On January 9, Shankar, a fisherman from Chennai, ventured into the sea along with other fisherfolk for work. When they were removing the net from the sea, he accidentally slipped into the water. The other fishermen on the boat rescued him and got him back on the boat. However, he ended up suffering from seizures. The fishermen were unable to move the boat without collecting the net spread out in the ocean and lost crucial hours before they could rush to the shore. They then alerted the emergency ambulance service 108 with the help of which first aid was provided to Shankar. He was later hospitalised for further treatment. Five days later, he passed away.
“This is a very normal emergency that the fishermen face when they venture into the sea on an everyday basis,” says K Bharathi, President of the South Indian Fishermen’s Welfare Association. Most of the fishermen in Chennai use fibreglass fishing boats and travel within a radius of 12 nautical miles (22.2 km).
“It will take roughly three to five hours to reach the shore from the fishing point in the sea depending on various factors. More than the travel time, it takes more than one and a half hours to spread out the fishing net in the ocean and a lot more time to pull it back into the boat again. When an accident happens in such cases, the boat cannot be moved from the spot before collecting the net,” explains Bharathi.
This is one of many challenges that the fishermen of Chennai face while out at sea. What makes their daily trips fraught with danger is that the government has not provided any services for the fishermen in Chennai to handle emergencies while out at sea.
Emergencies faced by fisherfolk in Chennai
A few years ago, Palayam S, a 59-year-old fisherman, who has been fishing since the age of 15, was on his catamaran along with two of his friends. When they were near Nochikuppam, one of them accidentally slipped into the sea, and the catamaran overturned.
“All three of us fell into the sea. Since I have experienced similar situations in the past, I managed to alert the fisherfolk on the shore by tying a cloth to a pole, indicating we were in distress. They then came to our rescue, helped us flip the catamaran around and get back to the shore,” says Palayam, adding that in most such emergencies in Chennai, it is the fisherfolk who come to the rescue of each other.
He explains that unlike catamarans, which when overturned can be flipped into position by an experienced fisherman single-handedly, fibreglass boats cannot be flipped even by five people. “Since the material is harder, it could hit us badly, causing serious injuries,” says Palayam.
Most experienced fishermen venture into the sea alone since they are familiar with the nature of the sea. In one such instance, Balu, a fisherman from Oodai Kuppam in Chennai went to sea as usual. “It could have been his bad luck. The boat overturned and he was unable to save himself,” says Palayam, pointing out that despite the experience there are times when the weather becomes unpredictable due to the impact of climate change or other local factors.
Bharathi adds that apart from medical emergencies and natural disasters, other situations require emergency services for the fishermen in Chennai and other coastal zones as well. “There are times when the fishermen in Chennai have caught some poisonous snakes or jellyfish in the net. Since jellyfishes are transparent, we would not know where it is. Once we touch it, the pain becomes unbearable to the point that one could end up with a heart attack,” he says.
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While these are the cases of those who travel within the 12-nautical mile radius, there are other fishermen in Chennai, mostly from Kasimedu fishing harbour, who use mechanised boats to travel for deep sea fishing.
“They will have to stay in the boat for at least 10 to 15 days. Though they will take basic first aid kits, there is no emergency service for such fishermen in Chennai incases of any other medical emergency like a heart attack that requires immediate medical attention,” says Bharathi.
When the fishermen are in the ocean, they use wireless networks for communication. “In cases of emergency, we try to reach at least those in the nearby boats. However, there are restrictions on high-frequency wireless usage due to security reasons which at times turns out to be a risk for the fishermen’s lives,” points out Bharathi.
He cites an incident in 2020, where a boat carrying nine fishermen from Chennai’s Kasimedu fishing harbour ran adrift mid-sea and was later traced to the water of Myanmar a full 52 days after the fishermen had set out on their journey.
“The government has so much technology but they could not trace these fishermen for 52 days! Had they taken the help of the local fishermen, who have more knowledge than any of their technology, they could have traced the lost boat much earlier,” says Bharathi.
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Fisherfolk not only have each other’s back but also are the first to come to the rescue of others stuck in the sea.
K Saravanan, Treasurer of Urur Kuppam Fishermen Cooperative Society, recalls that during Cyclone Nilam in 2012, the local fishermen went to the rescue of sailors in the oil tanker ‘Prathibha Cauvery’. The sailors jumped from the vessel wearing life jackets hoping to swim to the shore when the tanker ran aground.
“The coast guard takes credit for most of the rescue mission handled by the local fishermen but we know for a fact that the fishermen here have saved so many more lives than the navy or the coast guard,” says Saravanan.
Impact on families of fisherfolk affected by emergencies at sea
Revathi*, the wife of a fisherman from Ayothikuppam in Chennai, lost her husband a few years ago. He ventured into the sea one day, as he had for decades, and never returned. Neither the officials nor the local fishers could identify his body. She was left alone with two girl children.
“Only when there is a male child in the family can the family survive on fishing from the sea. Having lost my husband and left with two girl children, I earn my living by cleaning the fish in the nearby fish market during the weekends and taking up other manual jobs during the weekdays,” she says.
When fishermen, who are part of the fishermen’s cooperative societies venture into the sea for livelihood and die due to accidents at work, they are eligible for government compensation. “The compensation was around Rs 2 lakhs but has been increased to Rs 5 lakhs recently. Both the central and state government share and pay the insurance premium for these fishermen,” says Bharathi.
However, according to RTI data obtained by Bharathi from the Department of Fisheries and Fishermen Welfare on May 2022, hundreds of applications seeking insurance benefits have not yet been processed, leaving many families who have lost their primary breadwinners in the lurch.
Resources for fisherfolk of Chennai to tackle emergencies
The Central Government gave five advanced patrol boats to the Tamil Nadu Government back in 1998, one of which named Neelam was berthed at Kasimedu fishing harbour. Each boat costs around Rs 1 crore. “These boats could have saved hundreds of lives had they been put to good use. Due to poor operation and maintenance of these boats, they were all left to rust. Not once were they used for their intended purpose,” notes Bharathi.
According to the guidelines of Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 2019, the fishing zones in the water bodies and the fish breeding areas should be clearly marked in the Coastal Zone Management Plans (CZMP). “Only when these fishing zones are marked, the livelihood of the fishermen can be protected. It will also help in taking necessary safety measures,” says Saravanan.
Saravanan adds that though there are coast guard and navy who are deployed for rescue during natural disasters or for patrolling during important occasions, they rarely aid fishermen.
The speed boats with the Coast Guard in Chennai cannot be used even for emergency services for the fishermen unless the order comes from the Central Government. “These speed boats can be used as sea ambulance services for which both the governments should come up with an integrated working method,” adds Bharathi.
Just like how there are fire and rescue services to attend to emergencies on the land, there is an urgent need for a similar emergency service for the fishermen in Chennai. Such a service has been launched in Kerala and Gujarat, with proposals to set up the same in Karnataka.
Swift action in setting up sea ambulance services among other measures such as helplines can aid the fisherfolk of Chennai during emergencies at sea and prevent loss of lives.