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Why activism is a way of life for Kerala's fishing communities

For Kerala’s indigenous fishing communities, the struggle for rights is about survival and is entwined with the defence of their territory

Fishing boats anchored at the Vizhinjam harbour. (PTI)

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Kerala’s coastline is a narrow one with more than 2,000 people crammed into every square kilometre of its shore. Most of those living along this beautiful coast are the fisherfolk whose livelihoods are linked to the sea. Exactly a month ago, members of the fishing community clashed with police after their three-month protest against the construction of an international port at Vizhinjam, near Thiruvananthapuram. Work has now resumed at the port, but the incident is another in a long line of activism undertaken by Kerala’s fishing community to protect their domain against changes that have adversely impacted their lives and changed the nature of their work. Traditional fishing communities have a deep knowledge of the sea and its creatures, understanding that overfishing and coastal erosion will irrevocably change their world. 

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In the late 1970s, when trawlers began emptying the seas of fish, the community realised they had to organize and assert themselves to protect their domain. Backing them, was the Latin Catholic church to which nearly 40% of the fisherfolk of south Kerala belong. The church had been their rallying point since the Portuguese missionaries began working among them in the 16th century. Now, a new wave of young priests and nuns emerged, whose religious training course had exposed them to ideas like Liberation Theology, or the interpretation of religion as a social and political movement to liberate the oppressed. Alongside, non-profit organisations such as Project for Community Organization (PCO) began working within the fishing community. Among PCO’s project was an effort to get them out of the grip of money lenders by converting funds collected for a new church building into a community savings scheme. 

In the early 1980s, when the agitation against trawler fishing was at its peak, I spoke several times to Father Thomas Kochery, the leader of a group of Liberation Theologists and a man who would go on to lead the demands for the rights of traditional fishing communities for three decades. To the Liberation Theologists, the western idea of religion as charity did not appeal as much as the concept of joining hands with the poor to fight for their rights. Father Kochery, who had been dubbed Naxal Achan or naxal priest, sat in a tiny office belonging to PCO in Thiruvananthapuram. Was he a Marxist, I asked during one of our conversations as the then Congress government kept calling him that. He laughed and said if standing up for the poor and disempowered made him Marxist then he was one. When the Communists were in power they called him a CIA agent, he laughed.

I spent hours and days meeting the clergy, the social workers and the fisherfolk. I went at dawn to the coast to watch the fish being brought in and the auctioning process. I heard their stories of how they had empowered themselves and visited their villages. They were all inspiring stories which showed again and again that empowerment had to come from within. They needed leaders like Father Kochery to help them in their fight for survival. Over the next ten years they expanded their scope. It was no longer just about fishing rights but also about preserving marine ecology. Father Kochery passed away about eight years ago, but now, nearly forty years later, I see some of those young social workers and activists still alongside the fisherfolk. The recent protest at Vizhinjam proves that seeds of this awareness of their rights to defend their territory were sown more than forty years ago.

One of their major demands is to halt construction of the deep-water port and container transhipment terminal at Vizhinjam. The project which is estimated to cost Rs. 7,525 crore is already more than half complete. The government has agreed to most of their demands, including rehabilitation of families who lost their homes to sea erosion and financial assistance and compensation to families who lost their kin in accidents or weather-related calamities, but it has refused to budge on halting construction. The fisherfolk say they want to protect their coastline. A recent report from the National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR) found that about 41% of Kerala’s coastline of Kerala has been subjected to varying degrees of erosion between 1990 and 2018. Apart from climate change and rising sea water levels, human intervention in the form of development projects have also contributed to this erosion.

Last month, the protests turned violent and several protestors including some church leaders were arrested. The Latin Catholic Church to which most of the fishermen belong then decided to call a halt to the protests with immediate effect. A.J. Vijayan, chairperson of the Western Ghats and Coastal Protection Forum has said that all “the burning issues raised by the fishing community remain unaddressed”, while adding that he will continue to protest. The fight of the fishing communities against the interests of the rich and politically powerful seems unlikely to end soon.

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