For generations, the predominantly Muslim fishing village of Sakhari-Nate has remained a Congress stronghold for no particular reason other than the dread of a saffron sway. But the village of 10,000 has now decided to vote en masse for the Shiv Sena when the Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg parliamentary constituency — currently held by Nilesh Rane, the son of Maharashtra Industries Minister Narayan Rane — goes to polls on April 17.
The day after the polls, it is planned, they will converge at the Shaheed Tabrez Sayekar chowk at the entrance to the village to mark the third death anniversary of Tabrez.
The 30-year-old was shot in 2011 in police firing during an agitation over the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project, that is proposed to come up less than 3 km away. A few others from the village had a narrow escape, including a 23-year-old who still has a bullet lodged in his chest and another who survived when a bullet grazed his forehead.
“The more noise we make, the more repressive the Congress government gets. We have decided to strike back silently through the ballot box,” says local fishing leader Mansur Solkar, who too got shot in the leg. Ever since he can remember, Sakhari-Nate has voted for the Congress, if only to keep “communal forces” at bay.
There is little evidence of that loyalty paying off for the village, with its dusty, inaccessible pathways snaking up to clusters of ramshackle huts. “This time every party other than the Congress has promised to help us in our anti-nuclear plant agitation. We do not want the anti-Congress vote to be split and, therefore, will unanimously vote for the Sena,” says Solkar.
The village churns out a third of Ratnagiri district’s annual fish catch of 1.25 lakh tonnes, much of which is exported. For what is said to be the world’s largest nuclear power generating station — being built by French company Areva — the state acquired 938 hectors of land. The protests quelled over a period of time after the state hiked the compensation package for the 2,336 landholders from the five nearby villages of Madban, Karel, Niveli, Varliwada and Mithgavane.
However, the fisherfolk from Sakhari Nate were not recognised as project-affected as they own no land.
Amjad Borkar, vice-president of the Macchimar Kruti Samiti, recalls that in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the entire village had foregone a day’s catch in order to vote for Nilesh Rane.
A Congress worker himself, Borkar admits that the tide has turned. “There is a lot of seething anger against the Congress in a village that has since Independence voted for no other party. Till date there has been no word from the government on compensation for the fishermen who will be uprooted by the project nor for those who were the casualties of the police firing,” says Borkar.
Tabrez’s father Abdul Sattar Sayekar, who despite his failing health now fends for his family by repairing fishing nets, says Sena leaders including Uddhav Thackeray and Vinayak Raut — the BJP-Sena’s candidate from the seat — have visited his family since the incident.
“Not once did Congress leaders bother to enquire about us even though they were responsible for my son’s death,” he says. The family’s letters to Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan asking for a judicial probe into the firing went unheeded.
The fishermen are scared that millions of cubic metres of hot water will be released into the sea by the nuclear reactors, severely reducing their catch, as claimed by some studies. They are also apprehensive of their exports and sales being affected by radiation fears, and of tighter security around the nuclear plant hindering access to sea.
“Most of the studies so far have have been surveys or based on secondary data but the government has never carried out a scientific study. The pipeline used for extracting sea water for cooling the plant will also suck in much of the smaller fish, eggs and marine life that act as fish feed,” claims Borkar.
Back in a decrepit tea stall in the village, Tabrez’ father laments, “The sea is our farm. The entire village will have to relocate if the nuclear plant comes up. We don’t know if voting in another party will change matters, but the least we can do is cast our vote and then hope.”