Living on the edge

Published : Feb 11, 2005 00:00 IST

Fisherfolk live on the margins of society with comparatively poor development indicators. The tsunami comes as a crippling blow.

in Chennai

THE fishing community is the single biggest section of people in Tamil Nadu affected by the tsunami. Life in the fishing hamlets along the State's 1,000-km-long coast remains paralysed a month after the killer waves struck.

The fisherfolk's was a tragedy waiting to happen. Mostly living in thatched huts in densely populated hamlets on the edge of the shoreline, they have repeatedly borne the brunt of sea ingress, tidal waves and cyclones in the past. The only difference this time was the scale of the devastation. To the community, marginalised from the rest of society, the only hope is that the tide of humanitarian concern, evident in the massive contributions to their relief, will translate into a durable bond which will take it out of its isolation.

Although the loss of lives was concentrated in three or four districts, fisherfolk everywhere along the coast have been affected in some way or the other. Most of the boats and trawlers that were close to the shore on December 26 were destroyed; many need to be repaired before they can be used again. Essential fishing gear, including nets, has also been destroyed. Beaches near fishing hamlets are empty, and not a boat is seen in the sea. Fishing has come to a standstill. Those working as daily wage workers on trawlers are unable to get employment.

The Tamil Nadu government has estimated that more than 31,000 catamarans, made of wood as well as fibre reinforced plastic (FRP), were completely damaged by the tsunami. Moreover, 8,140 vallams, which are intermediate craft between catamarans and mechanised boats, suffered total damage. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has said that wooden catamarans and vallams will be replaced by FRP vessels. Replacing vallams and catamarans equipped with outboard motors is expected to cost the government almost Rs. 600 crores. In addition, nets and other fishing gear have been destroyed.

Fishermen are reputed for their skills in negotiating the sea, but now they fear that the sea may be holding more surprises for them in the days ahead. The irrational fear of fish consumers, fanned by irresponsible stories in the media that fish is likely to be contaminated, has only added to the woes of the fisherfolk. There is no official word about when they can start fishing. The means to earn livelihoods simply do not exist for most fishermen. It is understandable that repairing fishing craft and gear will take time. But it is not clear whether the government has any plans for interim relief measures, particularly in the shape of a food-for-work programme, that will not only provide relief but enable the reconstruction of assets.

Most of the nearly 1,000 mechanised boats that ply from Kasimedu in Chennai have suffered damage. Forty-seven have been completely destroyed. Pointing to the pieces of wood that remain of his trawler, B. Ramanujam said that most of the vessels at Kasimedu had not been insured. He said that most trawler owners found the 8 per cent annual premium too high. He pointed out that a new vessel cost about Rs.18 lakhs and the annual insurance premium would amount to more than Rs.1.5 lakhs, which most boat owners could not afford.

Boat owners, huddled together at the fishing harbour, watch cranes salvaging what remains of the boats. They do not know when they can sail again. Owners of several mechanised boats said that they would not venture into the sea unless all boat owners, even those whose vessels suffered only minor damage, were paid compensation. There is widespread fear that if they went to sea now they may miss the compensation. The wage-earners in Kasimedu, numbering more than 10,000, are without work.

Note: Density in fishing villages based on the assumption that they are located half a kilometre from the coastline.

B. Karunanidhi, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Federation of Fish Workers' Unions, told Frontline that thousands more, engaged in a range of operations at the fishing harbour - sellers of ice, watchmen, operators of small eateries, fish sellers, and many other workers - found their livelihoods in peril. The fishing harbour serves the needs of boats from Tiruvallur, Chennai and Kancheepuram districts.

Fisherfolk live on the margins of society. Even in places where they have been able to become economically strong, the quality of life in their community has been poor. In terms of literacy levels, sex ratio and life expectancy, fisherfolk compare very poorly with the rest of society in all the tsunami-hit districts. In fact, only 2 per cent of them in the four main affected districts (Chennai, Cuddalore, Nagapattinam and Kanyakumari) are above the age of 65, which indicates poor life expectancy and health conditions.

