The CPI (M)-led Kerala government is under fire for inking a deal with an American firm for deep sea fishing and allied processing, what the Congress-led Opposition calls a bid to sell off the state’s marine wealth, endangering the livelihood of lakhs of fishermen in the state.
What is the controversial deal all about?
On February 28, 2020, the Kerala Industrial Development Corporation (KIDC), an investment promotion agency under the Industries Department, signed an MoU with EMCC International India Private Limited, the Indian art of New York-based EMCC Global Consortium LCC, for “Fisheries research and development for the up-gradation and promotion of deep sea fishing in Kerala”. The firm had stated that the total outlay of the project was Rs 5,000 crore. That deal was signed 48 days after KSIDC organised a global investors’ meet, ASCEND-2020, in Kochi.
One of the stated objectives of the deal was deep sea fishing with state-of-the-art technology. The components of the project were building 400 deep sea fishing trawlers as per the design proposed by EMCC, five mother vessels with modern technology, upgradation of 14 fishing harbours in Kerala as per EU standards, 50 sea food processing plants, hospitals and air ambulances for fishermen and aquaculture farms.
The proposal said the EMCC would train and deploy 1.60 lakh fishermen in deep sea fishing. Their skills would be upgraded, and the local fishing community would benefit in terms of direct and indirect employment opportunities, apart from the supplementary economic benefits triggered by the fishing and processing activities.
As a sequel to the MoU EMCC had inked with KSIDC in 2020, Kerala Shipping and Inland Navigation (KSINC), a public sector entity under Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, on February 2, 2021, signed a new agreement with the same US-based firm for manufacturing 400 deep sea trawlers and related activities at a cost of Rs 2,950 crore. The government had officially announced this agreement, in which KSINC was expected to give infrastructure facilities to EMCC for manufacturing deep sea vessels. It said these deep sea vessels would be given to traditional fishermen and the company would modernise fishing harbours and engage in processing industry along the state’s coast.
How is the proposed project against fisheries policy?
The Union Government had in 2017 withdrawn permission given for foreign trawlers three years back for deep sea fishing in the exclusive economic zone of the country. The EEZ of the country extends up to 370 km from the coastline. Illegal fishing by foreign vessels in Indian waters is punishable under provisions of Maritime Zone of India (Regulation of Fishing by Foreign Vessels Act) 1981. In fact, foreign trawlers had been operational since 1997 with the then Union Government issuing letters of permission for foreign trawlers.
In Kerala, the fisheries policy of the CPI (M) government, brought in 2018, oppsoed allowing foreign and native corporate vessels along the state’s coast. Indian corporate groups in deep sea fishing along the Kerala coast said it would exert pressure on the Union Government to ensure that sanction is not given for foreign vessels. The professed policy of the state is to equip the traditional fishermen for deep sea fishing by making them owners of deep sea fishing vessels.
Besides, there would be restrictions on the number of vessels. Only traditional fishermen would be given permission to replace their old boats.
Are the Chief Minister, his cabinet colleagues aware of the project and MoUs?
After Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala raised the allegation, the government has been vehemently denying the deal with the US firm. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Industries Minister E P Jayarajan and Fisheries Minister J Mercykutty Amma have refuted the allegation that they met EMCC executives and claimed that no such MoU existed. However, Chennithala has revealed the details of the visits. EMCC said they had met the Chief Minister in his official residence in August 2019.
The government had denied the original MoU of 2020 and the subsequent one in which KSINC is involved. Vijayan claimed he was not aware of the Rs 2,950-crore deal by KSINC, an entity which is under him and which has former chief secretary Tom Jose as its chairman.
However, there is a chain of incidents that show the entire issue has been under the eye of the government at various levels since 2018. The EMCC executives had met Fisheries Minister J Mercykutty Amma in New York in April 2018, and discussed the project. In July 2019, the EMCC had a meeting with fisheries secretary K R Jyotilal and discussed the concept paper in detail. EMCC had also then sought a letter of intent from Kerala government for the project worth Rs 5,000 crore. In October 2019, the state wrote to the External Affairs Ministry to verify the credentials of the EMCC International India Private Ltd.
Later, in January 2020, the project was showcased at ASCEND-2020, the investors meet, leading to inking of the MoU on February 28, 2020. Early this February, KSIDC had given a letter to the firm allotting four acres of land in Alappuzha for fish processing. Also on February 2 this year, KSINC inked a deal with EMCC for manufacturing of deep sea fishing vessels and related harbour developments at an outlay of Rs 2950. Interestingly, it was on February 11 this year, that EMCC approached Jayarajan seeking cabinet consent for the entire project.
How has the issue snowballed into a pre-poll controversy?
The Opposition allegation that CPI (M) is trying to sell off the marine wealth to the US firm has suddenly stoked fire along the coast. The project was not debated among stakeholders. Many of the project components would end up privatisation of the state fisheries sector, including the harbours. Various fishermen community organisations, except the one affiliated to CPI (M), have declared a coastal hartal on February 27. The Congress and the BJP are playing the issue to the hilt among the fishermen community. The issue has embarrassed the CPI (M) as it looks contradictory to its own professed stand against the corporates in fisheries and agriculture sectors. Besides, the alleged bid of the Government to keep the deal from the public eye has also created a furore. The Industries Minister had skipped the KSIDC MoU with EMCC when the Opposition during the Assembly session sought details about follow-up actions on ASCEND, the investors meet.
What is EMCC?
EMCC is a global consortium headquartered in New York with an Indian arm called EMCC International India Limited. Although the firm had proposed projects worth Rs 5,000 crore in the state’s fisheries sector, its letter to the government has not mentioned about the firm’s track record in the marine sector. EMCC has said the proposed project in Kerala is its maiden entry into the marine industry. The firm has stated it has a stake in various business verticals such as real estate, tourism, health and trading. It has been involved in several infrastructure and engineering projects in various countries.