In Kanniyakumari, Wadge Bank is the election issue residents want to talk about… and resolve - Hindustan Times

In Kanniyakumari, Wadge Bank is the election issue residents want to talk about… and resolve

Apr 14, 2024 09:48 PM IST

Residents of this district are more concerned with the Centre’s decision to allow exploration of oil and gas blocks in the biodiversity-rich ocean region

Union home minister Amit Shah was in Tamil Nadu Lok Sabha constituency, Kanniyakumari, on Saturday, where he accused the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in the state of “hurting” the sentiments of people by insulting Sanatana Dharma.

Kanniyakumari is the southernmost district in Tamil Nadu(Unsplash) PREMIUM
Kanniyakumari is the southernmost district in Tamil Nadu(Unsplash)

However, as election issues go, residents of this district are more concerned with the Centre’s decision to allow the exploration and development of three oil and gas blocks in the biodiversity-rich Wadge Bank by utilising provisions under the Hydro-carbon Exploration and Licencing Policy (HELP) of 2016.

Wadge Bank is an ocean region in the far south that spans 10,000 square kilometres and is known for its wide variety of marine organisms. Minimal movement in terms of currents, waves, and tides create optimal conditions to accumulate nutrients and fish food.

Oil exploration will impact the region's ecosystem and cause a direct and significant threat to the livelihoods of fish workers in Kanniyakumari and Tirunelveli districts of Tamil Nadu. Further, fish workers associated with the Vizhinjam and Neendakara fish landing centres in Kerala will also be affected.

Environmental activist and former IAS officer M. G. Devashayam, who hails from Kanniyakumari, said that he wrote a series of letters to the Union fisheries department and the Union ministry of petroleum and natural gas, requesting that they withdraw the plan proposing exploration, which was announced on January 14.

Devasahayam said that environmental and economic impact assessments, and consultations with individuals likely to be affected by the project, have not been done as yet.

“Oil exploration could destroy all the livelihood options of the fishing community in this part of the country, and as a result, they would land up in poverty and deprivation,” he wrote in his letter dated January 20, 2024. Industrial activity and the possibilities of pollution caused by oil exploration could ravage the ocean ecosystem, he added.

Nazareth Basilian of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Maria Jennifer of Naam Thamizhargal Katchi (NTK) are two candidates in the fray for the Lok Sabha seat, both belong to the fishing community. They have turned the exploration bid into an election issue, and both accuse Bharatiya Janata Party's candidate Pon Radhakrishnan as well as Vijay Vasanth of the Congress of ignoring the matter. 

When prime minister Narendra Modi amplified a Right To Information (RTI) response obtained by BJP Tamil Nadu unit president K Annamalai on Katchatheevu by accusing the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government of giving away the strategic island to Sri Lanka, the Congress drew attention to the Wadge Bank stating that the country received sovereign rights over this area of the sea in exchange.

Tamil Nadu Congress spokesperson Dr P. Senthil said the Indira Gandhi government ensured environmental and livelihood protection by signing a treaty with Sri Lanka on sovereign rights over the sensitive marine region in 1976. Senthil said Vijay Vasanth, the party candidate in the fray from the Kanniyakumari seat, has sought to repeal permission for oil exploration.

In February, the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons under the Union ministry of petroleum and natural gas, formally announced a notice inviting offers (NIO) to explore and develop oil and gas blocks in the Wadge Bank region.

"Wadge Bank was the mainstay of marine resources for fisherfolks of the southern districts of India. The livelihoods of the local communities must be protected at any cost. We are approaching all candidates in Kanyakumari constituency, seeking their interventions to get the bidding for these three blocks cancelled," said S P Udayakumar, writer and anti-nuclear activist who works among the fishing community of the locality.

According to Devasahayam, there are a handful of similar banks worldwide, one of which is situated southwest of Kanniyakumari’s shoreline. “It is comparable to a storage facility, a feeding house for the fish, and there are multiple reef systems in this region, which are home to more than sixty different kinds of aquatic species and more than two hundred different species of exceptional fish,” he said.

S. Lazarus of the Nagercoil-based Institute of Environmental Research and Social Education said marine life ecosystems are often overlooked, as they are not seen as a top priority for offshore-based projects. Wadge Bank was an invaluable treasure that indigenous people and communities depended on for food and resources, he said. “Targeting these sensitive places for oil development is like cutting a golden egg-laying goose. This would destroy tradition, employment and livelihoods," he added.

As per the 1976 India-Sri Lanka agreement on the maritime boundary between the two countries, the Wadge Bank falls within India's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and the agreement states that India "shall have sovereign rights over the area and its resources. Under the pact, Sri Lankan fishermen and vessels cannot fish in the Wadge Bank. The pact also gave India the right to explore the Wadge Bank for petroleum and other mineral resources.

Though the BJP unit in Kanniyakumari has not yet addressed the issue, leaders speaking on the condition of anonymity said the Union government was attempting to benefit the country's oil self-sufficiency.

Kanyakumari constituency, which shares borders with Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, has always been a bastion of national parties.

Christians, who form over 40% of the electorate, side with the Congress. Hindus, especially Nadars and Pillais, largely formed the support base of the BJP, which won an assembly seat in the district in 1996. BJP wrested the seat (formerly Nagercoil) from the Congress for the first time in 1999 in an alliance with the DMK but lost every other election till it emerged victorious in 2014. It eventually ceded the seat to Congress in the 2019 elections and again in 2021 by-elections.

The constituency, consisting of the Kanniyakumari, Nagercoil, Colachel, Vilavancode, Padmanabhapuram, and Killiyoor assembly segments, has 1.5 million voters.

Vasanth is the son of businessman H Vasanthakumar of Vasanth & Co, a  popular consumer electronics company. The BJP has fielded Pon Radhakrishnan, a familiar face who lost in 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

While the two parties will undoubtedly get their core votes this time as well, the million-dollar question is whether the fish workers (who are predominantly Christians) aggrieved by the Wadge Bank issue will split their votes and hurt the Congress.

One major advantage for Congress here is its alliance with Tamil Nadu's ruling DMK, which fought and won a protracted war against unscientific oil exploration attempts in the Cauvery Delta region by the first Narendra Modi government. The DMK has already stated that it would not allow oil exploration in the Wadge Bank.

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