Chennai fisherfolk: Once AIADMK votebank, now ready to move on

Representative purpose only.

The fishing community in Chennai North constituency is looking beyond their favourite All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

The lack of a strong leadership in the party and its hobnobbing with the Bharatiya Janata Party has prompted the loyal vote bank to explore other options like the DMK, whose tie up with Congress has found support.

Balaraman, a fisherman from Kasimedu – that has over 1.5 lakh voters – explains the disillusionment the community felt after the demise of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa in 2016. He wonders about the whereabouts of the area’s MP (TG Venkatesh Babu of AIADMK). “Never seen the man after he won the elections in 2014. But we have always been her (Jayalalithaa’s) supporter and found it a matter of immense pride that she contested as an MLA from our area. But we were orphaned after she passed away. No other minister or politician in the party has any vision or plans for us,” he says.

The Sangh Parivar has made inroads in the form of organising Ganesh Chaturthi festivals that have taken root, albeit in a religious way, for more than 25 years. But any political mileage for the BJP seems far cry. “The festival celebration is another story. No political party has made inroads here by diving people on basis of religion,” says Bhoopalan, another fisherman. He says while the BJP is seen more as a ‘Hindi’ party, the farmers’ protest across the country makes people here wonder if the party really cares for the marginalised.

The fishermen in Kasimedu have around 1,200 big boats and 1,100 fibre boats. An equally big community of fish vendors, some of them women, is dependent on fishing.  The community is in the middle of the yearly fishing ban that was extended from 45 days to 60 days last year. “No one consulted us before extending it by 15 more days. Some say the decision was taken after Andhra Pradesh extended the period. Over the past many years, even our basic demands have not been met and the measly allowance of Rs5, 000 we get during this time has done little for us.”

The spot (a bridge-like structure) where fishermen set up stalls is in a shambles, says Anbazhagan a fish merchant, in Kasimedu. “We are the biggest producers of fish and yet get nothing, not even a decent place to sell the catch. This bridge-like structure will not last long and we fear, we might be relocated to somewhere far like Ennore,” he says.

Fisherfolk who participated in the rallies of AIADMK earlier, are giving it a cold shoulder now. “We want change in our lives and we realised this party cannot give it to us. Even when we are not at work, we would rather stay away from it.”

Ennore, a few kilometres from Kasimedu, has a comparatively smaller community of fishermen comprising over 10,000 voters, traditionally AIADMK supporters. The absence of infrastructure coupled with the rapid deterioration of the Kosasthalaiyar river have been raging issues for the community for the past 20 years. Residents allege that the water in the area has been polluted by effluents from factories and fly ash from power plants (NTECL Vallur Thermal Power Station and North Chennai Thermal Power Plant). Health issues like respiratory problems and skin infections plague residents and the damage is huge and irreversible.

R L Srinivasan, a resident of Kattukuppam in Ennore where there are about eight fishing hamlets, says Kosasthalaiyar river has suffered because of political greed. “Some time ago, in 2006, some industrialists were planning to build a road through the river. Such was the political apathy towards us. However, we have begun to assert our rights,” he says.

He says none of the political parties has a manifesto that seeks to address environmental issues like they are facing. He, however, names Naam Tamilar Katchi’s Kaliammal, who is fighting elections from the constituency, as a safer alternative as she belongs to the community and understands the issues ailing fishermen. “She (Kaliammal) is aware of the impact of rapid development on us. We are not averse to development, we are only saying that it shouldn’t affect our livelihood.”

Ennore’s fishermen are wary of politicians and their intentions. However, they had a special place for ‘Jayalalithaa Amma’. The women especially revered her as she tried to empower them financially through saving schemes meant for them. Amarani, a homemaker from Kattukuppam, says, “Everyone takes care of farmers and says a lot about what they can do for them, but we are an equally big community. Why doesn’t any politician take care of our demands?”

The lack of colleges and quality schools have remained sore points. Srinivasan said, “We have to travel several kilometres to attend college – sometimes, as far as 30-40km. Thiruvottyur is supposed to have a Madras University campus but no one knows where it is. We have huge tracts of land in Ennore that can be used for upgrading educational infrastructure of the area and also in many parts of North Chennai like Royapuram,” he added.