The LDF government's pact with US-based multinational fishing company EMCC, which would have opened up Kerala's deep-sea for foreign companies, is the least of the issues that wrinkle the brows of coastal folks in Kerala.
They are bothered about the deal, but only in a vague sense, the way working-class people are troubled by climate change. The fishing families have more immediate concerns, issues of livelihood and survival that, like things sharp, have already pierced through and are bleeding them.
Fisherfolk in the southern part, around Vizhinjam in Thiruvananthapuram, for instance, are facing an increasingly shrinking fishing space. Their houses don't have piped water and their streets have no public lights and proper roads.
In places like Vaady, in Kollam, the fisherfolk fear the government would take over their land in the name of development - in the name of a cement terminal, transportation track and a garbage plant - and are, therefore, in a perennial state of suspicion. Further north, in Alappuzha's Arthunkal, the long delay in the completion of a harbour is forcing fisherfolk in the area to depend on distant harbours like Chellanam and Kochi for work, causing their operational costs to shoot up considerably.
Then, there are common issues. The low subsidy for kerosine, the increase in the registration fee for fishing boats, the influx of outsiders into fish farming, the threat of relocation in the name of coastal zone regulation violations.
They are distrustful of politicians but are so guileless that they are easy to please. A smile can win them over.
Snake park in Vizhinjam port
If anyone wants to prove the assumption that no major development will ever touch the poor, visit Kottapuram, the coastal village where the Vizhinjam International Container Transshipment Terminal is coming up.
At the back of the massive under-construction terminal, behind a vast expanse of a beach where fishing boats dry in the sun like large dead fishes, is a row of unplastered asbestos-roofed box-shaped houses.
These houses are under the shadow of a cliff that looms over the beach. On the face of the cliff, like fish eggs on underwater rocks, hang millions of waste-filled plastic bags, thrown from houses on top of the cliff. Constant dumping has given the cliff a slope.
On the day Onmanorama visited, Kottapuram's independent councillor Paniadima J was showing both Corporation and Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited (VISL) officials the plight of the families living under the shade of waste bags. “Forget the stench, the place is full of dangerous snakes. They are everywhere. We have small kids living in these houses,” Paniadima told officials. “We want a small garbage unit immediately,” he said. The VISL official nods his head in agreement.
Singapore dreams, and betrayal
“These company people (VISL officials) had told us that once this terminal work begins, this place will be like Singapore and Tokyo,” said Shaila, a fish seller who lives in one of the snake-infested houses. “As it turned out, our place has become even worse than even our poor Kottapuram of five years ago,” she said. (The Vizhinjam port began construction in 2015)
Life over the cliff is no better. The houses are better looking but they do not have piped water. There is an electricity connection but no street lights. The roads are narrow and badly cratered.
From most of these houses, one could get a distant glimpse of the port operations building of the Vizhinjam terminal and its long breakwater extending interminably into the sea. “Earlier we were hopeful, now the port feels like an intrusion,” said Philomena who lives in one of the houses over the cliff.
It was this feeling of betrayal that must have prompted Kottapuram to elect an independent, Paniadima, as its councillor for the first time. Paniadima, a young fisherman, has always been fighting for his community's rights.
Denial of fishing rights
Now, as the councillor, he wants to do all he can to better the lives of Kottapuram residents but confesses to a sense of foreboding. He said the livelihood impact assessment study conducted by some private companies for Adani's port was incorrect. “Its only objective was to clear the way for the construction of the port. The study has nothing about the impact this terminal will have on the lives and livelihood of the fisherman community in the project-affected areas,” he said.
Paniadima said dredging for the port had already destroyed the marine resources in the area. Moreover, the local fishermen are now told to keep away from the area. The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute had in an earlier study identified a wadge bank, a marine environment luxuriant in marine resources, close to the port site. This treasure, Paniadima feels, has been lost to the local community.
The councillor also feels that once the Vizhinjam port becomes operational in 2035 and massive container ships with giant propellers arrive, fishermen would be largely prohibited from fishing along most of the Thiruvananthapuram coast.
Struggle for breathing space
In Kollam, veteran fisherman S Stephen is out to block any development measures that he feels would “constrict the lives of his community”. “They have lined up many projects along this shore,” said Stephen, sweeping his hands over the entire beach area in front of the fishermen colony.
“A cement terminal, a railway track to transport cement bags, a godown and a large waste plant to burn the waste of the whole of Kollam town. They are trying to improve their profits but if these projects take off, we coastal folks would be cut off from the sea,” he said.
