Cyclone ‘Thane' and the Pulicat boat tragedy have turned the spotlight on their lives

They are the bridge between those living in the hinterland and the sea. They are also the first to be hit in the event of a cyclone. Their contribution is in the form of the protein-rich food that they supply to the society. Yet, the fishing community is left to live on the fringes.

It is not an exaggeration when some historians say the origins of the city lie in its fishing villages. They are a cult and a breed apart when portrayed in films as the aggressive, adventure-loving, colourful people with a zest for life. Starting from Nallathanniodaikuppam near Ennore in Tiruvallur district to Nainarkuppam near Uthandi in Kancheepuram district there are over 70 fishing hamlets in the three districts.

Two recent incidents have turned the spotlight on the lives of fishermen in the city– severe cyclonic storm ‘Thane' and the Pulicat boat tragedy. Fisherfolk, who were evacuated during the cyclone, are still returning to their homes after the severe storm.

“Though the sea is still rough, many who have sat at home for three months now are venturing into the sea. This is the season for vanjaram fish. We catch it mostly at night,” says L.Velan, who hails from Tiruvottiyurkuppam. This is the beginning of the season for fish including vanjaram, kaanankelathi, vavvaal and sheila, which will go on till September.

Many caught in debt trap

Once the season for fishing that spans nine months begins, fishing hamlets are a beehive of activity. The nets get repaired and the boats are spruced up thanks to loans taken from money lenders and relatives. But, many fishermen are caught in a debt trap as they have no means of borrowing from banks or other institutions, says Anjappan of KVK Kuppam in Tiruvottiyur.

“The boats have remained tied up and would have been hitting against the wharf. Even catamarans require repair. But unlike others, we cannot get bank loans as we do not have anything to offer as collateral security. Many fishermen take loans from money lenders by pledging jewels and are caught in debt traps,” he explains.

Not everyone in the fishing village would have boats. Only about 30 per cent would have FRP boats, 5 per cent would have bigger boats that can go into deep sea and almost 60 per cent would have traditional catamarans.

Their instincts and native wisdom guide them on the seas. “We fish during night or early morning. If the catch is good we go to the sea even twice a day. We wait for up to three hours after casting the net to catch fish. Earlier, we used to have conventional torches. However, we have now shifted to using rechargeable lanterns,” says T. Joseph, a fisherman of Nettukuppam, who also works elsewhere in the city.

Though educated and on a permanent job, he still makes time to go fishing. “It is my traditional craft. How can I not go fishing… However, there are youngsters in my village, who have never been to the sea and we even have some who are software engineers. Many do not want their children to take up our traditional craft,” he explains.

Poor catch

The reason for the shift in jobs is linked to the “poor catch that the sea is offering”. “Post-tsunami there is a change in the sea. The rivers are polluted and so the fish do not enter the estuaries to hatch eggs. There are many units letting out hot water and salt into the sea as in Pulicat, which spoils the catch,” say fisher folk.

Blaming the poor catch on the 2004-tsunami many fisher folk are taking up jobs as daily labourers or work in companies when the fishing business is dull. Children in several families are getting educated unlike the past. Women, who form the backbone of the fishing business, are taking up jobs elsewhere instead of fish sales.

A veteran in the community Manoharan who has seen more lows than highs since the time he started fishing 60 years ago is however clueless about the price of the fish. “Women handle all that. They decide at what rates the fish is to be sold. Now only the older women take the stock to the fishing markets. The younger ones take up domestic labour or work in nearby companies,” he says.

Women like S. Sambodhi (65) travel to Kasimedu market every day at 3 a.m. to get the best catch. “As the day advances, we buy ice to keep the fish fresh. We shell out more on autorickshaws as buses do not allow baskets with fish. What we buy for Rs.1,500 might be sold for Rs.2,200 or even Rs.800. The remaining fish is brought home, salted and dried to be sold later,” she says.

Post-tsunami the villages got more boats and nets. However, other amenities such as garbage clearance, sewage, proper roads, streetlights, and water connections have not improved. Many do not even have proper places to dry fish and if rocks have been placed to prevent sea erosion, there is hardly enough space to park the boats.

The Kasimedu fishing harbour is used mostly by those having big boats and those living in the vicinity. Even the harbour is in need of repairs. The government has announced some improvement plans for Kasimedu, say fishermen.

The sandy beach behind the fishing hamlets is where the boats are parked, the fish is dried and the youngsters play kabaddi.

“Our lives are not that drab. The younger lot watches movies. Many of us have TV sets, lights, fans at home. In the evenings we play kabaddi, volleyball and cricket. We have kabaddi tournaments in March when people from villages even as far as Cuddalore participate,” says Lynal Rajamanikam of Thalangkuppam.

(With inputs from K. Lakshmi, Vasudha Venugopal and Deepa H Ramakrishnan)

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