“We have no water, we are boiling sea water to drink, we have no food, we are going to die,” says the young man in Tamil, in a desperate tone that you can sense, coming from a parched throat. He looks like he has not had a proper meal in days, his friend sitting beside him looks the same. The young fisherman is now stuck on his boat, on the coast of Iran. He is just one of the 820 Tamil fishermen now sending SOS videos to India, hoping that someone in the government takes notice and rescues them.
With each passing day, they run low on food, medication, and will power. The SOS videos sent by these overseas Indians do not seem to have moved the authorities yet. After all they are not the typical NRIs often feted at various Pravasi Bharatiya events, nor are they from families who can afford to send chartered flights to rescue and bring them home in the face of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the globe. The coronavirus has not made any exceptions and has so far infected thousands irrespective of age, gender, immunity level, or the amount of money in their pockets.
The only people who seem to have heard the fishermen’s pleas are their families waiting back home in various parts of Tamil Nadu. Understandably the families have seen and have begun to fear the worse for their boys. They too, have begun appealing to the governments, hoping someone takes notice of their cries before it is too late.
“I sent my son to Iran around nine months ago. He went there to earn a living, so he could marry his sisters off. Only now we learnt about the coronavirus situation in Iran. Our boys hope that helicopters rescue them,” said Vijayalakshmi, sending a video message from Samba Thottam in Nagore. She fears that her son, and the other fishermen are also vulnerable to Coronavirus as they do not have shelter or access to proper medical care. “If these boys get infected with a virus in Iran, can the government bring back their life? Will they be able to give our sons back to us? They do not have food, water and proper shelter. They cry everyday, are dying, and are losing hope,” she added.
According to Dr Kumarvelu, vice chairperson of the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF), there may be more than 820 Tamil fishermen now stuck in Iran and all of them are facing a life-or-death situation with little access to food and water, and no health facilities. “They are almost imprisoned in the very boats they went fishing in.” The locals, including the contractors and middle men have also left the fishermen to their fate. “They’re not being allowed to even step out of the boats. This is nothing but a violation of basic human rights,” said Dr Kumarvelu.
“What wrong have we done? We are ordinary fisherfolk, where else can we go?,” said a brother of one of the fishermen still in Iran, “how can our boys survive on eating just once a day?” According to him fishermen are always vulnerable when at sea and many have lost their lives when natural disasters such as cyclones, or are caught in the crossfires of Naval forces. The coronavirus pandemic has now made the fishermen even more aware of their fragile existence. “We are losing our people almost on a daily basis. We should not lose anymore of our youth. Our boys in Iran are in mortal fear with the virus all around them there. They are facing acute food shortage, and with no help from anyone. They don’t even have a room, and are trapped in the fishing boats, and eating whatever fish they can find. We plead with the central and state governments to take action. The government may be acting, but we must act faster since lives are at stake.”
“We have sent over 20 videos to our homes to save us from this,” said the fisherman in his video, adding that he feared that the situation was unlikely to improve now that all flight services have been stopped. He and his colleagues are now desperate, and are, “urging the Indian government to rescue” them. According to the fishermen it has been over 25 days since they have been asking for help but they have not heard anything from the Union Government of India, nor the state government of Tamil Nadu. “Seeing our plight, the government is only being a spectator, and not feeling our pain. Our families in Kanyakumari are crying. What answers can you give to those tears? We are 1500 of us here in dire conditions,” said the fisherman trapped in Iran.
Dr Kumarvelu said the Indian government must remember that the fishermen were Indian citizens. “Indian government must think of its citizens as its own children, and do all it takes to bring our boys back home. The state government must also apply the required pressure on the Union government to ensure this happens.” The NFF has reached out to the Indian authorities at all levels. “We shall continue speaking to all MPs, MLAs to place this demand, and also urge the district collector to take up this issue with the authorities. On behalf of the National Fishworkers Forum, we urge the government to save our people and bring them back as soon as possible,” he said.
The fishermen say that they have not got any humanitarian help or support from the locals. “If we ask the locals here for food, they dismiss us saying food is only if we go to sea and catch fish. These humiliations are being borne by us,” said the fishermen. According to him his family assured him that officials from the Indian Embassy would get in touch. But no one has met them yet. They also have been hearing about Indian nationals being rescued from Tehran, “we heard that a C-17 military flight was used to evacuate 50 Indian tourists and pilgrims from Tehran. If they can send a military aircraft for 50 people, why did they not consider us as worthy of rescuing?” he asked.
In fact, he is right, 53 Indians were the fourth batch to be rescued by the Government of India in March 2020. According to news reports the Government of India had rescued a total of around 389 Indians from the Iranian cities of Tehran and Shiraz. They were all back in India by March 16 and were quarantined in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan.
Two weeks have passed and the Tamil fishermen continue to wait to be contacted, “it is us fishermen to contribute over Rs 60,000 crore to India’s earnings. It seems like the government only wants our earnings, and not our people. We urge with folded hands that we be rescued and brought back to our homeland,” said the fisherman. So far those cries have failed to move those in power. The NFF office bearers say they were made to wait an entire day at the collectors office but will not give up till all the fishermen are back. When that will happen is not known.
The fishermen’s mothers fear the worst. They say that the fishermen will not survive the ordeal and will die at sea because the authorities do not care enough to rescue them and bring them safely home to India, to their waiting families. “We never anticipated this when they decided to go to Iran, but our boys now think we’ll only get to see their dead bodies!”
Perhaps the mother felt this when she heard the son say, “It has been almost 4 days since we ate properly. Can you not feel the pain of our hunger?”