A rough sail

Their business hit hard by the lockdown, thousands from the fishing community struggle to get ration, pay loans and stay afloat

Published: 05th May 2020 06:40 AM  |   Last Updated: 05th May 2020 06:40 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

CHENNAI:  Lakshmi Devi has only her late father to thank for pushing her to apply for a ration card. Surviving the lockdown, without the daily income from selling fish in the market, would have been close to impossible if not for the magic green ticket.

For with it came the government’s relief rations — five kg of rice, one kg each of two types of dal, one litre of oil, five different spices and Rs 1,000. A month since, all she has left of it is one kg of rice, a few fistfuls of dal, maybe half the oil and a few vegetables that were already in danger of spoiling soon.

Yet, Lakshmi seems not to mind; this would be enough to fend for herself and her three-year-old daughter for a couple of more weeks. She hopes the rations for this month would be delivered by then. She packs up the food and puts them away.

Rationing solutions

Born in a family of fishers in Cuddalore, such rationing is a routine Lakshmi is well versed with. Only this time, it came a lot sooner and hit a lot harder. Every summer, between the months of April and June, the government’s ban on fishing comes into effect. This period of rest is to allow time for the sea to replenish its resources. While going three months without the primary occupation can be harrowing, the people know how to prepare for it.

However, there was no way to prepare for the lockdown that was dropped on them a month before the annual ban was to start. “Every year, we face issues during this time but the pandemic caught us by surprise; we didn’t get enough time to save money or rations. Most of us depend on daily wages to cover day-to-day expenses. After the lockdown was announced, many people began buying fish from other areas,” she explains, adding that this further affected her work. For Lakshmi, things had already been an additional layer of difficult. At the age of 30, she lost her husband and was left to fend for herself and her child.

While she had been selling the fish that her husband brought back from the sea, she now has to rely on the catch from friends and neighbours and what little she could earn from it. This time around, save for the timely rations from the government, life has been on the rougher side of things. Ezhilan Maaran, Lakshmi’s brother, has never found himself so unprepared for the ban. Housed in the rehabilitation accommodation at Gandhi Beach in Chennai, his life before the lockdown had depended solely on the catch he brings in every day.

Kasimedu fishing harbour stands still during lockdown, Shiba Prasad Sahu

“We sell shrimps, crabs, karimeen, mathi meen and nei meen. We used to make close to `3,000 every day; around `2,000 of it is spent on hiring the boat and renting the stall. Our biggest monthly expense is the loan I took to buy the nets and other fishing equipment. Around the time of the annual ban, I would have at least `30,000 to see us through the summer months. This year, with the lockdown, I have not been able to save as much. Despite the relief rations provided by the Corporation, my wife and I have been struggling to make ends meet,” he narrates.

Life on a loan

Turns out, having your own boat does little to ease the situation; especially when the situation is so unprecedented. D Vigneshwar is finding out exactly this for himself. Never having received a formal education, he learned all about fishing from his father. While his wife works as a nurse in the government hospital, he has been using his father’s small boat to fish and add to the family’s income. Last year, when the boat became too old and too dinged up to use, he was pushed to buy a new one. A loan was the only way out. “Even though we bought a small boat without a motor, the expense was huge and we have been struggling to pay the installments on time. After the lockdown was announced, paying the EMIs have been impossible. My wife, who stays in the hospital from time to time, cannot answer calls for the most part; hence, the bank calls me.

Despite my pleading with them, they have threatened to seize our possessions if we do not keep the loan payments. I have not been able to fish; even if I were to sell our leftover stock, it would only fetch half the price. How am I supposed to get the money to pay off the loan in this condition?” he asks. Ezhilan too is reliant on the ration kit provided by the corporation. When his wife comes home once in two days, she brings food from the hospital for the two of them to share. Even as most people in the fishing community have their share of problems, Girubakaran Parthiban is not one to succumb to it.

The 20-something- year-old journalism graduate who took to fishing and considers the sea his home is quick to note that the virus-influenced lockdown has put on pause the lives of Kasimedu’s fisherfolk. Yet, he chooses to remain unperturbed. “Varutha pattu ena preyojanam? (What is the point of worrying?). Something or the other keeps happening every year. We should look for solutions,” he offers. “In mid-February, a ‘fish famine’ had reduced the number of fish in the sea and was a major reason for concern. It didn’t make sense for us to venture into the sea only to come back empty-handed. So, we had to anchor most boats by the end of that month, hoping that the fish breeding period — between March to April — will increase the number and allow us profit. Now, due to the lockdown, we haven’t been able to do anything. We can only hope that the months between June and August are fruitful,” he says.

Small boats, big worries

While the lockdown has affected the survival of everyone in the trade, those who own smaller boats are the worst hit, says Girubakaran. “The ones with bigger boats will have the money that they usually spend on diesel and other investments. With proper financial planning, they can survive the period. Those with the smaller boats depend on everyday sales for survival; they are the worst hit,” he points out. Even as the government is doing its due in providing relief for those in the unorganised sector, NGOs have stepped in to add to the efforts. Chandra Mohan, coordinator at Makkal Pathai, says that the lockdown weighs heavily on those with loans to pay, and single mothers. He too agrees that the folk with bigger boats seem to fare better.

“Those in the community who have large boats go further into the sea to fish. They bring back a larger catch as compared to those with smaller boats, who stick to fishing from the shoreline or venture a maximum of two to three kilometers seaward. The former make more money in short-term installments and have saved up enough to see them through the crisis,” he surmises.

Despite the temporary relief measures in place, it is going to be rough sailing for the next couple of months. Even if the sea were to offer bountiful returns when the fishers go back after the ban, it would be months before there is any semblance of normalcy in their lives. Yet, like Girubakaran says, there is nothing to do but wait and hope for better climes. (With inputs from Roshne Balasubramanian


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