Workers of the sea

Susan Visvanathan

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I met Peter Thayil, coordinator of the Fishworker’s Development Forum in the diocese of Alleppey. In an interview he told me that the year 1984, which most people see as the landmark of the fisherpeople’s struggle, was not the beginning. In 1971, the Catholic Fishermen’s Union was established. In 1974, it became known as the Latin Catholic Union, linking fishermen all over Kerala. Fr. Paul Arakkal was the first union president. In 1978, the Fisherfolk Association was formed; the term Catholic was removed. Thereafter, it became know as the Akhila Kerala Swatantra Fishworker’s Federation. It was at this point that Fr. Tom Kocherry began to emerge as a hero.

For Peter Thayil, who enjoys a solid faction of support within the Church’s established body, Kocherry and others appeared as secessionist in the ’80s because they brought in the excitement of Liberation Theology which articulated the power of the poor, the praxis of the impoverished. They were gifted leaders who had influence in the world and a guiltless preoccupation with temporal concerns. Many of these leaders also belonged to Orders which allowed sanyasa, while leaders like Fr. Paul could not wander at will and were tied to a parish. ‘So there was a clash, a clash of priests.’ The Bishops asked the fishermen, the leaders to compromise, to come together. Yet, Thayil argues that because of the differences there was an abyss, and the entire movement went through a paralysis.

Today Thayil and his friends feel that because of large scale unionism, which integrated fishers across the subcontinent, the movement in Kerala has itself become diffused. If the Fishermen’s Development Forum is now becoming an active force it is because it answers the real, ground-level needs of the poor for shelter, employment, medicine and schooling. Many of the benefits of the struggle were wrested from the government before 1984. These included pension (Peter said it was Rs 75 per month), insurance for sea accidents, education grants, housing loans, subsidized kerosene for outboard motors, and so on.

Fr. Paul, according to Thayil, fought hard for many of these benefits by sitting on the road in front of the secretariat till he was heard. His supporters feel that fame has been bad for the movement, that the leaders became ensnared by publicity, and that many of the local heroes went unsung. They feel that post-1984 the two main benefits were a savings cum relief scheme and a ban on trawling for 45 days. The last meant nothing – the ban must be effective for three months if the sea is to replenish itself.



The fishermen argue that there have been so many commissions – the Babu Paul, Balan Krishnan Nair, Kalavar, Murari and Oscar Fernandes commissions. While the Murari Commission report is acceptable to the fisherpeople, the rest are seen as biased towards the trawler fishers. Why is this so? ‘The IAS officers, the politicians, the government in general is ignorant and in league with capitalist trawler owners. We keep going to the Thiruvananthapuram secretariat to depose. But there are trawler owners who have become ministers: Baby John for instance. Further, so much money is involved. Licenses involve crores of rupees. Everyone receives kai kuli (hand-tax or corruption money). The bureaucrats are completely ignorant. Do they have even one fisherman in the commission?’

Thayil believes that the fisherman’s knowledge is a resource that has not been utilized adequately in making decisions that affect their livelihood, their community, their lives. He continued, ‘I can tell what fish is swimming in the water from a distance but these specialists cannot because they only have reports, papers, jargon. I have knowledge of the sky, the currents, the water, its smell, its colour, its depth (madam, neram, arram) without measuring with instruments. We know the depth of the sea.’

Other fishermen at the beach told me that they know the presence of fish from the way the crows fly, from the movement of the waters, the shadows of the water, the sounds that can be heard from birds, from the bubbles of air that appear on the water as the fish surface. A boy goes to sea only when he is around fourteen or older, and the knowledge is passed on by his elders and by his own powers of observation since it is a matter of survival. ‘The sea cannot crush us,’ said one man, ‘I know the wind, the lightning, the depths.’

The sea is now empty because of overfishing. The governments at the Centre have been deeply implicated. Justin, an activist at the Fishworkers Development Forum in Alleppey said, ‘It was the Narasimha Rao government which provided deep sea licenses. At that time the BJP contested it. Now the BJP is giving licenses. Only in Kerala do we have a fisheries minister. At the Centre fisheries are a part of agriculture. We demand this because the entire coast of India stretches for 6200 kms and Kerala’s coast is 900 km in length. Water encircles India, and its wells, lakes, ponds, constitute India, so that there is more water than land. And yet 50 years of Independence has meant 50 years of avoidance of the fishing communities.’



