Lockdown pushes TN fishermen to the brink; many rendered jobless

The trawling ban might have been cut short this year and the lockdown 5 has come with a slew of concessions, but the fisher community in Tamil Nadu is still smarting at the loss the past three months have brought to them.

One of the worst hit by the curfew, fishermen across the state have suffered monetary loss and joblessness to unprecedented proportions, and even after the state government conditionally granted them permission to venture into the sea, they are struggling to salvage their lone livelihood.

With over 500 coastal villages missing in action for the past two months, the rate of unemployment in the fishing sector has also shot up, prompting the state government to distribute a sum of Rs 1,000 aid to the 4.85 lakh fishermen registered with the Tamil Nadu Fishermen Welfare Board.

Though the government had earlier allowed trawling, the move did not give any relief to the cash-strapped fishermen as the annual two month ban on fishing in Tamil Nadu came into effect from April.  To rescue those left in the lurch, the government then allowed small boats equipped with engines  not over 10 horsepower to venture into the sea on a rotational basis.

Fisher folk work in a dry fish plant in Ramanathapuram district

The fishermen were allowed to go into the sea on alternate days by adhering to the rules. However, as they returned to the shore from two or three days of fishing, they found nobody to buy the fish .  “Many fishermen and labourers, who work with boat owners, have lost jobs. These are all workers who assist the fishermen,” Thangadurai, an employee who works at a fish plant in Rameshwaram, said.

Jenifer, a woman who works with fishers in Rameswaram, said, “I am worried about the situation as months of no job will push me into poverty.”  Several fishermen said that they would find it difficult to make a decent living even after the lockdown lifts as people will be hesitant to move out of their houses.

 “Do you think we will recover from financial loss even after the lockdown is taken out? We will not be able to make money due to the Covi-19 scare?” said Dass, a fishermen from Pamban,   “Even if the situation comes under control and people step out to buy fish, we will still be in trouble risking our lives hiding from the Sri Lankan patrols in the sea,” he said.

Though the fishermen in Tamil Nadu are allowed to go near the borders of International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), many still cross line and poach on the territorial waters.  The Sri Lankan navy often arrests them for crossing into their waters.

Many have been shot dead for fishing in their waters despite the rule only allows to fine them if found crossing the border. The Sri Lankan navy had also destroyed boats when they found Indian fishers poaching in territorial waters.

Tamil Nadu South India Fishermen Federation (TNSIFF) said that labourers under the age of 25 years are the worst hit by the lockdown.  “Workers aged under 25 years are the ones affected badly as most of them were making too less money even before the pandemic outbreak,” TNSIFF member said

Razaq, 22, was working as an assistant in a fishing boat in Mandapam in Ramanathapuram district for a monthly income of Rs 2000. But with the boats anchored and no business in sight, he is worried whether he would be making enough money to feed his family of three. “I don’t think I will be earning enough if the situation remains this way,” he said.

Over 90% of the fisher population in Ramanathapuram district are school dropouts or uneducated.  “The lockdown will surely have a huge impact on small sectors, especially the fishing sectors, leaving many unemployed,” said a retired professor from a fisheries college and research institution in Tamil Nadu.,

 “People employed in other sectors have also been affected. While many can recover from the situation, it is a difficult scenario for the fishermen. Only few opt for other professions as fishing is their traditional job,” he said.  Arulappan, a fishing boat owner in Kunthukal, said that it would take around six months to one year for their business to come back.

Cover image: Boats anchored off the coast of Mandapam in Ramanathapuram district

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