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In its Kerala coastal harbour, LDF runs aground over US firm deal

Pinarayi cancels pact on deep-sea trawlers, but as Cong, Church join protests, fishing community says have lost trust.

In the 2016 Assembly polls, of the 49 constituencies that lie in Kerala’s coastal area, spread across eight districts, the CPM-led LDF had won 34, out of its total tally of 91. But now, clouds of uncertainty are looming over the ruling front in these seats as the fishermen community — the backbone of the Left’s support base in some of these districts —are angry with the state government for “betraying” them by signing a deal with an American firm over fishing which, they say, will cost them their livelihood.

The protests were initiated by the Congress, with Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala first revealing the existence of such a deal, and were joined by the influential Latin community. The LDF government first denied such a deal, though its PR department had earlier called it an achievement, but later, apprehensive of a poll blowback, cancelled the MoU it had signed with US-based EMCC International.

The Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KIDC) signed an MoU with EMCC for “Fisheries research and development for the up-gradation and promotion of deep sea fishing in Kerala” in February 28, 2020. The project involved building 400 deep-sea fishing trawlers as per design proposed by EMCC, five mother vessels with modern technology, upgradation of 14 fishing harbours as per EU standards, and 50 sea food processing plants, hospitals and air ambulances for fishermen. The proposal also said EMCC would train and deploy 1.60 lakh fishermen in deep-sea fishing, upgrading their skills.

In February this year, Kerala Shipping and Inland Navigation (KSINC), under Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, signed a new agreement with EMCC.

Jackson Pollayil, state president of the Kerala Swatantra Matsya Thozhilali Federation, an organisation of fishermen in the state, says they are suspicious of the government’s intentions. “No one from the fishermen community thinks the deal is dead. The government was forced to take such a step because of elections and the protests.”

The fact that the government kept the agreement under wraps and kept denying it till the Congress released the details have added to the apprehensions. Meanwhile, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s interactions with fishermen, including going fishing with them to the sea, has kept the issue alive.

Last week, the Latin Church lent its weight to the protests, with Kollam Bishop Paul Antony Mullasery issuing a letter warning the faithful against “the attempts to destroy the fishing sector and sell it to corporates” by the state and Centre. The letter was read out in churches.

The Latin Church has tremendous influence among its faithful, constituting more than 30% of the electorate in coastal areas.

CPM leader and Alappuzha MP A M Ariff calls the protests a “ploy to mislead” the fishing community. “The LDF is against allowing foreign trawlers for deep-sea fishing. What the government wanted to train the community to use modern trawlers and build trawlers for them as traditional methods are no longer profitable. The government hoped to do this step by step,” he says.

Hibi Eden, Congress MP from Ernakulam, who raised the matter in the Lok Sabha, counters that what is actually happening is clearing of the ground step by step for foreign firms to exploit marine wealth. “The government first amended its policy to allow foreign trawlers for deep-sea fishing. Then it issued an ordinance cancelling licences of old iron steel and fibre vessels, followed by the agreement with the US firm. One has to read all these together,” Eden says.

Speaking for the fishermen community is Joseph Xavier Kalappurackal, president of the Kerala Boat Operators’ Association and a CPM leader. Xavier, who has invited the ire of his party for being at the forefront of the protests, says, “The government that should have protected the people is destroying them. The fishing community is already in a crisis due to global warming, which depletes marine wealth, and the rising prices of diesel.”

The deal would directly affect around 1.5 lakh fishermen families in Kannur, Kozhikode, Thrissur, Malappuram, Ernakulam, Alappuzha, Kollam and Thi-ruvananthapuram, Xavier says.

Simon Alex, a Congress leader in Kollam, points out that the fishing community has barely recovered from Covid curbs, which included restrictions on sale of catch.

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