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Hung out to dry: fishermen

While Delhi froths up the politics of Ram Sethu, MR Venkatesh hits the far south and finds both belief and business at stake on this fragile coast.

india Updated: Jul 26, 2008 23:10 IST

Despite the officially atheist ideology of the ruling DMK, the fishermen of Sethu retain a worshipful relationship with the Ram Sethu site and its sea. And they seem bemused that a government that earlier questioned the historicity of Ram in an affidavit in the apex court last year, now claims (misquoting from the Tamil epic, Kamba Ramayanam) that it was Ram after all who “destroyed” the bridge, implicitly affirming Ram’s reality.

The fishermen oppose the Rs 2,300 crore Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP) for fear of losing their livelihood. The SSCP, in its most controversial stretch of 35 km, envisages cutting across a series of partially submerged sand shoals, traditionally revered as ‘Ram Sethu’. The National Marine Park full of coral reefs and rare plant species is just a stone’s throw away.

But, “some 5,000 fishermen’s families in the area will have nowhere to go if the Sethusamudram project becomes a reality,” cry Subramanian and Arumugam, fishermen of Rameshwaram. “Every time I put out to sea, I touch the water and sprinkle it on my eyes in reverence and we say ‘Rama, Rama’ as we move our boats out,” says Balu, their confrere. “Already, much of Dhanushkoti, a point nearby, has gone under after the 1964 cyclonic storm that came with tidal waves (nobody called it a tsunami then) and in December 2004, it was these ‘Ram Setu’ islets that saved Rameshwaram from the tsunami,” he adds.

With catches of prawn and mackerel and the occasional haul of tuna already dwindling, and under frequent attack by the Sri Lankan security forces when they inadvertently stray across the maritime border off Katchatheevu (an island on the Sri Lankan side), most of the fishermen in these areas resent and reject the SSCP, not for the ‘Ram Sethu’ row, but out of fear of losing the only means they know of staying alive.

“There are arguments pro and against the sanctity of ‘Ram Sethu’, but once the channel is thrown open to the big ships, our small boats cannot go anywhere in that direction for fishing,” worries 76-year-old Muniyandi of Rameshwaram. “And if they demolish Ram Setu, the sea will get even rougher.” “Our lives are gone if the Sethu project comes through,” laments Chelliah, a fisherman from Nalumunai fishing hamlet. “Fishermen here traditionally spread their nets and go away for days. All this will be torn asunder if big ships start navigating the new canal,” say G. Subramani and T. Munisamy, fishermen of nearby Thangachi Madham, adding, “The project may bring some economic benefits to the country, but will be a disaster for the locals.”

This is despite some start-up efforts at a social rehabilitation scheme for fishermen’s families who fear displacement by the canal project. Traveling along the coast, one merely sees boards naming such schemes in some places, while in Mandapam, a fishing settlement on the mainland connected by the famous Pamban Bridge to Rameshwaram island, a very modest beginning has been made. The women here, who are trained free in embroidery and tailoring for six months by an NGO, see it only as an additional means of income. “This is like being trained in a handicraft. The certificate at best may help us apply for bank loans to buy a sewing machine, no more, no less,” one of the trainees at the centre, Mrs. Pullani, says wryly.

Rameshwaram’s fishermen use both the traditional ‘catamaran’ and small, mechanized motorboats. The diesel hike has added to their costs, of late. There are about 5000 catamarans in this area and an equal number of small mechanized boats. The minimum cost of a motor boat is Rs 15 lakhs. The active fishing season in this area is from June to August as the Tamil Nadu coast gets a good chunk of its rainfall in the North-East monsoon season from October to December.

There are about one lakh fishermen along the coast of Ramanathapuram and about 15 lakh across Tamil Nadu. They risk their lives riding the waves to earn a paltry Rs 20,000 per year. “This project will cause immense hardship to fishermen not just of Rameshwaram and Ramanathapuram but of the entire state,” says G. Anton Gomez, president of the National Union of Fishermen, based in the Tamil port town of Tuticorin, famous for its deep-sea pearl divers. “The sea is our life,” says Muniyandi.

If these fishermen are beached by the canal, a possible sewing machine on mortgage can’t save them.