Politics is a fishy business in the Somnath-Veravel assembly constituency.
The battle for around 36,000 votes of the traditional fishing community of Karawa and the Muslim fisherfolk has generated a lot of heat with both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress throwing muck at each other for the downslide in the fish-processing industry.
The other big chunk of votes for which both parties are competing for belong to the Koli community, comprising around 35,000 small farmers and landless labourers. Over 17,000 Rajput Darbars, 17,000 Ahirs and 14,000 backward castes [harijans] are some other bulk votes up for grabs in this 188,000-strong constituency.
Veravel is the largest fish-processing zone in Gujarat. While the coastline is dotted with fishing villages, the horizon is speckled with many deep-sea fishing trawlers. The conflict between the two provides the steam to the area's politics.
Congress candidate Jassabhai Barad says, "Bhay, bhook, bhrastachar [fear, hunger, corruption] used to be the slogan of the BJP. While the party has given bhay and bhook to the people, it has kept bhrastachar to itself."
Premji Munja Chawda, a Koli farmer with five bighas of land, is unhappy with the supply of water and power. "I barely manage to grow one crop a year. With one crop, what do I sell and what do I eat?" he asks.
Accusing the BJP of inaction, Jassabhai says with both the Centre and the state in their control, the party should have had no problem in keeping the promise of 18 hours of power supply to the farmers. "All that the farmers get now is three hours of power supply," he says. He promises to provide at least 12 hours of uninterrupted power supply if elected.
Chhotu Patel, head of the Karwa fishing association, says, "The fish market is down. Last month around 2,000 workers were fired by the fish-processing industry after a month-long strike. With deep-sea fishing trawlers netting all the fish, smaller fishermen are finding it difficult to survive. Moreover, the subsidy that we used to get on diesel has been removed, making it difficult for us to operate our boats economically."
Chunilal Gohel, the sitting MLA and BJP candidate, who belongs to the Karwa community, responds, "You can't blame politicians for the collapse of the fishing industry. It is doing badly because of lack of rains. For at least ten years now, this area has been getting deficient rainfall. When there is little or no rain, the salinity levels in the sea increase reducing the number of planktons and consequently prawns."
But Jassabhai, who is a Darbar Rajput, holds the BJP responsible for the downslide. "This is happening because the BJP government has deliberately ignored the fishing industry. In 1997, when I was the state fisheries minister, the fishermen came to me and asked for a jetty to be built in Veravel. Though my department did not have any money, I took a grant of Rs 12 crore from the contingency fund and constructed a jetty."
He also accused the Narendra Modi government of not passing on the benefit of subsidy to the fishermen. "The Central government gives a diesel subsidy of 33 paisa per litre. Till about three years ago the fishermen used to get it. Now, though the Central government is still giving the subsidy, the state government is not passing it on to the fishermen."
The state government has also stopped projects under the National Cooperative Development Cooperation, which were funded by the Central and the state government together.
Gohel laughs off these allegations saying, "No fish has come to a politician and asked not to be caught. Moreover, licenses to deep-sea fishing trawlers were given by the Congress government and not by us. In fact we are not extending the licenses of these trawlers."
Defending himself further, he adds, "In order to solve the drinking water crisis, I have constructed one overhead water tank in Somnath and two in Veravel."
But Vade Narang, an accountant working for a private firm in Somnath, says the the water and power supply situation is far from satisfactory. "We get water supply anywhere between four to five hours. At times, they release water in the afternoon or at times at night. It is very unpredictable. And you never know when the power will go off. Nowadays, we have unterrupted supply because of elections."
While there seems to be a general consensus on the need to improve the power and water supply, one issue on which Gohel is reaping the kudos is the law and order situation.
Laxmanbhai Chawda, a fishing trawler owner, says, "Five years ago, any little issue in Delhi or Ahmedabad would spark off Hindu-Muslim riots for weeks in Veravel. SRP [State Reserve Police] was a common sight. Even the army had to be called in at times. But ever since Gohel has come he has somehow managed to avert communal riots. There were no disturbances even during the post-Godhra period."
But Jassabhai retorts: "Chor ke haath mein chabhi hai. These were the people who used to indulge in rioting. With power in their hands, they can't afford to do that now."
In response, Gohel says, "Well, at least they can't say the same thing about the four-lane road from Junagadh to Somnath. That's a project executed with the blessings of Narendra Modi. Ask them whether a chor would do that."