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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 12, March 13, 2010

Tribute to Harekrishna Debnath

Friday 19 March 2010, by Santanu Chakraverti

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Harekrishna Debnath, veteran social activist, Chairperson of National Fishworkers’ Forum (NFF) and Executive Member of World Forum for Fisher Peoples (WFFP), passed away on December 30, 2009 at 11.15 am, at his residence in Ashoknagar, North 24 Parganas, West Bengal. On his demise the coastal fishers’ and fishworkers’ movement and the struggle for environment and social justice suffers a great loss.

In 2008, Debnath led what was to become one of the key milestones of the fishers’ movement in India, the national coastal campaign along the coast of India, which led to the final withdrawal of the proposed Coastal Management Zone Notification. Debnath played a crucial role in leading the protests against the eviction of fishworkers’ in Jambudwip. He also played a leading role in organising the struggle in 2006-07 against the proposed nuclear cluster at Haripur. Most recently, he had been active in protesting against the multi-SEZ proposal of a PCPIR at Nayachar in West Bengal. He was the founder Convener of the National Campaign for the Protection of Coast (NCPC). Debnath’s concern with coastal environmental issues led him to be associated as a Governing Body member with the Kolkata based environmental group, Society for Direct Initiative for Social and Health Action (DISHA).

Harekrishna Debnath was born in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, on the October 16, 1949. A brilliant student, he was studying Physics at the University of Dhaka, when he became active in student politics and became the President of the Chhatra League (the students’ body attached to the Awami League). Debnath was active in the independence movement of Bangladesh. Close to Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, he was the Editor of Padakshep, the mouthpiece of the Awami League. After Sheikh Mujib’s death in 1975, Debnath moved into India on a permanent basis. Thereafter he lived a life of hardship, but continued to be active in social movements in this country, including the movement for the rights of the Bangladeshi refugees who had fled to India from Pakistani repression.

Sometime in the early 1980s Debnath joined the NFF. He rose to become its General Secretary in 1985. Thereafter Debnath’s name became intimately associated with the fishworkers’ movements all over India. A charismatic speaker who could successfully address and electrify the masses, he could also charm academic audiences with his profound knowledge of coastal environmental and livelihood issues and an amazing ability to infuse life and drama into apparently dry information. His encyclopaedic knowledge of fisheries and rights issues of fishworkers led him to be appointed to the National Fisheries Development Board.

Harekrishna Debnath will be remembered by fishers and fishworkers all over India, particularly those who have long struggles ahead against the invasion of coastal land and waters.

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