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Tsunami Survivors Fear Return To Fishing

by Satya Sivaraman

Mishandled Aid Could Easily Hurt Tsunami Victims

(IPS) CHENNAI, India -- The fishing folk on the coast of Tamil Nadu in southern India are among the most hardened sea-faring communities anywhere in the world, with a centuries-old reverence for the sea.

But all that changed after last month's killer tsunami. Now, they have a deep fear of the same sea that has sustained them for generations.

"We will break stones for a living but not go back to fishing," Padavattan Etty, from Satras Kuppam, a fishing village 70 kilometers from Chennai the state capital, told IPS.

If such attitudes persist, that could have profound implications for the future and indeed the entire survival of this unique community that has so far withstood not just the ravages of nature but also various modern encroachments on their way of life.

An estimated 85 percent of people affected by the tsunami in Tamil Nadu are believed to be from the fishing community, which according to a census in 2000 was 700,000 strong.

Over 8,000 perished in Tamil Nadu when killer waves on Dec. 26, spawned by a colossal magnitude 9.0 undersea quake, lashed the coastline of a dozen Indian Ocean countries in South and Southeast Asia.

Tamil Nadu's fishing community is a significant contributor to the state economy with marine fish landings estimated around 380,000 metric tons per annum. About 58,000 metric tons of seafood valued at about $480 million is exported annually from the seafood processing units located in the state.

Travelling from village to village along the Tamil Nada coastline, the story is the same. Villagers, whether they are able-bodied men or women and children, are just too spooked to return to the sea to earn their livelihood.

"We will never forget the experience. There was no warning, no big waves, just the sea suddenly walking towards us," said Gunasekaran, a fisherman from Satras Kuppam, who still jumps up in fright at night at the slightest disturbance in the sea.

Much of the trauma is because of the sheer novelty of the tsunami phenomenon, which has been historically so rare in the Bay of Bengal sea that it does not figure anywhere in the folklore of local fishing communities.

The first recorded tsunami in India dates back to Dec. 31, 1881 and the last, before the one on Dec. 26, occurred on Jun. 26, 1941. Both these tsunamis affected the Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar, which are far from the south Indian coast. "That the sea, on which they depend for survival, should have taken away everything including their children is just not comprehensible to these people," said John Kurien, of the Center for Development Studies, a renowned policy think tank based in Trivandrum, in the neighboring state of Kerala.

Fear however is not the only impediment to the resumption of fishing activities in the community. The tsunami has devastated all the tools of their trade leaving them paralysed for want of proper gear to go out to sea.

The 2001 census on fishing craft in Tamil Nada recorded 10,278 mechanized fishing vessels and over 48,000 non-mechanized boats.

The bulk of the vessels used in the four tsunami-hit districts of Chennai, Cuddalore, Nagapattinam and Kanyakumari are either lost or completely damaged beyond repair. Fishermen have also lost the wide variety of nets they use, most of them rendered useless by the raging waters dragging them through all kinds of rough undersea terrain.

Replacing both the fishing vessels and nets however is not expected to be a big problem. While the larger mechanized trawlers were insured, the Tamil Nada state government and a host of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have promized to supply the traditional fishermen with non-mechanized wooden or fiberglass boats.

Some NGOs are trying to even encourage the fishing community to resume their fishing activities.

On Monday, three weeks after the tsunami hit, a group of 50 fishermen went to the seas at Kadiapattinam in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nada.

Using new traditional boats and nets, given to them by the international NGO ActionAid, the group brought in a catch, which was later cooked on the shores and eaten by the community.

"It is important to ensure that the fisher folk are able to start earning and move back from relief camps to their original hamlets," said Babu Matthew, ActionAid's India country director.

Experts like Kurien feel that this may also be the right time to sort out many of the long-term structural problems plaguing the entire fishing sector along the Tamil Nada coast.

"The entire fishing business has become so capital intensive and fossil fuel dependent that it is unsustainable," he said pointing out that even before the tsunami struck there were severe problems of overcapacity and dwindling income facing the fishing community.

For long Tamil Nadu's traditional fishermen, who predominantly use non-mechanized fishing craft, have been up in arms against large mechanized trawlers that they say are poaching on their marine resources. In recent years, prices have also plummeted due to an over supply of seafood products from the neighboring province of Andhra Pradesh.

Kurien has called upon the government to prepare a master plan for the proper rehabilitation of the tsunami-affected fishing communities that will ensure greater employment and income opportunities. Also he urged the relevant authorities to look into alternative ways where fishermen would be able to make a livelihood.

Careful consideration should be given to retraining and providing new skills to those members of the community who want to quit fishing and move on to new professions, said Kurien.

For fisherman Gunasekaran, life still has to go on. But he wants something better for his children.

"Despite our fear of the sea we know that one day we will have to return to fishing for survival. But we want our children to get educated, have better opportunities and change their line of work if possible," he said.

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Albion Monitor January 17, 2005 (

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