After the biblical deluge, there was Noah's Ark to the rescue of God's chosen lot. After the August deluge, there is 'FriendShip' to the rescue of Kerala's fishermen, who were the godsend for around 65,000 trapped and marooned people in the state during the floods last year.
'FriendShip' is a comprehensive rehabilitation package conceived by artist-designer Lakshmi Menon for Kerala's fishermen, who were hailed as the state's army of 'flood-heroes' for their rescue mission during the deluge in 2018.
Thousands of fishermen from several parts of Kerala had joined the flood rescue efforts by the government and other organisations, winning hearts of Keralites. With their small boats the fishermen had ventured into the narrow lanes, which were not accessible for the disaster management team's bigger boats, in the flooded urban areas and managed to bring to safety over 65,000 stranded people, a feat applauded even by global agencies.
However, there was hardly any concrete effort from society to help the fisher folk, who have been living in poor conditions as compared to the urban people whom they saved during the floods.
'FriendShip' is one such mega effort – probably the first in the country considering its ambitious plan to help the huge number of fishermen – to pay gratitude to the community which risked their lives for others.
Lakshmi explained her concept as 'a Ship full of gratitude for our brave saviours.' "They saved our lives last year. We are obliged to gift them a better livelihood. It is better a year late than never," she said.
Lakshmi, mastermind behind the 'Chekkutty' hand-crafted dolls made of flood-ruined handloom fabric at Chendamangalam weaver village in Kerala's Eranakulam district, had decided to do something for the fishermen community right after the floods.
'FriendShip' package, including crowd-funded life insurance scheme and home-based entrepreneurship platform for fisher folk, is her return gift on the first anniversary of the deluge in August this year.
Paper boats of love
The first step of 'FriendShip' is to make paper boats, write words of gratitude on it and send it to the fishermen. Lakshmi posted a Facebook status explaining her idea on July 1. The response was enormous on the very first day with several educational institutions joining the campaign. Ernakulam district coordinator of National Service Scheme (NSS) P K Poulose volunteered to coordinate the school units under him and source over a lakh paper boats with gratitude notes. Over 78 schools, five other educational institutions, three organizations and several self-help groups in Kerala have so far registered for 'FriendShip'.
Lakshmi also received phone calls from educational institutions in the US, Sweden and other European countries expressing their readiness to send paper boats. The first set of paper boats made abroad arrived on July 13 from Australia's Erin, who had met Lakshmi at her Kochi residence.
Lakshmi then decided to set up an installation using the paper boats. Cochin Regional Centre of Central Institute for Oceanography (CSIR-NIO) offered the venue to set up the installation. Chief scientist at the CSIR-NIO Dr P K Dinesh Kumar told Onmanorama the institute is privileged to become part of the incredible effort. "We are the people who ponder the effective use of fisheries and welfare of fishermen. Who else would join this venture if we don't," Dinesh asked.
Lakshmi picked a fishing boat that was damaged during the flood rescue operations last year to house the 'FriendShip' paper boats. Lyricist Hari Narayanan has penned the theme song for Lakshmi's venture and the music is composed by Bijipal.
The installation will be erected on the Marine Drive campus of CSIR-NIO on August 15. It will have 65,000 gratitude notes, representing each one rescued by the fishermen.
The Kerala schools who participate in 'FriendShip' campaign will assign a fisherman to each class as a friend. The students will invite their fisherman friend and family on all their celebrations like Onam and Christmas. They would also extend financial assistance to the children of the fishermen, buy them textbooks, uniforms and school bags.
The second part of the 'FriendShip' campaign is crowd-funded life insurance scheme for all fishermen. Lakshmi collaborated with New India Life Assurance Company and introduced a scheme worth Rs 1 lakh for a premium of Rs 24. Any one can spend Rs 24 and insure a fisherman.
Lakshmi visited Puthiyathura coastal village in Thiruvananthapuram district for a pilot study last week and collected details of over 2.4 lakh fishermen. Over 20,000 people have so far contacted Lakshmi expressing their readiness to sponsor the insurance amount.
"It means 20,000 families being protected. That means a lot for Kerala's fishing community," Lakshmi said. Although some fishermen were sceptical about the scheme, they lined up for it after a day at rough sea, she said.
Commenting on the massive insurance campaign, Robin Puthiyathura, a beneficiary himself, says that his community in Kerala have long been waiting for such kind of support and love from society. "We are anxious about the life of our family on shore when we are out in the sea. We risk our lives for a livelihood. An insurance scheme is a big relief," he said.
"Many people would sign up as sponsors in the initial phase. Many would spend money also. We have to wait and see how many people carry forward this spirit to the coming years," he added.
Robin said many such public schemes intended for the welfare of fishermen do not reach the grassroots because of administrative formalities. The sponsors should reach out to their 'friend' and ensure the correct delivery of insurance benefits, he cautioned.
Cottage fish industry
In addition to the insurance scheme, Lakshmi has also conceptualized a self-reliant entrepreneurship platform for the fisher folk. Explaining the concept, Lakshmi said fishermen sit over the vast treasure of ocean resources. "They get fresh fish at its best. They can be the suppliers of authentic fresh sea food varieties, if brought together in the right way," she said.
Lakshmi has formulated a home-based entrepreneurship platform wherein the women among fisher folk join hands to raise an alternative organic online fish market in Kerala. Neenu Rathin, a software engineer from Kochi, assisted Lakshmi Menon in designing 'FriendShip' campaign. She has already organized a group of women for the initial phase of execution. Lakshmi would launch the platform at a ceremony on the first day of Malayalam month Chingam this year (August 17).
More join hands
In response to Lakshmi's initiative, Kochouseph Chittilappilly Foundation has come forward to support 50 families by sponsoring the educational needs of their children. They also promised to look into the medical expenses and sponsor insurance coverage of these children.
Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) has decided to build a platform for aspiring entrepreneurs from fishermen community to reach out to industrialists and financial institutions for guidance and help.
Sportopoliz, an organization involved in training and supporting young sportsmen, offered to partner with 'FriendShip' campaign to identify aspiring sportspersons from fishing villages in Thiruvananthapuram.
"Kerala survived the floods with mere compassion and humanity. I am happy to see that they cherish these values in the same spirit a year after the floods," she said.
Lakshmi had hogged headlines in August 2015 for her maiden social entrepreneurship project 'Ammoommathiri' wherein elderly people make cotton wicks, sell under a single brand and earn from it. She had collaborated with several old-age homes and shelter centres for the project.
Her second project was 'Rolapena' paper pens, a series of disposable hand-crafted paper pens with a seed inside it.