Stephen said the beach is where coastal families come out, not for leisure but to breathe. “We live in small crowded houses constructed inside half a cent,” he said. More than one family are living in such cramped spaces.
“In the morning and evenings, it is to the beach our women and children walk out to get some relief, to breathe in some fresh air. It is this place that they (the Revenue and Fisheries departments) are now claiming as their own,” Stephen said.
The fisherfolk Onmanorama talked to in Vaady and Thangasseri said they would do anything to keep their shores to themselves. “When I think of this, I hate to see Pinarayi's smiling face on posters,” said Polly Simon, a fisherman in Thirumullavaram.
Arthunkal's stillborn harbour
Over 100 kilometres north in Arthunkal, it is the lack of development that has the fisherfolk squirming in anger. Arthunkal harbour, less than a kilometre from the famous Arthunkal Basilica, began construction 14 years ago and is still not half complete. The Chennai IIT team that first found the project feasible had later found that they were wrong, that the foundation rocks could not be stable.
This has left thousands of fishermen in the Alappuzha area at a serious disadvantage. “Alappuzha, which has the largest coastline in Kerala, is the only district without a harbour,” said Raju Ashrayam, an Arthunkal fisherman. “We depend on Chellanam (over 20 km away) and Vypeen harbour (nearly 50 km away) for work. This means an additional daily cost of Rs 2500 to Rs 4500 for transportation alone,” Raju said.
Then there are anchorage charges (Rs 200-Rs 500 daily), for the boat to be anchored at a safe place in the distant harbour. Additional food bata for workers. Another Rs 200 daily for water supply charges. “The additional cost is so huge that most of the fishermen here (Arthunkal) do not go fishing during these lean months (February, March and April),” Raju said.
Deception and tragedy
The promise of a harbour, like deep-sea illusions, had also lured some fishermen to trouble. Samson and four of his friends had purchased a big boat for Rs 60 lakh in 2014. They secured help from the government and the Matsyafed but had to take half the money as a loan from the SBI. “Unfortunately for us, the catch was not that good. Add to it the additional cost we had to incur by way of travel to Vypeen with our workers daily, and we sunk deeper and deeper into loss,” Samson said.
Now his four cents of land, along with that of his friends, had been attached by the bank. Samson, who once was a boat owner, now works as a daily wager in a relative's boat.
Life and welfare under Pinarayi
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's claims about Life Mission are treated with a bit of derision by the coastal folks.
“Earlier, under the UDF rule, the Fisheries Department had a housing scheme exclusively for coastal folks. After this got clubbed with other housing schemes under Life Mission, the houses coastal folks received turned out to be much less than under the UDF,” said Antony Kurishingal, a fisherman trade union leader.
This decline of coastal benefits under Life Mission was a constant refrain we had heard during our travel along the coast.
The fisherfolk are generally not happy with the LDF government's welfare measures, too. “These months, when the fish catch is miserably low, are the most testing times for the fisherfolk. It is during this time that the community should be provided with some assistance but most welfare measures seem to have come to a standstill. There was the Thanal project under which a family would get Rs 1400 months for three months. This has stopped,” said Jackson Pollayil, the state president of Kerala Swatantra Matsyathozhilali Federation.
It was Jackson who had tipped off opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala about the LDF government's EMCC deal, which eventually forced the government to scrap the deal.
Rubber vs kerosine subsidy
Like all the fishermen Onmanorama talked to, Jackson also spoke about the stagnant kerosine subsidy. “It was Rs 25 under the UDF government when the cost of kerosine was Rs 50 per litre. Now, the cost has shot over Rs 90 a litre but the subsidy remains at Rs 25,” Jackson said.
Valerian, a fisherman in Anchuthengu in Thiruvananthapuram, saw in this a general indifference towards coastal issues. “We usually read in the papers about politicians jointly asking for the rubber subsidy to be raised but not once has a party or an MLA demanded a hike in kerosene subsidy for fishermen,” Valerian said.
Further, as if existing burdens were not enough, Jackson said the LDF government had effected a shocking five-fold increase in the registration fee of fishing boats, from Rs 5000 to Rs 50,000. After protests, the fee is now down to Rs 25,000.
Jackson, however, lauds fisheries minister J Mercikuttyamma for breaking the middlemen system at fish landing centres. “Earlier, we were not paid for the entire quantity of fish we brought from the sea. The middlemen, because of our indebtedness to them, took their cut. During COVID-19, the government asked Matsyafed to procure directly from us and we got money for every kilo of fish we brought from the sea,” Jackson said.