Clad in a mundu and a light blue shirt, Peter Thomas was often seen organising a seminar on coastal erosion or a fishermen protest in front of the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram. He was a revolutionary for the fishing community in Kerala, and was a one-point contact for many: The fishing community, as well as activists and journalists who work for the fishing community’s rights. Peter Thomas, also known as T Peter or Peter Chetan, the General Secretary of the National Fishworkers forum, died on Thursday due to COVID-19. He was 62 years old.
Peter was the eldest son of a fisherman family, with two brothers and three sisters, from the coastal village of Veli in Thiruvananthapuram. However, rather than shoulder the responsibility of his large family, Peter chose the path of activism for his community. He became a part of the cause nearly four decades ago and was active until his death.
In 1980, protesters, among whom was Peter, staged furious demonstrations for the government to provide transportation for women fish vendors. The women had to walk from distant coastal villages to sell fish in markets in the city.
"At that time, we did not use charuvam (the steel vessel which was used to sell fish), but kottas made of reed. Water would drop from it all the way while women walked. They would leave home by 10 am and reach back home by 7 pm, mostly left with no time to take care of their children," recollects Mercy Alexander, an activist who was a friend of Peter.
The protest lasted for days.This made the state government, headed by EK Nayanar at the time, arrange a special bus for the women. The victory made the fishing community confident that raising their voice for their rights can have an impact. Later, the Mahila Samajams (women's committees) that had been formed in the coastal belt of Kerala, merged with the Swatantra Matsya Thozhilali Union. Peter joined the organisation as the office Secretary in 1980. He later went on to become the organisation’s Thiruvananthapuram district Secretary.
In 1981, then Fisheries Minister Sreenivasan of the CPI withdrew the order to ban trawling three days after it was issued. According to the order, trawling would be banned for a few months every year to give marine wildlife a chance to repopulate and grow. However, the order was allegedly withdrawn due to pressure from big boat owners, whose business would suffer. The fishing community, including Peter, unified again to question the move, as it would affect the availability of fish for those engaged in traditional fishing in small country boats.
The community blocked the Fisheries Directorate and marched to the official residence of the minister. The protest turned into a week-long hunger strike. They picketed the Thiruvananthapuram airport, leading to a delay in flights. They also blocked the only gate to the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre gate. Once again, Peter was one of the protesters.
"The youth of the fishing community were all active in the protest because of Peter's presence. Me, Peter and our friend Robert would travel constantly to sensitise the community. We would sleep wherever we got a place, would eat whatever people gave us. Peter in all those times had shared the warmth of a brother," Mercy recounts.
For Benjamin, who runs the NGO Coastal Watch, the vacuum left by Peter is too great to fill. They both became close while participating in activities to sensitise stakeholders of the impact that the Vizhinjam International Deep Water Project would have on the coastal region. Adani Enterprises won the bid for this ambitious multi-purpose seaport in 2015. “But prior to that, Peter had knowledge of the adverse impacts (like sea rage and coastal erosion, as activists say) which have become visible now. It’s like we have lost the head of our family and we have no one to replace him,” Benjamin says.
"Now, the environmental impact has been known to the outside world as it has become visible in the coastal regions. He also had been clear on how the fishing community should move forward. He had also been active in issues of tribal people and women and had been instrumental in coordinating with leaders of such movements," Benjamin says. "The sand mining in Veli was stopped only because of the strong intervention of Peter," Benjamin adds.
Peter, who was not college-educated, was always adaptive to changes. He learnt English and how to use a computer; he had a Twitter account too. Language was never a barrier for him, in terms of deliberations in national forums and coordinating activities in other states.
Peter was a strong opposer to the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu, and true to his character, was an active presence in this protest as well.
"It's a personal loss," recalls SP Udayakumar, the Kudankulam protest leader. "He was an exemplary role model for the activists of the country. He was a true leader, a genuine one who didn't care for power or money. He was a simple man. He is the best example of a server leader. His death is too early, an untimely one. His death is an immense loss for the civil society of Kerala as well as that of Tamil Nadu," Udayakumar says.
"The moment he was born, his mother must have whispered, ‘You are born to work for the society,’ in his ears. Peter anna (brother) has not done anything else in his life. He ran a union for the fishermen in Kerala and did them great service. He is the leader of a service organisation. In Thiruvananthapuram, the press held him so highly that his thoughts and ideas became news. He would always be by my side in all press meets in Thiruvananthapuram. He was my commander-in-chief for many protests in Kerala. Even after going to countries like Africa, Europe, America, the street where Peter anna’s 10x10 feet office stood became my shelter," Udayakumar remembers in a Facebook post.
Peter would study an issue, and then organise and gather people for protests or talks on the same. He had organised a fish-eating protest after the tsunami in 2004, when sales had suffered a huge setback at that time due to people's fear that the fish might have eaten body parts of those who went missing at sea. "We then organised a fish-eating protest, to eat cooked fish in public so as to erase the fear of the public. It was a journalist who suggested that idea and it clicked," Peter had earlier recalled to TNM.
In June 2018, Peter organised a similar protest, where fishermen came out in front of the Secretariat while holding fish, after formalin-laced fish were seized in a mass quantity. The protest was to show people that the chemical-laced fish were not caught or sold by the indigenous fisherfolk.
Around the same time, Peter had been relentlessly vocal about the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification too. According to the CRZ notification of 2018, state governments have the power to clear projects in certain regions of the coast. This could lead to adverse issues that threaten the already fragile environment in these areas. He invited Fatima Babu of the Anti-Killer Sterlite People's Movement of Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, to speak on the topic in a public event in June 2018. He also organised a seminar on coastal erosion in August 2019.
Peter with CPI(M) leader VS Achuthanandan
Back in his day, when email was not popular, Peter would walk to media offices to give news on issues that he was involved with. "He would run, pant to give the news in all media offices. I was surprised to see the dedication," said Suresh Vellimangalam, a journalist and Thiruvananthapuram district president of the Kerala Union of Working Journalists.
Peter was also a part of protests against aerial spraying of endosulfan in the Kasaragod district of Kerala, against the destruction of paddy fields and wetlands, against the proposed airport in Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district, and those to conserve the Western Ghats.
"I first met him at the fishermen protest during the early 80s. Peter was someone who open-mindedly showed up for Dalit and Adivasi protests in Kerala as well as at the national level. The fishermen community’s solidarity had always been there for Dalit-Adivasi movements," Adivasi Gothramahasabha leader Geethanandan says.
The last protest he took part in was in Kollam, against the proposed shipping corridor, in September. Here, fishermen lined up their boats and staged a sea strike. He was someone who believed that only the fisherfolk could be the conservators of the sea and its resources, and that their survival was crucial.
"He had good relations beyond political interests, which most of us don't have. He maintained them by registering dissent whenever needed. This had given him access to present the issue before people of different political ideologies," Benjamin says.