Livelihood of fisherfolk in troubled waters
R Jagan has witnessed rough seas many times in the past. As a fisherman in Sulerikattukuppam, a silent hamlet along the East Coast Road adjoining the Nemmeli desalination plant, the roar of the waves had hardly ever bothered him. But, the last two years have been different.
On October 31, when Cyclone Nilam crossed not far from this fishing hamlet, Jagan was jolted out of his siesta. “The sea pounded the groynes dumped along our village. The house was shaking. We got together and decided to move to the community hall. It was fearful,” he says, squatting on the floor and looking into the expansive sea that has eroded what was earlier a beautiful beach.
Inhabitants of this small fishing hamlet swear by their gods that the havoc the sea had wreaked was the result of the plant coming up right next to their homes. The stones stretching into the sea like a platform - a cofferdam raised for the plant on the southern side of the village - has stopped sand movement. Each day in the last two years, the waters have advanced inch by inch towards Sulerikattukuppam. The scene is only accentuated by the storm season.
Fisher folk here say only three years ago, there was “at least” 500 metres of beach outside their houses. Today, there is no sign of the sands at many points on the stretch. Therefore, no space to dock their boats. Not even for a couple to walk together.
“The tsunami came and destroyed our homes. We were weary and asked the government to build the houses even further from the sea. But look outside. The sea is at our door step again,” says Karuppan, an elderly fisherman pointing to the waves.
This constant battering has damaged belongings of over 200 families, and in the process, their livelihood. Before the Thane cyclone last December, people here counted 47 boats and 14 catamarans. The number is now halved. A building with an exposed foundation and dangling roof bear testimony to the rack and ruin.
Economic damage seems irreversible. They say many have now given up fishing. Most of their shore seines, called the Kara Valai in the local parlance, have been washed away. Each cost anywhere between `1.5 to `2 lakh. Thirty to forty families pool in their loaned money to buy one of those.
“To keep our families floating, we now work at the plant on contract. `300 is paid to the men and `200 for the women. The future is bleak,” says Jagan, carrying his 18-month-old baby on his shoulders.
About a month ago, fishermen sat on a hunger strike asking the administration to dump more groynes. Advancing sea had come dangerously close to the tenements. But the folks here are pretty sure it is only a short relief. Even as the plant builders assure that the beach will be restored once the construction is over, people are weary. The permanent stones put on the sea floor, they allege, will not allow it.
In fact, the reefs near the coast, where many a pricey catch is made, has been blown to bits to place the large stones under the sea, they claim. “Fishing is now out of bounds for us. We need a full-time solution,” the people say, looking out into their sea again in a hope for answers.