Prabha (28) of Sulerikadu, a coastal village in Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu, wakes up to the smell of the sea every day. Each morning, he spends two hours at the sea to get the day’s catch before heading to his petty shop.
Every day, Chitra (42) takes a share auto to the crowded Tiruporur market to sell the fish that her brother catches. She earns between Rs 200 and Rs 500 per day depending on the catch.
Rekesh (38) of Nemmelikuppam was hoping to spend more time fishing this summer to save money for his children’s school fees.
None of them knew that their daily routine would come to a grinding halt as the alarming rise of COVID-19 cases led to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing a 21-day nationwide lockdown on March 25th this year.
In Sulerikadu, a small fishing village in the Bay of Bengal coast, the local administration used town criers to spread the message of lockdown and social distancing. Beating drums, the town criers made the announcements.
“We have close to 250 fisher families here. We have ensured that no one from our village goes to the sea during the lockdown as fishing normally involves a group of more than five men, not to mention the crowded fishing market where our women sell the fish,” Pazhani (50), village leader, told VillageSquare.in.
“We have asked our men and women to stay put in their homes, hoping that the government would help us tide over the financial crisis this lockdown would bring on us,” he said. He said that fishers normally make an average of Rs 500 per day and can get even Rs. 1,000 per day in the event of a good catch.
“We step outside our village only to buy groceries, but some people do get together in the evenings within the village,” Prabha told VillageSquare.in. He said that the coronavirus fear had gripped his small village and people were wary of anyone who coughed.
Need for screening
“It would be great if there’s some medical camp to find out if there are any coronavirus cases in fishing communities like ours. Patients if any, should be identified and isolated,” said Prabha. This, he felt, would stop the spread of the disease even post-lockdown.
“Yes, fishers work together and are a close-knit society; social distancing might be tough to implement here,” social activist Dhivya Marunthiah told VillageSquare.in. “It would really help if we conduct screening camps in such densely populated regions.”
Prabha fishes during season and runs a small ice-cream shop to supplement his meager income. But the lockdown meant that he could do neither. “Fishers from Kovalam up to Mahabalipuram in this coastal stretch have completely stopped fishing,” he said.
Marunthiah said that only the dealers who can afford transit to bigger fish markets would survive such a scenario. “It is necessary that the government gets the local panchayat leaders to distribute groceries immediately and safely to people who depend on daily wages or on daily income like the small-scale fishermen and women,” she said.
Pazhani opined that the government’s promised relief of Rs. 1,000 per family might help but said that aiding families with groceries during the lockdown might be more effective. “Even a storm would affect us merely for a few days but this lockdown effectively means we are out of business for three consecutive weeks. We hope the government would help us to sail through this.”
“We are not government or private employees to get salary even while on leave. Neither can we work from home. This has been the second worst thing that has happened to us after the tsunami,” said Chitra. “We hope the government compensates us adequately. Rs 1,000 Rs per family would hardly help.”
Rules or not, Chitra is too wary to go to the Tiruporur market to sell fish. “I have small children at home. We can’t afford to fall sick or worse, infect our children,” she told VillageSquare.in. She said that getting medical supplies for children has also been a challenge owing to the lockdown.
Fisher Rekesh (33) is also worried for his children but for different reasons. “As it is, the school fees keep increasing every year and we struggle to keep the children at school. Come April, we have to save more to pay the annual fees and this lockdown has been such a blow to us.”
He said that previously in times of storms, they would fish for prawns and crabs in the Buckingham Canal. “Now, with industries using it as dumping yard for their waste, there is hardly any life in the water bodies near our village. The shutdown also means we cannot take even temporary jobs.”
Ariwarasan (35), social activist from Chennai, pointed out that though relief measures like providing grocery should be done on a war footing, he cautioned that social distancing should be exercised during these activities.
Recently, ration shops in Madurai saw huge crowds jostling to get token for Public Distribution System (PDS) supplies, disregarding the whole purpose of a lockdown.
The uncertain economic scenario has pushed some fishers to continue their fishing trips, defying the lockdown. Ariwarasan suggested that getting a popular fisherman to do an awareness video on the need for social distancing to protect the community from coronavirus might get the message across.
Weathering the storm
In fact, while fishers in these east coast villages refrained from fishing, last Sunday saw other fish markets across Tamil Nadu (in Salem, Coimbatore and in Chennai) flout social distancing norms, resulting in their complete shutdown till April 15.
Till then, fishers like Chitra have it real tough as both men and women in the family are completely dependent on fishing for their livelihood. The villagers believe that the government aid might take a while to reach them. So they have begun borrowing money or pledging jewels to meet ends meet.
The fishers were uncertain of how long they would be able to sustain on their meager savings and small loans. “We can’t wait for this storm to cross over,” Rekesh told VillageSquare.in, summing up the emotions of the fishing community.
Catherine Gilon is a journalist based at Chennai. Views are personal.