Fishermen land in Chennai and are expected to call on Jayalalithaa today

The lure of fresh catch and handful of money took a group of 16 fishermen from three districts of Tamil Nadu several thousand nautical miles away from home. On Tuesday evening, when they returned to their home State after nine months, they regret the decision, deeming it the worse they have ever made.

Sixteen fishermen — 10 from Ramanathapuram, five from Kanyakumari and one from Nagapattinam districts — who were languishing in an Iranian prison for the past nine months reached Chennai and were re-united with their relatives. The fishermen, working for trawler and launch owners in Saudi Arabia, had strayed into the territorial waters of Iran in December last year and were promptly arrested by their Coast Guard.

After much pressure through its Ministry of External Affairs, the Government of India managed to secure their release, along with three fishermen from Kerala. The fishermen reached Mumbai by an Air India flight earlier on Tuesday with the help of an emergency travel document in the absence of their passports.

“We made the biggest mistake of our lives. We wanted to earn more money only for the betterment of our families…. so that our children could study well. We…at least I will not repeat the mistake of going back to the Gulf ever again,” said 30-year-old Sahib of Morpannai near Rameswaram in Ramanathapuram district.

He was received by his elder sister Aaraai as his wife Sasikala stayed back to look after their new-born-baby. Nearly all the fishermen had left for Saudi Arabia in July 2012.

“Only today I was informed of the birth of my two-month-old son. To tell the truth, I was not entirely happy. The prison term was cruel and punishing. We were punished for no fault of ours,” Mr. Sahib said.

“Eight to nine of us will set sail in a fishing trawler owned by a Saudi national. We will return to the shore after a week. We will hand over half the catch to the owner, while all of us will equally share the rest,” said Vimalraj.

The fishermen, all in the age group between 23 and 40, had taken huge loans, some of them borrowing as high as Rs. three lakh to head to the Gulf. However, they just about managed to send less than half that amount. Susai Mary, wife of 58-year-old Jesuraj, said their family, including her two sons and two daughters, all in school, suffered for long until the State government gave them Rs. one lakh last month.

The fishermen said their life in prison was agonising and food very bad. They are now glad that the worst ordeal of their lives was now over. However, the losses and loans they had incurred over the past nine months was a big question mark in front of them and said their hopes rested on the State government.

K.A.Jayapal, Fisheries Minister, was present at Mumbai airport when the fishermen came from Iran and accompanied them in their journey to Chennai. The fishermen spent the night at the hostel at Tamil Nadu Animal Sciences and Veterinary University and are expected to call on Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on Wednesday morning.

Earlier in the day, an official release said it was due to the efforts of Ms. Jayalalithaa that the fishermen were set free. Soon after being informed of their arrest and inability to pay the penalty, she wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh highlighting their plight. She wanted instructions to be given to the Indian embassy in Iran to provide assistance to the fishermen. The financial assistance was handed over to the 16 families by the Fisheries Minister and the ministers from the districts concerned. Following their release, she directed the Fisheries Minister to go to Mumbai and bring the fishermen to Chennai. The State government had also made arrangements to send them from the city to their respective destinations.

The fishermen are: Jesuraj, Mayandi, Muthudharma, Raja Karuppaaiah, Sahib, Kaliappan, Kalai Kannadasan, Mayakrishnan and Uma Selvam from Tiruvadanai Taluk, Ramanathapuram; Christin Raj, Kadaladi, Ramanathapuram; Sahaya Michael Anthony, Suresh Anthony, Arokya Kevin Raj, Jeyaseelan and Anjayer Lo from Kanyakumari and Vimal Raj, Nagapatthinam.