Kollam (Ker), Feb 24: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday sought to reach out to fishermen in poll-bound Kerala, assuring them his party would include their needs in its election manifesto as he sailed with a group of fishers and expressed admiration for their work in sea braving all odds.
During an emotional interaction with thousands of fisherfolk, including women, at Thangassery beach in this southern coastal district, he also lashed out at the LDF government over the controversial pact for building trawlers, claiming it might affect the livelihood of fishermen.
"I understand and respect what you do. I admire what you are doing. Many times, we eat the fish but we will not understand the hard work behind and how it reached our plate," the Congress MP representing Wayanad in the state said.
He ventured into the sea with some fishermen in their boat from Vadi beach here around 4.30 am and spent nearly an hour with them before reaching the venue of interaction.
Gandhi also cast the net with them but could only catch one squid.
Clad in blue t-shirt and khaki trousers, the Congress leader could be seen waving hands to the onlookers from the boat while reaching back to the shores.
He told the fishermen that his party was consulting with various sections of society in order to prepare the election manifesto for the assembly polls, likely in April-May, and that their demands would be included and fulfilled.
Gandhi, who wound up his two-day tour of the state after the interaction, recalled he had pointed out in the Congress- led UDF meeting held here on Tuesday that the front should have a dedicated fishermen manifesto.
"So I would like the fishermen of Kerala and the Congress party and the UDF to have a conversation in the next two-three weeks and decide what they want in the manifesto," he said.
Gandhi, who last week interacted with fishermen in Puducherry, reiterated his claim that there was no 'dedicated' ministry for them.
Comparing the fishermen with farmers, he said "like farmers farm the land, you farm the sea... farmers have their ministry in Delhi but you don't have a ministry in Delhi.
"No one speaks for you in Delhi. So the first thing I would like to do is to have a ministry dedicated to the fishermen of our country. So thatyour issues can be defended and protected in this country," he said.
After similar remarks at Puducherry, BJP leaders, including Union ministers, had taken a swipe at Gandhi, saying such a ministry already exists and accused him of practising politics of 'lies'.
Referring to the agreement signed by a state-owned corporation and a US firm for alleged deep sea fishing, the former Congress president said he would like to see what they were going to do with the trawlers.
"I would certainly look intowhat the Kerala government is doing with regard to the trawlers they are building. I don't like an unfair situation. I am for competition but not unfair competition. There should be a level playing field for everybody," he said.
The UDF has raised charges, including corruption, against the Left front government over the alleged deep sea fishing contract with US-based EMCC International.
In the wake of the controversy, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had directed the officials concerned to cancel the MoU between EMCC and Kerala State Inland Navigation Corporation (KSINC) and probe the circumstances under which it was signed.
He reiterated his party's promise of Nyay Yojana, included in the draft manifesto released by the UDF last month, and said it would guaranteeevery poor person Rs 72,000 a year in their bank account.
"In our manifesto, we are developing a version of Nyay.
...Every single poor person in Kerala will get the money in the bank account. That would make their lives easier and help them to educate their children," he added.
Talking about his boat ride, Gandhi, who addressed the fishermen as "brothers' throughout the interaction, said he wanted to get a sense of what many of them go through every day.
"I went to sea early in the morning with my brothers.
From the moment the boat left the shore and till the moment it reached back the shore, every force was trying to fight my brothers," he said.
Sharing his experience of sailing with the fishermen, Gandhi said they take the entire risk.
"They put their entire labour and fight the sea. They buy the net and somebody else gets the profit," he said.
They threw the net and pulled it back out and there was one squid in it, he said.
"So the whole investment that was put into the boat, into the journey, the petrol within one minute, we saw there was no return. In my mind, I was expecting a net full of fish and the net came back empty. So I saw with my own eyes, your experience," Gandhi added.
Highlighting hardships of fishermen, he said petrol and diesel prices go up every single day and the fishing community cannot buy an engine beyond a certain size.
Gandhi continued his attack on the central government over the rise in fuel prices and alleged money from the people were being given to "two or three businessmen".
"Today the petrol price internationally is dropping.
But in India the petrol and diesel price is rising. This money is being taken from your pockets and given to two or three businessmen in India.I would like to make sure that more of this money comes into your pocket," he said.
The Congress MP said the fishermen also told him that they did not have any insurance.
"I have a sense of what you deal with. And now, when a fisherman comes to me to tell that they are struggling, I understand a little bit what they are going through...," Gandhi told the gathering.
"They cooked some fish on the boat. For the first time I realised, directly with my own eyes the difficulty to get the fish on the plate," he said amidst thunderous applause.
Noting that he wanted to work with them to make their life easier, the Congress leader also said he might not be able to resolve all their problems but can certainly address as many as he can.