Armed with his disarming style and youthful charm, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi on Thursday cast a wide net to catch the votes of the seven million strong fisherfolk community in Maharashtra.
Interacting informally with around 250 fishermen and fisherwomen at the Versova Beach under a blazing sun, Gandhi was blessed by an elderly fisherwoman, while others expressed their desire to see him as India's prime minister.
"I have not come to give a speech. I wanted to understand your problems. Your situation is similar to the farmers and other deprived sections. You need to be empowered... get your rights. We have done this for the past 10 years, in different ways, to empower, give rights and security to the people," he said.
Rahul Gandhi interacting with people at the Versova Gaothan. Pic/IANS
True to his words, Gandhi gave a patient hearing to all the woes of the fisherfolk - something that was a rare instance for the community who complain of being pushed around by the existing hierarchy, despite their significant contribution.
Sporting his trademark white kurta-pyjama, at one point, Gandhi was suddenly attracted by a typical Koli fishermen's cap - red with a black border - and wanted one for himself.
Someone from the gathering immediately presented one to the Congress vice president who sported it proudly much to the approval of the gathering, as now he didn't look much different from his subjects, the fishermen also attired in sparkling white kurtas-lungis and sporting the red-and-black bordered caps!
Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and Congress general secretary and local (Mumbai Northwest) MP Gurudas Kamat, who were also present, quickly followed suit - not to be left behind their leader.
A fisherwoman first blessed Gandhi and recalled the services of his grandmother, the late prime minister Indira Gandhi.
"She never disappointed anybody. You should also follow suit and make everybody happy," said the woman from Santacruz Koliwada.
A smiling Gandhi acknowledged her blessings by hugging her and bending before her.
As Chavan gave guarded responses - in view of the model code of conduct - and Kamat attempted to summarise or translate some of the queries posed in Marathi, several fisherfolk listed their problems and demands which were common to their ilk across the state.
The most prominent demands were for a subsidy on diesel prices for powering fishing boats, power subsidy for cold storage facilities in the 150-odd fishing villages in the state, and abolition of the inexplicable "road tax" on fishing boats which sail in the high seas.
A fisherwoman recounting problems by encroachers and realtors grabbing lands and pushing the fishing folk to small coastal corners, posed a direct query to Gandhi: "Whose side you are on?"
Apparently taken aback, Gandhi saved the situation with a witty rejoinder. "I have come to meet you all here. So whose side do you think I am?"
"I am always with the poor and the weak," he added, even as the gathering - and Chavan and Kamat - relaxed.
A fisherman said they have been fishing here for centuries and contributed a turnover of around Rs.16,000 crore but they had no representation in the legislatures or parliament - a chorus that was taken up some others.
Gandhi readily assured that he would include the fisherfolk in the selection process of candidates, as has been done by the Congress in 15 Lok Sabha constituencies for the ensuing elections.
"Then, I am sure you will get your representatives," he said amidst applause.
Some fishermen demanded a separate ministry of fishing for the benefit of the country's 25-million (2.5 crore) strong fisherfolk community spread across the nine coastal states.
"At present, we come under the agriculture ministry and our needs are not understood or implemented properly. With a separate ministry, we shall get adequate budgets and all our problems can be addressed effectively," urged one fisherman.
Listening to him attentively, Gandhi said he liked the suggestion and felt that it could be seriously considered.
Another demanded setting up of an "autonomous coastal council", while others sought increased floor space index to construct larger homes and some authority over the coastal areas where the fishing folk live and work.
They also sought reservations in education and jobs for the new generations Kolis, separating the Koli community and bringing them under a new special category to enable them get benefits of various government schemes, curbs on pollution of the waters from where they earned livelihood, etc.
Some women sought concessional banking loans or cheap loans against mortgage of jewellery. "Currently, even the nationalised banks do not consider our trade as worthy for any kinds of loans and we are thrown out," one woman lamented.
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