The sea is now empty because of overfishing. One fisherman said to me, ‘Thakazhy Sivasankara Pillai made millions out of his novel [Chemeen] on the life of fisherpeople. Are you also going to do the same? I get up at two in the morning and I get nothing.’

Because of the intrusion of multinational and trawling interests, the fishermen feel their lives are over. The government receives foreign exchange, while the scarcity of fish leads to the decimation of the fisherpeoples. Sardines, mackerel, tuna, ribbon fish are almost wiped out. Trawlers operate in the theraekadal, the shallow waters which are 50 kms from the shore where the fish come for cohabitation. Trawlers are engaged in over-harvesting the sea in its reproductive months. Commission after commission bypasses the problem out of ignorance or corruption.

‘It is because of absolute ignorance and the GAAT policy agreements that the collaboration between government, multinationals and trawler owners is destroying traditional fishermen,’ Vijayan told me in a house at Ponnapra. The woman who owned the house was a widow, one of the few who went to get fish from the beach to sell. Most other women stay at home, busy with household tasks as well as weaving coir ropes to supplement the erratic income their husbands bring in. In an earlier essay, ‘1984: The fishing struggle in Kerala’, I had argued that peasants and fisherfolk cannot be clubbed together. The sensitivity to their difference is imperative.



Vijayan said that the basic problem is that the central government has a financial perspective on everything, and the foreign exchange it receives through licensing trawlers or the export of fish is solely what it is concerned with. ‘There has to be a social transformation. Multicapitalism is being favoured. Trawler fishing is a political collaboration, where even the IMF and World Bank are implicated as "development agents". This has to be changed. The relationship of the fisherpeople is to the sea and to nature.’ Yet there is a paradox. The fisherpeople have themselves moved away from the kattamaran to a mechanized boat, which they continue to call vallum or country boat. (This is characteristic of Alapuzha, Kochi and Trichur, while in Thriuvananthapuram the kattamaran or the raft is still in use.)

The vallum in Ponnapra are old, large country boats, with curved prows, deep black in colour. They carry flags of different colours, and when they go out to sea one feels oneself to be in the presence of an ancient maritime culture. But each boat has a motor and is dependent on the Honda and Yamaha-Suzuki companies.



An old woman, Esther, whose husband and sons still go out to sea said, ‘We are a people who know only hunger and cold and debt. Since the coming of the "engines" (mechanised boats) we have known only debt. The government is in league with the capitalists. The engines cost Rs 1.4 lakh. Only the Yamaha-Suzuki motors can withstand the water, the Indian ones powder in no time, and despite the investments, on most days the men come back empty-handed. The cost of oil is hard to bear. The children of fishermen no longer want to follow this occupation. The strikes are endless, but there is no way out because the government does not hear our problems.

‘We have no water, no electricity, no toilets. As soon as there is a haul, the creditors also appear. Nobody wants us to form cooperatives. This is a different matter from the union. Everyone wishes to stand separately. When there is a shortage here from overfishing people bring fish from Tamil Nadu, so again we are the losers. Here people are fishing from morning to night, from night to morning. What chance is there of the sea replenishing itself? The local fishermen have become their own enemies. They have adapted their nets in imitation of the trawlers. The trawlers have to be stopped and the continuous harvesting of the sea regulated.’

John Paul, a fisherman and an activist in the struggle, put the problems of the movement brilliantly. ‘Kocherry’s concerns are too abstract and political. The real problem is whether the fisherpeople will even survive? Each one of us is treated as a member of a political party. They come for votes at every election. We took out a notice reminding them of their promises: glasses (i.e., spectacles) for the old; house loans which have not been given; subsidized machine oil which has been stopped. The Coastal Regulation Act does not affect us. It will not be recognized: no fisherman has broken rules against nature or the government. Each fisherman has his own method – he cannot leave his cove, the neighbourhood and group solidarity that he already has.’

