‘Kerala’s own army’ is back in action again. The fishermen of the state who were key to the rescue operations during the 2018 floods are on the same mission now – to rescue people from flood-ravaged areas of the states.
Two batches of 22 men carrying 30 fishing boats have set off for rescue mission to various flooded areas of Pathanamthitta district.
The service rendered by the fishermen of Kerala during the 2018 floods was unique in the history of the state. Even the Navy faced hurdles in rescue operations due to the structure of the houses and compound walls in the flooded areas. But the fishermen set off to the interiors where even the two-storey houses were submerged in water and saved around 50,000 people. They were honoured by the state government for their exemplary service and each them awarded ₹3,000. In yet another unique gesture, the fishermen donated the prize money to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund.
However, things are not as easy as it was in 2018 for both the district administration and the fishermen. Although two teams of 22 fishermen reached Pathanamthitta on Saturday (August 8) morning, they rued that they received no instruction from the authorities to start the work. “We spent the whole day here, the police handed over the duty to the revenue officials and left. We have not been given any instruction so far,” says Sebastian alias Kunjumon from Pallithottam in Kollam.
Sebastian spent five days in the flooded town of Pathanamthitta during the 2018 floods and rescued at least 350 stranded people from rooftops.
The fishermen, however, have been accommodated in a school.
Kunjumon is sad, but not in a complaining mode. “We feel neglected. We all have the habit of taking bath twice a day, but we don’t have sufficient water here. However, we will stay back and are ready to go to any place as instructed. Our brothers are stranded in the flood,” he says.
The fishermen say they have been given two pairs of masks and gloves but no PPE kits. They said the masks and gloves were soaked in rain on Saturday and they have no additional stock to fall back on. Kunjumon said that they have asked the district administration to equip them with PPE kits.
Helpful, yet a marginalised people
Many in the fishermen community feel despite their boundless show of solidarity and dedication towards the people of the state, they are not treated with dignity and respect.
“They are treated as emotionally driven and ignorant people who easily get violent,” says Sindhu Maria Nepolian, a founding member of Coastal Students Cultural Forum and a journalist running a community radio for the coastal villages in Thiruvananthapuram. The lethargy on the part of the authorities in passing proper communication is the root of the problem, says Sindhu.
“What the fishermen demand is to be treated with dignity and respect,” she adds.
Poonthura, a coastal village in Kerala was the first large community cluster and formally-declared area of social spread of COVID-19. Social media was flooded with hate comments against the fishermen community for being responsible in spreading the disease there.
The fishermen community of Kerala that is plagued by economic and social marginalisation is also a victim of climate change. Since the Okhi Cyclone of 2017, normalcy is yet to return to the coastal villages of the state. Seasonal sea erosion, heavy rain and high tide add to their woes. The constant warnings against deep-sea fishing due to climate change throw the villages into unemployment and poverty.
Kerala has 222 coastal villages along a coastline of 590 km, having a population of 7 lakhs. According to fisheries department statistics 28 per cent of the community lives below the poverty line.