The fisher community feels that the promises made by both Congress and BJP year after year, don’t actually address their demands.

As BJP Cong fight to get fishers attention not many are impressed in MalpeMalpe Fishing Harbour
Karnataka Elections Karnataka 2018 Thursday, April 19, 2018 - 16:41

The smell of freshly caught fish pervades the early morning air at the Malpe Fishing Harbour in Udupi. A cacophony erupts as fish sellers engage in a competitive joust to sell off their catch for the day only to make room for fresh ones.

Shekhar sidesteps the noise and walks across the harbour market area, and hops onto a boat docked close to the market.

“Elections? They make no difference to us out in the water,” he says as he sits down cross legged on the deck of a small purse seine boat. “Every year, new faces emerge. But our lives stay the same,” he adds.

62-year-old Shekhar has been a fisherman in Malpe for 43 years. He is not easily enthused by the topic of the upcoming Assembly elections in Karnataka, but remains a keen political observer. “I may not tell you which party I support, but I am a regular at political events in and around the harbour. In March, there was a rally by Amit Shah, and in the next two weeks, there will be a bike rally by the Congress starting from here,” he says.

The rally by BJP National President Amit Shah in Malpe on March 20 was the first time ever that the BJP had addressed a rally specifically for the fisher community in Udupi. It was attended by fishers from Udupi, Dakshina Kannada and Uttara Kannada.

In his speech, Shah called for a ‘Blue Revolution’ while proposing multiple schemes for the welfare of the community including health insurance, proper housing and gas connection to every household by 2023.

Fisher community in Malpe at the rally organised by the BJP on March 20

The Congress party in the district, too, has made the concerns of fishermen a priority in the past, and had earlier proposed the idea of forming a committee to protect the rights of small fishermen.

But according to Shekhar and several other community leaders, the schemes proposed by both the BJP and the Congress did not address many of the demands made by fisher associations from the region.

“Our concern has always been that benefits from the government should reach the fisher community, including those who are at the lowest level, and those who are indirectly involved in the trade: Women who sell dry fish, loaders, fishnet repairers, boat builders and so on,” says Shekhar.

He adds that the profit-sharing arrangement between owners of the boat and the people who work on it is also a matter of contention. “The profit-sharing in a purse seine boat is still 30%. So even on good days, when we go on a fishing trip and get Rs 5 lakh worth of fish, the people working will have to share Rs 1.5 lakh amongst themselves, while the rest goes to the owner,” he adds.

The tussle with owners for an increased share in profits is among a number of issues facing the community. Vasudev Boloor, General Secretary of the Karnataka Coastal Fishermen’s Action Committee, echoes Shekhar’s words and says that the issues plaguing the community often get lost in bureaucracy.

“In the Centre, we want a separate ministry for the fisher community. Currently, fisheries is a  department under the Ministry of Agriculture, which means that the budget set aside for the fisher community is negligible. If we had a separate ministry, we could hope to get a budget that is justified,” says Vasudev Boloor, reiterating a long-standing demand of creating a separate ministry for the welfare of the community.

In addition, community members also say that a demand to include the fisher community as a Scheduled Tribe would be welcomed, as most people involved in the profession live in poverty.

“While there are a few well-off fishermen in Mangaluru and Malpe, they are a minority. If you observe the living conditions and education of fishermen in large parts of the coastal districts, an ST tag will definitely come as a boost,” says Yathish Baikampady, ex-President of the Moguveera Vyavastapaka Mandali, an organisation working for the welfare of fishermen in the coastal districts.

In November 2017, the state government recommended an ST tag for the fisher community, which is currently being considered by the central government.

The calls for a separate ministry and the ST tag are among the topics discussed by the more politically active members of the fishermen community in Malpe. Other community members meanwhile are observing the efforts made by the national parties – Congress and BJP – in reaching out to the community. While the BJP has already hosted a rally for the community in March, the Congress is planning a bike rally from Malpe soon. The other major party in Karnataka – Janata Dal (Secular) is comparably less active in the coastal region.

“While steps have been taken to address the issues of the community, we feel that there is often a big difference between the schemes proposed by parties and those that we feel are important. The list of topics we need to discuss is actually longer. There is the issue of diesel subsidy, making storage units to store fish, proposal to continue fishing activities in the night and so on,” says Vasudev.

“We hope that these issues also figure in the discussion about the fisher community in the time of elections,” he adds.

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