In the wee hours of Monday, the boat owner Balaji received a call from the boat driver in Myanmar, saying they had been rescued by the coast guard.

The boat along with 10 fishermen that went missing from Chennai and was found in Myanmar
news Fishermen Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 18:19

What should have been a 15-day fishing voyage starting on July 23 turned out to be a nightmarish experience for 10 fishermen from Chennai. The fishermen had to spend 55 daunting days without adequate food and fresh water in the ocean after the motor on their boat stopped functioning, till the winds finally transported them near the shores of Myanmar. Now, all the fishermen are under the care of the Myanmar Navy.

In the wee hours of Monday, the boat owner Balaji received a call from the boat driver in Myanmar. The boat driver informed Balaji that all are safe and they are being taken care of by the Myanmar government.

The fishermen in Myanmar are yet to talk to their family members, though they have been informed of their safety now. Amala, the six-months pregnant wife of one of the fishermen – Desapan – is relieved. She says she had faith that her husband will come back. “I am happy that I got to know about the whereabouts of my husband. The officials have assured me that they will bring my husband back in three or four days. I just want the state and Union government to make efforts to bring him back home soon.”

The harrowing journey

According to Bharathi, leader of the South Indian Fishermen Welfare Association, the 10 fishermen had been driven by poverty to go deep-sea fishing as the catch is worth more money. And while they were able to get a good catch initially since most of the other boats stayed on the coast during the lockdown, three days into the fishing voyage, a technical glitch caused the motor of the boat to die. The fishermen kept sending SOS alerts to the nearby boats but to no avail.

A recording of a phone conversation between a friend of Balaji’s (the boat owner), and the boat driver reveals what happened once the fishermen got stranded at sea. “The motor stopped working in the 47 East point 44 North point” – meaning that the boat was closer to Chennai - “The boat stopped working in three days and we started calling the nearby boats for help. They were near us and the distance was only 10 nautical miles. However, we were able to hear their responses, but they couldn’t hear us. The engine was working till evening,” the boat driver can be heard recounting.

So, with no help, the fishermen were helpless against the waves and direction of the wind and where it was taking them. Hunger was the only constant – they consumed the one meal a day, and saved the rest for later.

“The last few days became even more difficult as they exhausted the food and other resources,” says Bharathi. “While some people were about to collapse, they were able to see the Myanmar coastal guard, who ultimately came to their rescue.”

The fishermen are expected to reach the Myanmar shores on Tuesday. “We have not reached the shore yet; we are traveling in the ship with the Navy. We are yet to talk with my family members,” the boat driver had said on Monday, per the phone recording between him and Balaji’s friend.

The news of their survival reached back home when the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department was seeking confirmation from the various coast guards of Asian countries to declare the fishermen missing or dead after their own search did not yield leads.

Fishermen question government’s rescue efforts

The fishermen associations continue to highlight the apathy of the government in finding those who were stranded. The associations request the state government to initiate an inquiry into the search operation undertaken by the coast guard.

“There should be an inquiry on what the Ennore Coast Guard was doing during the time of the incident. The boats were given information and still no rescue operation was carried out. All these fishermen could have been rescued from nearby coasts. The Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal coast guard were not able to trace them, and the Myanmar government had to come to their rescue,” Bharathi says.

Bharathi also points out that while the boat they ventured into the deep sea was a private one, the transponders that should be connected to the nearby boats and the coast guard are provided by the government. “The boat driver has said that he tried to reach out for help with the help of transponder equipment but it was not working. The government has tried to shift the blame toward boat owner which is condemnable,” he alleged.

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