In the wake of the tsunami, the issue of housing has assumed significance. The density of population in the fishing villages is almost three times higher than the average density of population in the State. Overcrowding is only one aspect of the problem. Difficult access to land with clear title and the need to live suitably close to the sea to enable fishing have resulted in most of them living in thatched huts, often very close to the shore. A relief volunteer who returned to Chennai from Nagapattinam told Frontline that the poorest fishermen were generally to be found closest to the sea. The overcrowding is particularly striking in Kanyakumari, where the density of population in the fishing villages is almost four times that of the district.

M. Subbu, national secretary of the National Centre for Labour, the apex body of organisations representing unorganised workers in several sectors, including fish workers, told Frontline that those living in huts "have an entitlement problem". He said: "How do those whose huts have been washed away prove that they lived there when, technically speaking, even the government does not recognise their claim to the land on which their huts stood before the tsunami?"

The State government has started to move fisherfolk away from the shore. It has already started building temporary shelters for affected families. The government has also initiated measures that will enable non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to "participate in a big way in a public-private partnership" to build houses for fisherfolk.

About 2,000 dwelling units are being built at Kargil Nagar, about 11 km from Kasimedu. About 850 units, each measuring 10 feet by 10 feet, made of bitumen-coated sheets, are ready. But they do not appear liveable; in summer it will be impossible for anyone to stay inside them. About 20 houses are arranged in a row and there are no windows in any of the units.

The engineer at the site told Frontline that about 12 bathrooms would take care of the bathing needs of the 850 families. He also pointed out that the sewage will be let out into the Buckingham Canal, which runs fairly close to the low-lying site.

Professor John Kurien of the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, advocates a master rehabilitation plan, which, although formulated by the State government, would be implemented in a participatory manner. It is not clear whether the partnership between the state and the NGOs envisages the participation of the fisherfolk in the house-building venture.

It is obvious that several thousand lives could have been saved if the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) plans had been implemented in letter and spirit. It is well-known that the CRZ regulations, which stipulate that a distance of up to 500 metres from the high tide line cannot be occupied, have been violated with impunity.

John Kurien said that it was "realistically possible" for the government to "roll back the violations" if it acquired the land that had been given to private individuals and agencies. According to him, that option is far cheaper when compared with the gigantic costs associated with the relief operations in the wake of the tsunami. He argued that exemptions were justifiable only if they were for building civic amenities. "Exemptions should be made only for those for whom being near the sea is a livelihood issue," he said. Organisations working among fisherfolk fear that in a few weeks' time government agencies will shift back into a business-as-usual mode, ignoring the long term implications of the CRZ violations.

John Kurien sees the CRZ as a natural barrier to protect human habitations from nature's fury. He said that this space must not be occupied by the government or private owners. But while everybody would have access to this space, fisherfolk must have user rights on this stretch on a priority basis. Apart from this, the band of land beyond the CRZ, maybe up to another 500 metres, needs to be assigned to fisherfolk for their housing and other facilities, according to him.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has sought financial assistance from the Centre to build a sea wall from Chennai to Kanyakumari, costing about Rs. 5,000 crores. She said the wall would help fisherfolk overcome the psychological trauma. John Kurien told Frontline that the option of building a wall. "may be useful in some contexts, but to apply this as a uniform solution along the entire coast. could be disastrous, apart from being expensive." John Kurien also points out that the sea wall is likely to sound the "death knell" of the catamaran, because they would break. Catamarans, he points out, need sandy beaches to land in.

The poor standards of living is compounded by the isolation in which the community lives. Barring Kanyakumari, in most other parts of the State the caste "panchayat" system holds sway. Who becomes the headman is mainly dictated by lineage. It is well known - and this became evident during the relief operations - that the headman determines who will or will not have access to the fishing village. However, John Kurien points out that this seemingly archaic social system, with all its faults, has provided some security for a community that is isolated from the rest of society. "After all," he points out, "the isolation was not of their making."

John Kurien says that neither the State's Department of Fisheries nor the fishermen's cooperatives have been effective because they have been alienated from the lives of the fisherfolk.

Senthil Babu, a doctoral student and a popular science movement activist, who is actively involved in organising relief in Cuddalore and Nagapattinam districts, said that fisherfolk perceived the state as favouring communities that lived next to their settlements. They see these settlements as being part of mainstream society, which they think are favoured by the government and are provided special welfare schemes. "They say that the state has done nothing for them," he said.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment