Palakkad: As Kerala goes to the polls on Tuesday, 6 April, it appears as if the Congress has started to gain some ground in the coastal belt, which has 49 of the state’s 140 seats. The Congress has started targeting the CPM-led LDF government over the deal signed by the state government with the US-based EMCC International, because of which the company will be allowed to conduct deep-sea fishing in the Arabian Sea. The deal  has angered the fishing community. The fishermen are saying that the state government has betrayed them by signing the deal, which, according to them, will adversely impact their livelihood. The backlash is such that the Kerala government claimed on Friday that they had cancelled the deal, but questions are being asked whether it had actually done so.

The Sunday Guardian spoke to some fishermen in Ponnani, from where Kerala Speaker P. Sreeramakrishnan is the sitting MLA. He was denied a ticket by the CPM because of its “two-term norm” and instead 75-year-old P. Nandakumar, national secretary of CITU, was fielded. The announcement triggered protests in the constituency as the cadre wanted T.M. Siddique, a popular face in the area, to be given the ticket.

Sadhik, a fisherman from Ponnani, told The Sunday Guardian, “We are in huge distress. There is no fish in the sea. Moreover, the prices of diesel are going north

because of which our income has been affected.”

He further added, “Last year in February 2020, the government had signed an MoU with EMCC International and they will be allowed to carry out fishing deep inside the sea. This will affect our livelihood. The government is betraying us.”

In 2016, the LDF won 34 seats out of the 49 coastal constituencies spread across eight districts. This coastal belt has always remained a bastion of the LDF.

But things are not looking very happy for the Left this time. Ateeq, a former councilor in Ponnani Municipality from the Indian Union Muslim League, told The Sunday Guardian, “Around 50,000 people are dependent on fishing. The LDF government increased the registration fee for bigger boats from Rs 4,000 to Rs 20,000 and for smaller boats from Rs 1,500 to Rs 10,000. They also brought the Harbour Management Society and now the fishermen have to donate 5% of their income to this society.”

Kabir, former vice president of the Boat Owners’ Association in Ponnani, told The Sunday Guardian, “This policy would affect the livelihoods of the boat owners and the labourers. Now, with the rise of diesel prices, the fishing business is no longer profitable. Moreover, the government has announced a boat-scrapping policy, because of which boats that are eight years old will have be scrapped as apparently they are polluting the sea. We are really unhappy with the government. In 2018, the government had promised to construct a wharf in Ponnani. That announcement too remains only in paper.”

Talking about the elections, the fishermen said that they would vote for Congress because the party has listed a slew of measures for the fishing community and also because of the candidate. “This place is a CPM bastion. The CPM has been winning from Ponnani; while Sreeramakrishnan, the outgoing Kerala Speaker, is a popular leader. But this time people will vote for Congress-led UDF because they have fielded a young candidate.”

The Congress has fielded A.M. Rohit, an advocate who practises in Ponnani court, whereas the CPM candidate is P. Nandakumar. The BJP gave this seat to its ally, Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, which has fielded Subramanian Chungapali.

Nainar, a labourer working on the Ponnani coast, told The Sunday Guardian, “A tough fight is happening in this constituency. Being a young candidate, Rohit is quite popular. People in this constituency know him. Nobody knows Nandakumar. But if people decide to remain loyal to CPM, then the CPM candidate will win this election. There are a lot of CPM supporters in this constituency.”

He agreed that nothing can be said at this moment for sure.

Sudhesh, a local vendor and a CPM supporter, said: “A couple of weeks ago, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had come to Ponnani. He said that he had personal relations with Nandakumar. He shared a lot of anecdotes about both of them when they were in jail. That is enough for the voters to vote for Nandakumar.”

On the allegations made by the fishermen, Nandakumar told The Sunday Guardian, “The deal with the EMCC has been cancelled. The government has a clear policy for the fishing community and it has been listed in our manifesto. If the media is still talking about it, then it is just propaganda by the Opposition parties.”

The Sunday Guardian tried to reach out to the Congress candidate, but there was no response from him.