Ever since Ockhi hit the village in 2017, local fishermen fear to venture into the sea when there is a cyclone alert, leaving them without a consistent income.

Sea at Poonthura Kerala with people walking on the shore
news Fishermen's Woes Friday, December 04, 2020 - 19:22

The small busy market, children playing in the streets, shops open, some men taking an afternoon siesta on the St Thomas Church premises… from the outside, it’s just any other day in Poonthura, a coastal village located nine kilometers from Kerala’s capital city of Thiruvananthapuram. But life has not been normal for the village ever since Cyclone Ockhi hit it in November 2017, in which 35 fishermen lost their lives. Even a minor adverse weather condition leaves the residents sleepless. “It’s a like a panic attack, mounting tension and fear, with no way to stay calm,” says Alex Mary. Her house is 50 meters from the church and a stone’s throw from the sea.

Whenever there is any weather warning, there is an alert sent from the local police station and through the church. This in turn disrupts the villagers’ lives as it means loss of work and the coastal region becomes more vulnerable.

“We never used to fear the weather changes as we are the children of the sea, we always felt that we’d seen much. But after Ockhi, life has changed forever,” says Andrews, a fisherman.

Kerala was bracing for Cyclone Burevi as the state was predicted to be on its landfall track path. The coastal people have had sleepless nights again for the past many days.

“While leaving for fishing, my husband now tells me that we might not meet again and it could be his last meal with me, such is his fear. It has been a complete change since Ockhi,” Mini, wife of fisherman Rapson, says. Mini’s sister Selvi’s husband Edward went missing during Ockhi and was never found. Selvi and Edward have four daughters. Their youngest, Nimisha, was 1.5 years old when Edward went missing.

                                                   Mini (left) and Saroja 

“Because of the Burevi alert, it’s been a week since my husband has gone to work. After Ockhi, the fishermen are scared to go fishing. Any alert for a natural disaster that keeps our men from work means starvation for us coastal people,” Mini says.

“For anything that requires a fair amount of money, we need to take loans from private banks which charge high interest rates. Not having work for a week affects the loan repayment too. Once the bank people came and sat here when we defaulted for a month. I had to pledge my gold earrings to repay the money. So every cyclone warning is a blow to our livelihood, apart from the worry of losing our lives itself,” Mini says.

Saroja, Mini’s sister-in-law, nods in agreement. Her 55-year-old husband battles fear every time he goes to sea ever since Ockhi hit the village. “He began fishing when he was 18 and was never afraid. Now he says ‘let God take care of me’ when he leaves for work,” Saroja says.

While the men abstain from fishing during adverse weather conditions, it’s a loss of income for the women too, many of who work as fish vendors. Saroja is also a fish vendor. She buys fish from the fishing boats and sells door to door and in markets in the city areas. If there is a cyclone alert, Saroja is jobless for a week. Another major concern of the fishing community is the sharp decline in the availability of fish.

“Outsiders say that when the fishing community gets a good catch of fish, they’ll be able to manage for a month or more with that. How is that even possible? Getting a good catch at times and having no work at all often like this? How many days are we supposed to live with the money we earned from a good catch? We have lived here since our birth, we’ll not be able to survive anywhere else,” she says.

Thresite, a 60-year-old fish vendor, has also been jobless since the alert. “It’s been a week since we got the alert through the church. Opposite our house is a river and on the other side is the sea. Any cyclone alert means fear for our lives,” Thresite’s neighbour Vasantha says. Their houses are only 10 meters apart, while some are built adjacent to each other. The state government had announced Rs 10 lakh as compensation, Rs 6 lakh for buying land and the rest for building a house, for the families of Ockhi victims.

                                    Vasantha (left), Dennisya (middle) and Thresite

“The amount is for buying three cents of land… where will we get three cents of land for Rs 6 lakh when the land prices are soaring?” asks Mini, who along with her sister Selvi has been trying to buy some land with the compensation amount.

“We live each day with the money we earn that day. We don’t have any savings, none of us are government employees or have family members working abroad,” Dennisya, another of Thresite’s neighbours, says.

Ever since Ockhi, parents don’t allow their young sons to go fishing, which was natural for men above 18 to do in the past.

“My husband Yohannan still goes for work, but we don’t allow our 22-year-old son Aabin to go into the sea. My husband would say – let me die in a cyclone or in rough seas, but let my son be alive,” Alex Mary says. Alex Mary’s family of five lives in a small house while Mini’s family of 10, including Selvi and her four kids, lives in a two-bedroom house.

                                           Alex Mary 

“We don’t want to lose our children, we would rather starve,” says Saroja.

Many of the families that wanted to educate their children so they don’t become fishermen or fish vendors had to take education loans. This in turn has also added to their financial burden as not all children could get a job after finishing their studies. People like Elisha and her husband Selvan run a petty shop in the small living room of their home while some men and women began working as daily wage labourers and domestic workers in the city.

                                                                  Elisha

“My husband was part of the fishermen’s rescue team during the 2018 floods. But these cyclone alerts keep him also at home at regular intervals. We had to find an alternate income to keep life moving,” Elisha says. 

 

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