The marginalised fishing community of Thoothukudi is in conflict with land today. As the sea and beaches are inextricably linked to their lives, any move detrimental to the fragile marine ecology on which they have been sustaining for generations also disturbs their lives.
When industrialisation began in earnest in the late 1970s, and later with the neoliberal policies of the 1990s across the country, the 1,076-kilometre coastline of Tamil Nadu, of which Thoothukudi accounts for 121 km, was not spared. Tamil Nadu’s fishermen live in 573 fishing hamlets in 13 coastal districts from Chennai down to Kanyakumari.
Heavy industries and development activities on the shores began pushing the indigenous people away from the beaches, leading to frequent public disorder. The coastline became a dumping yard for poisonous waste that has transformed the landscape for the worse, besides polluting the air and groundwater. Even beach sands are scooped out and looted for minerals, making the community virtual “environment refugees” in their own habitats.
“The tragedy of Thoothukudi lies in its polluting industries. They dumped all hazardous units on us. Now it is a nightmare,” said a fisherman’s representative who is also a stevedore.
The ships that bring in raw materials for a few industries fetch a lot of money, but he regrets the effects of pollution that have destroyed the pristine beaches of Thoothukudi, which lies in a bay in the Gulf of Mannar. Once rich in marine life, Thoothukudi is now left with no natural pearl oysters or exotic varieties of fish. Apprehensive about its fragile marine ecosystem, the Government of India declared it a National Marine Park in 1986 and prohibited any detrimental activity within a 25-km radius.
“It is a major breeding centre as the sea here remains calm all through the year,” said Mathias, a fisherman. Thoothukudi has a fisherfolk population of nearly 80,000. It handled an annual landing of 38,000 tonnes in 2010-11, a marginal increase from 33,000 tonnes recorded in 1996. “The sea is increasingly becoming barren. Industrialisation and pollution have done more harm to us and our sea than anything,” Mathias said.
A marine scientist told Frontline that although pollution played a major role in disturbing the marine ecology, it was the messy and half-hearted modernisation of the fishing industry during the Blue Revolution in 1970 that had brought more woes to fishing and fishermen’s lives. The competitive environment forced traditional fishers out and made them mere labourers in the giant fishing vessels manned by multinationals. At a time when the fishermen at Thoothukudi are struggling to come to terms with the falling catches, they are also forced to face the ill-effects of a rise in polluting industrial activity.
A brief report from the Ministry of Medium and Small Scale Enterprises, Government of India (2012-13), points to the presence of many chemical industries, 854 small and medium, besides a few giants in Thoothukudi.
Most of these units are located within a 20-km radius of the Gulf of Mannar. Thus, living has become perilous for the people of Thoothukudi, especially the fishermen. When a sulphur dioxide gas leak, allegedly from the Sterlite Industries’ copper smelter, occurred on the night of May 23-24, 2013, it triggered a panic. The movement against the copper smelter had started building up with spontaneous participation from all sections of society after the leak, although the fishermen have been fighting against it since its inception.
The fishermen first prevented the plant from laying a pipeline to carry its effluents to the sea. They then staged sea blockades twice on ships that brought in raw materials. A few youths were killed in an earlier incident of violence in 1996 that rocked the city. During the firing on May 22 this year, three members of the fishing community were killed. Yet they have decided to continue their agitation against the industry although the State government ordered its permanent closure.
“The state stands for corporate welfare today. It intimidates and coerces people to accept even if the industry or a development activity makes them sacrifice their lands and waterbodies,” said V. Arasu, former head of the Tamil Department of the University of Madras and a social analyst.
“We will fight and we know that we are not invincible. The repression could weaken our resolve only temporarily. We feel betrayed. We urge the state to ensure us clean air and water to live,” said Jesu, a young fisherman.