while in the last Lok Sabha poll in 2009, the newborn Kanyakumari constituency was won by the DMK itself, whose candidate, J. Helen Davidson, convincingly defeated her nearest BJP rival, Pon. Radhakrishnan, as part of a Congress-inclusive alliance.

This time the regional parties are hogging the limelight more. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has fielded D. John Thangam as its candidate, while the DMK has put up F.M. Rajaratinam. The BJP has re-nominated Mr. Radhakrishnan, as also the CPI (M) in fielding Mr. Bellarmin. Former Congress MLA, H. Vasantha Kumar, is the Congress candidate now and the new entrant is the anti-nuke activist, S. P. Udayakumar, fielded by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

However, gone are the days when the fate of the contesting candidates was decided by their caste/religious considerations alone. Now the voters look for representatives who could also effectively voice the people’s concerns and the constituency’s development needs in Parliament. Post-delimitation, Kanyakumari Lok Sabha constituency comprises the six Assembly segments of Kanyakumari, Nagercoil, Colachel, Padmanabhapuram, Vilavancode and Killiyur. With the AIADMK jumping into the fray directly for the first time, and the AAP fielding the coordinator of the ‘People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE)’, who has been spearheading a relentless agitation against the Kudankularm Nuclear Power Plant, the poll battle is getting more intense.

As nearly one-third of Tamil Nadu fishermen reside in Kanyakumari district, their myriad problems have again come to the fore in the run-up to the election. Known for their adventurous spirit, over 50,000 Kanyakumari fishermen are engaged in deep-sea fishing and another 40,000 of them are fishing in the Gulf countries. “There must be a separate Fisheries Ministry in the Central government to cater to the needs of fisher folk in the nine coastal States and of the inland fishermen in all the States,” emphasises Fr. Churchil, general secretary of the South Asian Fishermen Fraternity.

The safety and security of fishermen is naturally uppermost on voters’ minds here. About 25 fishermen, on an average, go missing or die in Kanyakumari district alone every year. To rescue the missing fishermen the government should establish a helipad, and station helicopters and speed boats in Colachel to carry out rescue operations, adds Fr. Churchil. The travails of the deep-sea fishermen are even riskier. When they sail up to 500 nautical miles for fishing they are subjected to natural calamities, mechanical failures in their boats etc. But their communication facilities are woefully inadequate, says Fr. Churchil, who also presses for immediate steps to check the severe sea erosion in the coastal fishing hamlets. “Groynes are needed in every coastal village to save the shore and fisher folks’ homes,” he demands.

Another agonising problem is that of Indian fishermen working abroad treated as “bonded labourers” in several Gulf countries. Our government has to appoint a special officer in every Indian Embassy in Gulf countries to take care of the needs of poor fishermen, says P. Justin Antony, district president of the AIADMK fishermen youth wing. A ‘Tuna fishing training institute’, as it is the most unpolluted kind of fishing, and withdrawal of the Coastal Zone Regulations to ensure the fisher folks’ livelihood are among the other key demands raised by the fishermen community here.

The steep fall in fish production off the Kannyakumari coast — from one lakh tonnes in 1984 to 42,000 tonnes in 2013, despite an over 300 per cent increase in the number of mechanised boats — is another major cause for concern, they point out. Pristine paddy fields are also giving way to illegal housing sites and the drinking water situation is no better, either, with some parts of the district headquarters town getting municipal water only once in ten days.

When contacted, sitting MP Ms. Davidson said she had fulfilled all the poll assurances given to the people of the district and had spent the entire amount allocated under ‘MPs’ local area development fund’ for the benefit of people from all walks of life. She is also banking on the DMK and its allies standing rock-like to ensure the rights and welfare of the minorities in this constituency. However, with three of the main candidates in the fray this time, Mr. Thangam (AIADMK), Mr. Rajaratinam (DMK) and Mr. Bellarmine (CPI-M), belonging to the Roman Catholic community and three other candidates — Mr. Radhakrishnan (BJP), Mr. Vasanth Kumar (Congress) and Mr. Udayakumar of APP — all hailing from the ‘Hindu Nadar’ community, the resultant split in votes is expected to make the contest for Kanyakumari a tightrope walk for all the key parties.