He argues that tribals and fisherpeople share the same conditions of degradation – economic and social. Yet, in deciding on the degradation marker (daridram) or the poverty line, the government decided that the fisherpeople were 60% above and 40% below. John Paul says that on the beach 98% of this occupational community is below the poverty line. He argues that their only income is from the sea. Out of 365 days, they get on an average income for 150 to 200 days. The remaining days they get nothing, even if they are able to go to work.



The expense for taking out a boat with 35 to 40 workers is Rs 40,000. The boat is usually owned by a modulali or landowner (capitalist) who may also be a commission agent, i.e. he gets the privilege of selling the fish. The fishermen catch and bring the fish to shore, then the agent takes over from them. He auctions the baskets; the fishermen say that out of every 10 baskets, they keep aside two for the poor (and there are many beggars on the beach).

Once the catch is sold, the fishermen receive 70%, the agent receives 30%. Out of the 70%, the costs of the boat, petrol, ‘tea’ for 40 workmen – all have to be met: the remaining has to be shared between the 40 fishers. After they have paid their debts they may get a few rupees at the end. The next day might bring in a new catch, fresh hopes, a new start – or more debts and renewed despair. They feel the situation cannot be changed unless the overkill by the trawlers is stopped. But then trawler owners have been ministers – Baby John for instance.



In June 1998, a chakara had formed 10 kilometres from Ponappra. What is a chakara, literally translated as a ‘dead sea’? Peter and Justin describe it to me as the uterus of the sea. ‘Science does not have a word for it,’ Justin says, ‘they call it a phenomenon.’ But the fishermen know that it exists. For some of them it is like a miracle. In the empty days of monsoon fallowness (except fallow now is a bitter term) it does not suggest rest and reproduction, it only conveys a savage aridity.

The chakara is a belt of sedimentation which creates a heaviness in the sea; the torrential and dangerous monsoon sea becomes passive, docile and can be entered. This is the sedimentation of 41 rivers that run in Kerala from East to West, into the Arabian Sea, consisting of silt, clay and organic materials. This quiet and limpid space allows the fisherpeople to voyage out, provides them with some income at a time when fishing is impossible. The sea is otherwise so rough that were they to go out in other parts of the coast, their boats would break and their bodies would be crushed.

I went with Peter Thayil to the chakara, a natural formation that is extremely beautiful to see. Alapuzha beach is ferocious at this time of the year. As gigantic waves crash black sea against white sand, even standing on the beach is dangerous. At this time the sea erosion is severe and many fisherpeople have lost all their belongings, and their houses.

Sebastian, an old fisherman told me, ‘The sea is alive like we are. We are afraid of the sea. We tell our problems to God. We are a free people. We have no union. Anyone can enter, anyone can leave. When the storms come, we can only pray. I pray to the Mother (Mary) and the sea becomes calm. We are a people with little education, because we are poor. We are always hungry: sometimes three days at a time. But we are not beggars, and we are not thieves.

‘I won’t even ask my brothers for money when I’ve not had a catch. If they give me something, it’s alright. Otherwise the next morning, without even drinking coffee, I’ll go to sea again and again till my luck changes or I die. We have no union, therefore, no provident fund and no gratuity. In our old age we don’t even get fish to eat. Our children have children of their own, and they have to be educated. If anything is left after that they give to us. I had nine children. God gave me children. The only union now is the Church.’



Sebastian insists that all go to sea together in the spirit of fraternity, regardless of religion. But there are tensions: the RSS is consolidating; the Church is a segmented presence; the commission agents are seen to be simultaneously profiteers and upper class Christians. The trawler owners are often upper caste Christians (i.e., the Syrian Christian aristocracy). For the fishermen of Ponappra, who fear the sea, and see their work as infused by bhakti (faith), courage and despair, knowledge of the sea is impossible. ‘We cannot say our work brings us happiness. It is not like a "beach" as it appears to milk-drinkers like you. For us it is hard work.’

After they return empty handed, fishermen wait on the beach the entire day. If they see anyone returning with a catch, they go back to sea to try once more. Many of them are out at three in the morning, depending on the flashlight on their boat and the phospherence of the fish. If they return without a catch, they wait till three in the evening before going out.



