In Kanyakumari, Christian fisherfolk suspect foul play in mass deletion of voters' names, cite opposition to Sagarmala as reason
The Christian fisherfolk community in Kanyakumari is seeking a re-election in the Lok Sabha constituency, alleging a conspiracy to silence them through mass deletion of names of voters from fishing villages, for protesting against the BJP-led Central government's scheme to develop the coastline under the Sagarmala project
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Kanyakumari: In Tamil Nadu, a state that cast aside national parties very early, Kanyakumari is a rare case of a direct fight between the BJP and Congress. In the last parliamentary elections, the BJP had made a comeback in the state after almost 15 years with the solitary seat of Kanyakumari held by Pon Radhakrishnan. Considered a bellwether constituency, over the past five years, the Centre has earned a lot of ill-will in southern constituency, especially among the fisherfolk communities.
There are as many as 47 fishing villages dotted along the district's coast, populated primarily by Christian fisherfolk. Relegated to the periphery of the society, the fishing industry here is facing several threats — ecological, political and developmental. The last three years have seen multiple protests by fishing communities mainly against the local projects slated to be developed under the ambitious, pan-India Sagarmala project, which looks to unlock the potential of the country’s coastline and inland waterways to drive industrial development. The National Perspective Plan for the scheme was released in April 2016 and lists 150 initiatives with a total outlay of ₹4 lakh crores.
Members of fisherfolk community in Kanyakumari. 101Reporters
Soon after, the Enayam International Container Trans-shipment Terminal (EICTT) was mooted, stretching 12 kilometres along the coast and including a four-lane highway and railway line. But this also meant displacement of 20,000 fishing families from eight villages in this district. The proposed location had already been moved for reasons unknown from Colachel, known for its natural harbour and is just 10 kilometres away. After sustained protests, the port terminal was cancelled in late 2017 and moved to a new location in the same district, nearer to Kovalam. Despite authorities assuring that displacement and land acquisition for the project will be considerably less, concerns over loss of agricultural land and waters for fishing, and drastic changes to the local coastal landscape persist.
Given the administration’s record on rehabilitation, the people here are understandably worried about being forced to move away from their livelihood.
"What about their jobs?" asks Manikandan S, a local fisherman.
“A fisherman can’t do anything but fishing. But you are removing him from the coast? What about alternate employment for him? Will the government give them jobs? If they are ready to give two — or even one — jobs per household, we can ask them to move."
There are also concerns that the port, and the subsequent naval traffic, will destroy the rich breeding grounds around Kanyakumari and affect the quality and quantity of the catch.
S Joslin, who might have to move if and when the port gets underway, says, “About a couple of years ago, when we heard that a port was going to be built in the village of Enayam in Kanyakumari, the people here came together strongly and protested until the plans for the port were called off," she remembers.
"Now they have decided to build a port in another part of Kanyakumari. This decision from the Central government has worried us. We are afraid that we will be removed from the land our ancestors lived in and be forced to become refugees. So, no one in Kanyakumari wishes that the port come here," adds Joslin.
In fact, the common gripe here is that the government doesn’t consider the community an important stakeholder in its development plans even though one of the four components of Sagarmala is the upliftment and development of fishing communities.
Consider the proposed shipping corridor along the entire coast of India that was to be exclusively used by ships. Fisherfolk associations along the western coast up till Kanyakumari held a protest last October, furious at not being consulted on the position and provision of the corridor, something that would directly impact their livelihoods.
That, and the alleged apathy shown by the Centre and the local administration during the Ockhi Cyclone in 2017. Fisherfolk activists claim that their fishermen were "punished" for their opposition to several government projects and the several hundred fishermen who were caught in the cyclone, were simply allowed to die.
Despite the visit of Union Minister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman, who promised every effort towards the rescue of these men, they claim the Naval and Coast Guard operations were half-hearted and perfunctory. Their MP never visited them during the whole time they were mourning, protesting and trying to call national attention to their plight.
File image of Pon Radhakrishnan, BJP candidate from Kanyakumari, Twitter
It is in this backdrop that Kanyakumari went to polls on 18 April along with the rest of Tamil Nadu. But as the day unfolded, it emerged that more than 45,000 names, mainly of those belonging to coastal villages, had been deleted from the list. In some cases, even those who had a voting slip were not able to cast their vote and were turned away. This led to a huge outcry in Kanyakumari both by the Opposition and the missing voters, who suspect a deliberate deletion of names targeted at a certain community that had been vocal in their displeasure with the Centre. This, however, isn’t the first time. Both in 2014 and 2016 several fisherfolk found themselves unable to exercise their franchise, though not in this scale.
Father Churchill, the General Secretary of the South Asia Fishermen Association, said, "When we compared the voter list of last legislative Assembly election to the current Lok Sabha election, we found that 45,000 fishermen’s names have been left out. There should be a separate commission instituted to inquire into this and necessary action has to be taken. We are going to file a complaint in court regarding this and ask for severe action against the officials involved in this conspiracy."
Another association has already approached the court. The Tamil Nadu Fishermen Association has a filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Chennai High Court, highlighting the large-scale deletion of voters in five of the six Assembly constituencies within Kanyakumari.
"We have demanded that this election should be voided and re-election must be ordered for this constituency,” says advocate Rajini who has filed the case on the behalf of the fisherfolk.
“The High Court has issued a notice to the Election Commission demanding their response,” adds Rajini, terming the incident a huge injustice to the fisherfolk community, who are Christian minorities and living in the margins of the society.
"Their votes have been snatched away," she adds.
Tamil Nadu Chief Election Officer Satya Prakash Sahoo, however, contests the allegations. "In the 2016 voters chart of Kanyakumari Lok Sabha constituency, there were 14.47 lakh voters. Later, 7,671 voter names were removed. Then 18,791 voter names were added in the list and 2,371 removed. From September 2018 till 5 April, 10,000 voter names have been removed for the following reasons: the voter has died or the voter's name has been printed twice. Now, the government has issued an order to all district election officials to investigate whether any particular booth was involved in this issue."
While the EC and the courts wait on this, the Tamil Nadu Election Commission had recommended re-polling in ten booths were booth capturing and voter deletion by ruling alliance was alleged.
File image of Rahul Gandhi and Vasanthaumar H, Congress candidate from Kanyakumari. Twitter@vasanthakumarH
Would Kanyakumari also get this chance and would it even matter? This year, the BJP had no hesitation in re-nominating the sitting MP to contest against Congress’ H Vasanthakumar, a businessman who is the fourth richest candidate in the fray, according to the Association of Democratic Reforms.
Vasanthakumar, who is also a sitting MLA from Nanguneri in Thoothukudi district, had contested and lost against Pon Radhakrishnan in 2014.
There is a key difference this time around though. In 2014, the AIADMK, DMK, BJP, Congress, CPM and the rest were all competing against each other. The BJP won comfortably with a margin of more than 1.2 lakh votes. This time, however, it is a straightforward two-party contest, which brought big names down here for their campaigns.
While addressing a rally in Kanyakumari before the elections, Rahul Gandhi assured that once the Congress comes to power, a separate ministry for fishing will be instituted at the Centre. His candidate Vasanthakumar has promised he wouldn’t allow the setting up of any ports in the district while Radhakrishnan has clearly stated that the Sagarmala is critical for the government and it will go full-steam ahead once elected into power again.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had also dropped by to campaign for the BJP, claimed their government had released at least 1,900 Tamil Nadu fishermen from various international prisons after they came to power in 2014. He says NDA will build more harbours which are being implemented with a focus on the next generation.
The author is a Chennai-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters