Afraid and Confused, Tamil Nadu’s Fishermen Suffer as Lockdown Ravages Their Livelihoods

For many, social distancing is a luxury while the relief measures announced by the government have left them feeling indignant.

Chennai: Migrant workers have become the most visible sign of distress brought about by India’s crippling lockdown, which has continued into its fourth week. But several communities have been suffering silently and one of the worst affected are the fishing communities across the country.

For almost a month now, Tamil Nadu’s fishing community of over a million has been without a livelihood as the state’s 1076-kilometre long coastline suddenly fell silent since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the janata curfew on March 22, followed by the lockdown three days later.

The fishermen had been ordered to stay at home, while the fish markets have been considered essential, and therefore, allowed to be open. As a result, there are no fish in the markets.

Tamil Nadu’s 608 fishing villages dot the state’s coastline. They harvest over half a million tonnes of marine products every year, making it the fifth-largest fish producing state of the country, according to the state’s fisheries department.

On April 14, taking a cue from the Union home ministry, the Tamil Nadu government allowed ‘traditional and motorised boats of no more than 10 horsepower’ to go into sea, ‘with minimum crew members and preferably from the same family.’ The government also announced that only 50% of the fishing villages in every district and the same percentage of boats would be allowed on a rational basis.

It is almost noon on Friday, April 17, several men are dividing up the last of their catch at Kanathur Reddy Kuppam, an idyllic fishing village on India’s Coromandel Coast along the scenic East Coast Road just south of Chennai’s city limits. It’s the first day that they have gone fishing in almost a month. It is also three days since Modi extended the 21-day nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus by another two weeks.

There are three local police officers wearing face masks and hovering over the boats. They have been at Kanathur since 8 am, as soon as they received word that some fishermen had ventured into the sea. The police said they were there to ensure boats were not overcrowded, and that crewmen were preferably from the same family in each boat – an effort to ensure social distancing.

Photo: Kunal Shankar

But community fishing doesn’t quite work in such a linear fashion. The fishermen tell me, it all depends on who is willing to go into the sea that day, the size of the boats and the horsepower of the motors fitted on them. Bigger boats carry up to ten men – they are always men – and the more powerful engines ensure getting to deeper waters at greater speed. This gets them back on the shore in time to get the fish to the morning markets.

They leave at 3:30 am and are back to the shore by 7 am. The catch is auctioned soon after. But the auctioning has been disallowed, leaving all the catch for local consumption, or sale to regular customers who are willing to travel to the village to buy the fish. Such haphazard restrictions have left fishermen exacerbated and angry at both the state and central leadership.

The Civil Supplies Department had come around homes, distributing Rs 1,000 to each family, as assured by the Central government as a relief measure to tide over the lockdown. About 150 homes were also given tokens each day to collect food rations. Only those with tokens could visit the fair price shops on the day they received them. Officials say this was done to avoid crowding at ration shops.

“The ministers and the chief minister must attempt to live within the Rs 1,000 that they are giving us. They must buy food with that, pay rent and electricity. Would they be able to survive on it? And if they do, then we could take their example,” said an indignant Nyananamurugan, who is in his late 20s.

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“We are poor. And yet, the Rs 1,000 has not been helpful. There are five of us in my house. What do we do with such a paltry amount? The rice they give us at the ration shops is of bad quality, and so we don’t use the grains,” said Ezhumalai, another fisherman in his late 30s and a father of three

There were also several complaints against police high-handedness and violence. “If the cops see us sitting on the shore even by ourselves, they order us to go home. They speak to us condescendingly. Most of us are not educated. We fear the police. So, we silently obey,” continued Ezhumalai.

Ezhumalai lost his home in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. He says his new home of 750 square feet, where he lives with his mother, wife and three children, was allotted to him following World Bank funding for rebuilding their community. He is thankful he is not renting at this difficult time.

(L-R) Kayalvizhi with her children Sabarisa, Bhavna and Manikandan, husband Ezhumalai and family friend Ezhil in their home, alloted to them with World Bank funds as part of the post-Indian Ocean Tsunami relief and rehabilitaton efforts. Ezhumalai’s elderly mother lives along with him, she is not seen in the picture. Photo: Kunal Shankar

There was a constant presence of police at several villages along the East Coast Road, and a near absence of health department officials entrusted with the task of spreading awareness and stemming misinformation. Villagers mentioned “health camps” conducted in early April when they received medicines for diabetes, blood pressure, common cold and cough.

One villager said, “The salt-laden sand is where we take an afternoon nap after returning ashore, and this is where we sleep at nights. Sleeping here is much better than under a ceiling fan in a crammed room at home. The evening sea-breeze and the soft sand makes one’s worries disappear. But nowadays at nights, when we hear the police jeep coming, we collect our belongings and run back home. What else can we do?”

WhatsApp screen shot of the Chennai Corporation poster warning of a household member with possible coronavirus exposure.

There is also widespread fear of encountering city folks who might expose them to the coronavirus. This thought has been reinforced by the local police, the media, and the Chennai corporation’s health department, which has been sticking misleading warning notices outside people’s homes who have returned from abroad. The notices initially read: Covid19 – “Do not enter. Home under quarantine”. The notices also mentioned the dates mandated for quarantining, along with the names and addresses of those who have been ordered to do so. The verbiage got altered to: “We are in home quarantine to safeguard ourselves and Chennai from Corona.” These notices have faced wide criticism for severely stigmatising travellers, the vast majority of whom have not been tested for COVID-19.

But social media feeds of villagers are filled with photos of the notices in their neighbourhoods. And they have generated a sense of panic and fear.

I have been visiting these villages to get a sense of how they were dealing with curfews and restrictions since Modi’s announcement of the janata curfew.

It was 8:30 am on Saturday, March 21, a day before Modi’s daylong stay-at-home order. Selva just returned with a modest predawn catch at Panaiyur – once a fishing village, now a city neighbourhood gobbled up by Chennai’s urban sprawl.

There are about 1,000 families in Panaiyur in South Chennai. Almost all of them have been fishing for as long as they can remember. Many families have modest motorized boats, but some still have wooden catamarans.

Panaiyur was busy on March 21. Business was brisk, but none of the catches was exceptional, and villagers were worried that it would not sustain them for the rest of the week, leave alone 21 days.

People here had an inkling that it would be the last day they would go into the sea for some time to come. They had been warned of it from Tamil Nadu’s fisheries department. Information usually gets funnelled through village elders who are in regular touch with government officials.

On the day of the janata curfew, no one ventured out. Teenagers played carroms and adults tended to broken nets, or, decided to take a mid-day nap under the closed fish stalls. Some played cards. Sundays had never been quite like this. It is usually the fishermen’s busiest day of the week when city folk flock fish markets. The buzz word – social distancing was some 48-hours away, but villagers believed, “outsiders” – foreign-returned city folks are the ones bringing back the coronavirus. So, while they were worried about meeting monthly expenses, they believed shutting shop meant not getting sick.

Selva is 31. He has a six-year-old son who has not been to school for over a week and a two-year-old daughter. He complains of encroachments by Chennai’s powerful real estate firms attempting to buy seaside facing village properties for a song. Selva’s own home is a modest 500 square feet, with a bedroom, a living room and a kitchen. That’s the size of most homes in Panaiyur. Social distancing is not just a luxury, it is impossible.

Fishermen with their catch before the lockdown was imposed. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Around 4:30 pm on Wednesday, less than 24-hours since the 21-day lockdown began on March 25, about three kilometres south of Paniayur in Nainar Kuppam, two groups of men sit under a shade playing “Three Thousand” – a local card game of thirteen cards – close to the conventional Rummy. They are wary of outsiders. As I announced that I am a journalist, one man looked at me sternly and said, “Don’t go telling the police that you found us sitting around playing cards. We can’t stay home all day. It gets hot in there and we need the sea breeze.” He asked me not to photograph them. One set of young men agreed to be photographed, but not facing the camera. Their patience had already been wearing thin due to the constant police presence.

An onlooker, Gnanasekaran said, “Look we are happy that Modi has asked us to stay home to fight the coronavirus, but we can’t put food on our plates if we don’t go into the sea. We make anywhere between Rs 200 and Rs 1,000 daily based on the catch. We can manage food for the next couple of days, but what happens after that?”

As I approached another set of men sitting on the grounded boats, they signalled me to stay away.

Kanathur is the next village south of Nainar Kuppam, and outside Greater Chennai Corporation’s jurisdiction. On Thursday, March 26, after the finance minister announced the relief measure of Rs 1,000 per ration card-holding family, Akbar Basha, a 43-year-old construction site supervisor scoffed at it. His mother Pyaari Begum, who in her mid-70s and was sitting on the doorstep, said indignantly, “That’s enough for two provision store visits. What do we do after that?”

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Along the coast, I met Ezhumalai for the first time as he was tending his nets. He has a non-motorised boat that had not been used for five days now. Ever since he was ten, Ezhumalai remembers coming back to the village from school, dropping his bag on the sand, shedding his clothes and jumping into the sea. He says, “It’s the sea that’s life-giving. And if you ask us not to go fishing, then what’s the alternative that you are providing?”

There are larger issues on fishermen’s mind as well. About the drastic reduction in marine life for example. They accused the mechanised boats allowed to sail on the high seas for reducing their fish catch. One man said, “Their nets sift through the ocean floor like a sieve, catching even the hatchlings. The government declares a two-month no fishing season every year for the mechanised boats, which began on April 15. These two months are the breeding season,” fishermen say, but they say more restrictions on net size, depth and timings must be imposed to attempt to restore marine life to what it was about two decades back.

Ezhumalai said he wants to be the last in his family to be a fisherman, but he is looking forward to further easing of restrictions on April 20, when he can return to selling fish in the markets.

Kunal Shankar is a freelance journalist.