Fishermen put lives on the line to help Chennai weather the storm

The heroes, always in the grip of penury during rainy seasons, shared their stories of financial woes. They were apparently promised a compensation of Rs 3,000 per boat for a day, but got just 1K.
Fishermen who worked to rescue people during the floods, at Besant Nagar in Chennai | (Photo | Ashwin Prasath, EPS)
Fishermen who worked to rescue people during the floods, at Besant Nagar in Chennai | (Photo | Ashwin Prasath, EPS)

CHENNAI: In the wee hours of Tuesday, a while after the downpour and the whistling wind of Cyclone Michaung petered out, S Kani Murugan’s cellphone was inundated with frantic calls. For the 47-year-old fisherman of Odai Kuppam, the wails of the stranded families sounded like a call of duty. It was a deja vu moment for the heroes of the sea who are still haunted by the memories of the 2015 floods. 

Even before an official call, the fisherfolks were ready for rescue operations. Over the next few hours, more than 30 paddle boats and around 80 fishermen from Urur Kuppam, Odai Kuppam and Tiruvanmiyur Kuppam swung into action in the heavily-affected areas of Thiruvanmiyur, Velachery, Pallikaranai, Taramani and Thoraipakkam.

With the lessons of 2015 as ready-reckoner, they were prepared to put their lives on the line. They were organised into three-member teams with two of them going for rescue and the third one waiting for his turn.

Braving deadly reptiles, dead and wounded animals, faecal matter, sewage slush, and abandoned vehicles, the fishermen helped evacuate thousands of residents, saved patients in medical needs, and reached out to others with life-saving medicines and essentials. They also supported the Disaster Response Force (DRF) and police personnel in rescue operations.

Next time we will do it ourselves; not through police, says fisherman

For Kani Murugan’s team, the first designated spot for their rescue ops was Tansi Nagar in Velachery. A sexagenarian woman, who could barely walk, was in neck-deep water when they reached out. As they carried her to the boat, she thanked them profusely for gifting her with a second life. “This flood is the third-worst rain calamity we have witnessed so far,” said R Surendar, another fisherman from Odai Kuppam. He was referring to the Tsunami of 2004 and the 2015 floods.

The water level, which was almost six-foot high, gradually receded to knee-deep level on Thursday but the rescue operation went on for three days. Sai Nagar in Thoraipakkam is one area where sewer got mixed with rainwater and the entire streets had turned black. “We had to enter the sewage slush to rescue senior citizens and pregnant women,” says Ellaimuthu of Odai Kuppam.

Rescuing pregnant women was an even more challenging task for the fishermen, says Antony from Thiruvanmiyur Kuppam. Any minor mishap could prove fatal and one of the pregnant women they rescued from Velachery had delivered a baby on Thursday. A piece of glass pierced his feet during the rescue ops. “I had to continue to the rescue despite the injury,” says Antony while pointing to the cut mark in his leg. The rescue warriors are battling bruises, inflammation, swelling, and injured feet.

Fishermen say their boats were damaged when they operated in low-level water on the third day. Several of the boats deployed have sustained damages and need repair. “We lost our earnings for three days. It will take a minimum of Rs 10,000 to repair the boats. We cannot go fishing until we fix the boats,” says Ellaimuthu.

The heroes, always in the grip of penury during rainy seasons, also shared their stories of financial woes. They were apparently promised a compensation of Rs 3,000 per boat for a day, but got just Rs 1,000.

“We were initially called by the Besant Nagar police, but deployed in Thoraipakkam. However, after the operations, we were left in the lurch as the area of rescue ops fell in the jurisdiction of another police station,” says Ellaimuthu of Odai Kuppam.

“We are not doing this for money. Next time we will do it ourselves; not through police,” Kani Murugan said. According to the Fishermen’s Association, compensation for rescue ops can only be provided by the fisheries department. M K Vijesh, president of the Chennai Sengai Singaravelar Boat Owners Association, told TNIE, “Police cannot pay compensation. We have to provide proof of receipt of our work to the fisheries department and claim them. Police should facilitate that process for the fishermen.”

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