The chakara or limpid sea is a beautiful colour, brown green and placid. Hundreds of country boats, each with a Yamaha-Suzuki motor fitted on its side like a tourist’s money belt, wait on the shore or are out at sea. It is like a medieval carnival. Thousands of fishermen congregate on this beach, having come in small trucks with their heavy nets from various parts of Kerala. That year (1998) two chakara had formed, one at Vallanja Kuzhi or Vandanam, 10 kms from Alapuzha, another at Chendavelli, 25 kms further to the North.

A market has come up, but since there are few women and children and nobody with leisure and money to spend, it is a functional market – food stalls, a merchant with a few lengths of cloth. The food is not much, only tea and bananas fried in batter. Part of the reason may be that the fishermen can’t keep the food down when they go to sea. The sea makes them vomit. Tilak, a young man who took to fishing because of an inability to hold any other job said, ‘The first six months were terrible. I vomited all the time. I would be hungry and tell my mother to fry me some good fish, but when I saw it I couldn’t eat.’

Another young man called Lal Gerga said, ‘I went to the sea for nine days and I couldn’t stand it though my father was a malsya thozhilali. The smell of machine oil made me sick. I had no fear, just that I couldn’t adjust to the vomiting.’ Peter Thayil, however, argues that the government must provide nutritious and subsidised food for the fisherpeople at these markets.

The beach at the chakara teems with men in the prime of life, between the ages of 20 and 50. The older men help transferring of fish from the nets to the basket. An old man called out, ‘Tell her to write how my hands hurt when I do this work, how the fins prick my hands like thorns.’ One of the younger fishermen showed me his hands – there was salt, sand and small deep holes. ‘The only medicine we apply is salt water. If a fisherman goes to the hospital he is told to wait at the door. After all, why should they care? They are the sons and daughters of trawler owners and MPs. No pension, no gratuity and no health care.’



One of the greatest paradoxes for the fishermen is how to juggle between thozhiuyil and varumanam, labour and income. If the catch is good they can make several thousands. If they catch nothing they slip into debt. It is this oscillation between hope and despair that we need to understand when looking at subsistence societies.

Fr. Anthony Jacob spearheads the movement in Alapuzha. He said, ‘On the one hand the movement gets its dynamism from the fisherpeople’s attachment to the Church. Its good that they uphold the values of the Church, but I personally do not think they should depend on the Church so much. Even if we say that the Church is part of the world, it nevertheless is a spiritual place. Yet, we know we have to be part of the world, of human struggles.

‘El Salvador or some other countries in South America have a different context. The Church has a different role there – fundamentally oriented toward human liberation. It is a different struggle there. Here the people have freedom. There the sacrifices are different, an ordinary man may not dare what the priests do.

‘Our role as a Church is a promoting agency. We can initiate the process which the local leadership can take up. If not, this will lead to the coalition of religion and politics. The young are becoming more and more orthodox, and the Church must make clear that the people have freedom to organise.

‘The dilemma of overfishing is a natural outcome – it will happen to any sector where there is no transformation of occupation. Vellapally Thumpolly and Omanapurram were once fishing villages but are now in the coir sector. This has happened in the recent past. We are trying to develop the coir industry as an alternative. Handspinning is the oldest method, where the worker receives upto Rs 10 a day. On a wooden or a motorised ratt, which the Church can provide loans towards, they can earn more, perhaps Rs 25 a day.’

Fr. Antony is clear that the Church has to function less as a charity and more as an enabling organisation. The problem lies in that the Church in India has no power, it cannot oppose any government coming into power for it is largely dependent on foreign funds. And the first thing that Antony Jacob says is that the success of the movement depends on learning from mistakes and understanding the play of power in union politics. ‘Who wants to give up power? Some of the priests want power. But we must give up that power. Like Moses I must walk away into the wilderness.’ If I wanted power and fame and money the fisherpeople’s struggle is not where I should be.

Like in all people’s movements, events swirl and shift and change from one summer to another. The role of the anthropologist is clearly to record these nuances of difference, so that a change in direction of the struggle may be notated.