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Fishermen at sea

Published : Feb 11, 2005 00:00 IST

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The tsunami exposes the vulnerabilities of the fishing community on the Tamil Nadu coast. Now it is time to think beyond just rehabilitation - about a long-term plan to reconstruct lives and livelihoods and also to save the coast.

NEWSPAPERS carried a photograph on January 20 which showed three Ministers of Tamil Nadu bathing in the sea at the Azhikkal beach in Kanyakumari district. The stated purpose was "to reassure fisherfolk who are reluctant to venture into the sea after the December 26 tsunami strike". This "confidence-building exercise" lasted "10 minutes", according to the accompanying report. Pointing to this picture, Satish, a fisherman of a coastal village, wondered why fishermen would need lessons in swimming or why they should fear the sea on which their livelihood depends. If the fisherfolk have not ventured into the sea, he explains, it is not because of some new-found fear. "Some fishermen got their craft repaired and went back to the sea. Most others have no craft, catamarans or boats left to resume fishing." What he and others of his ilk fear most is the safety of their family members on the shore and the changes in the sea bottom that the tsunami has brought about.

Satish, like other fishermen, is sure that within 10 days of receiving the promised monetary assistance they will go back to the sea in fit-to-sail craft with the needed tools. "It is for the Indian Institute of Oceanography to undertake necessary studies and inform the fishermen of the changes, if any, and of their possible impact on fishing," said V. Kumaravelu, a research scholar from the fishing community, who has been actively involved in relief operations in Nagapattinam district.

Nearly a month after the tsunami tore their homes apart, the people of this generally brisk community could be seen idling away their time. Knots of restless fishermen and fisherwomen stopped every government vehicle that passed by to ask the officials when their homes would be ready, when they would get their new ration cards, or when they could expect the promised assistance to buy new craft and tools.

What is reassuring to the 7.37 lakh marine fishermen of the State, however, is the Rs.2,262.65-crore relief and rehabilitation package that the State government got from the Centre on January 19 following the talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in Chennai early in January. Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, who announced the package for Tamil Nadu, Kerala (Rs.245.94 crores), Andhra Pradesh (Rs.68.99 crores) and Pondicherry (Rs.153.46 crores), said it was the first phase of the Central assistance and mainly covered marine fisherfolk. This phase relates to the immediate needs of the affected people - food and other materials, boats to resume work, and permanent houses. The next package, expected soon, will cover the reconstruction of infrastructure and will address the issue of removing salinity from the agricultural land inundated by seawater.

Under the first package, fishermen who have lost their catamarans will be provided a subsidy of Rs.32,000 each to buy new ones. Those who have lost motor-fitted boats will be given 35 per cent of the cost and a loan for the balance. This is for a vessel that may cost up to Rs.1.5 lakhs. For mechanised boats, the subsidy will be 35 per cent subject to a ceiling of Rs.5 lakhs; loan will be provided for the rest of the amount, up to a unit cost of Rs.20 lakhs. For repairs of the fishing craft, a subsidy of 60 per cent with a ceiling of Rs.3 lakhs will be given for mechanised boats and full subsidy of up to Rs.10,000 for all other types of boats.

Tamil Nadu will get Rs.650 crores for building 1.5 lakh permanent houses, Kerala and Pondicherry Rs.50 crores for 10,000 houses each, and Andhra Pradesh Rs.2.3 crores for 500 houses. The allocations also provide for the acquisition of land. Each house with a floor area of 250 sq.ft. is estimated to cost Rs.40,000. For reconstruction of fishing harbours and fishing craft landing palces, Tamil Nadu has been allocated Rs.9.4 crores, Kerala Rs.13.07 crores, and Pondicherry Rs.20 lakhs.

THE final phase of rehabilitation and restoration of livelihood in the affected districts has apparently received a big boost following the announcement of the aid package. After three weeks of relief operations, Nagapattinam has returned to normalcy. The district administration is active with the third phase of relief operations, arranging to move the affected people from the relief camps to temporary, individual shelters.

In several places, the work is nearing completion and in some areas the affected families have already moved into new shelters. Each shelter, constructed with tinplates, camp cloth or thatches, measures 12'x10' on an average in most areas. Many private agencies and industrial houses have undertaken the construction of these temporary structures in Kallar, Serugur, Akkaraippettai and Keechankuppam, under a private-public sector "participatory" programme. Families with three or more members find the shelter inadequate, but they are prepared to bear with the "inconvenience" for a few more months, until the permanent dwelling places are ready. In some areas, the administration is said to have identified the land to be acquired for the purpose of constructing permanent houses.

District secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a former Member of the Tamil Nadu Assembly, V. Thambusami, suggested the construction of identical two-storeyed, concrete houses with easy access to the terrace and cyclone control buildings, modelled on the ones provided by former Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, in every fishing colony.

V. Marimuthu, CPI(M) district secretariat member, called for expediting the construction of permanent houses as the temporary shelters would not be adequate for big families.

Jesu Rethinam, director of Sneha, a Nagapattinam-based voluntary organisation, said that the quality of the shelters and their location mattered most. She said the fishermen were opposed to relocation from their fishing hamlets. In many places the existing colonies are at a safe distance or at a higher level from the sea and the fisherfolk do not want to forgo them. They want to be near the beach to carry on their fishing activities such as fish landing, sorting and auctioning and for drying nets. They also demanded that the exemption to fishermen from the Coastal Regulation Zone stipulation against construction within a distance of 500 metres from the coast should be continued.

At Serugur, A. Ravichandran, one of the nine panchayatdars of the fishermen community, said that the affected families were satisfied with the temporary shelters, but their priority was the restoration of fishing operations. He wanted the government to expedite the distribution of money needed for buying or repairing fishing vessels so that they could get back to the sea soon.

IN Cuddalore district, the construction of temporary shelters is in full swing. A large number of families have moved into these hutments in the affected villages of Devanampattinam, Sonankuppam, Singarathope and Akkaraigori. At Devanampattinam, community panchayat president P. Sadasivam told newspersons that the temporary shelters were not "fully satisfactory". He said the government had identified two areas, situated some 750 metres from the coast, to construct permanent houses for about 1,500 affected families.

The families fear that they would be asked to vacate the temporary shelters in two months as the temple in the vicinity would be celebrating its annual festival. Sadasivam said the district administration had assured the community panchayat leaders that the permanent houses would be ready by that time. He also wanted the government to expedite the process of distributing cash relief intended to buy new fishing vessels and to repair the existing ones, wherever possible. He was all praise for the "excellent' work done by District Collector Gagandeep Singh Bedi and his team of officials in providing relief. He wanted the administration to provide some amount of compensation for wage earners.

The government has undertaken the temporary shelter programme with the assistance of a number of aid agencies from different parts of the country and public and private sector companies. The most visible among the voluntary organisations working in the district is the Rishikesh-based India Foundation, founded and run by Swami Chidanand Saraswati. The Foundation has adopted Devanampattinam and launched several ameliorative schemes under Project Hope. Among the notable followers of this Foundation is the Hindi film actor Vivek Oberoi, who rushed to the aid of the affected people within days of the tsunami attack. He camped at Devanampattinam for a week and helped Swami Chidanand Saraswati in a big way in organising relief. Project coordinator Saroj Patel told Frontline that the Foundation had undertaken similar projects before in areas affected by cyclones, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

At Devanampattinam, the Foundation has been undertaking relief and rehabilitation work in coordination with the State government. Apart from providing 200 temporary shelters, Project Hope has extended assistance to the victims by providing medical aid, utensils, new clothes and other essentials. It has plans to help the orphaned children of Devanampattinam and other affected areas, besides adopting some children.

Gagandeep Singh Bedi told Frontline that the construction of permanent houses and the provision of funds for buying and repairing fishing vessels and tools would be taken up as soon as the modalities of the schemes were available. He hoped to finish the construction work within 60 days from the commencement of work possibly in the first week of February. He said the houses would be earthquake-proof and cyclone-resistant.

The Collector was confident that fishing operations would be largely restored within a month. He said that some fishermen had already set sail in new boats, albeit provided by private agencies. In an innovative way, he arranged for the registration of these vessels as jointly owned by groups of about six persons each, who included a fisherman, a boat builder, a carpenter and a fisherwoman widowed by the tsunami. The Collector said he had also plans to help the fishworkers, fish traders and other low-income group people in the area dependent on the fishing community for their survival.

A significant aspect of the relief operations in Cuddalore and Nagapattinam districts is the contribution of medical and health personnel in providing treatment to the injured and also in taking preventive measures against the outbreak of epidemics. They seem to have succeeded to a large extent in this respect. But for a few incidents of measles and chickenpox, which had nothing to do with the tsunami, no major breakout of epidemic has been reported.

One positive development noticed by observers is the interaction between the inland community and the marine fishing community, which by the very nature of its work had remained practically isolated from the mainstream. The fishermen were overwhelmed by the spontaneous and generous flow of aid and moral support from people all over the country. This apart, researcher Kumaravelu has noted that the fishing community itself is more united post-tsunami. The tsunami, in a sense, was a great leveller. It removed the status-based divisions, having spared no section of the community.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 11, 2005.)

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