After months of uncertainty, Rubin Jeeva was excited that her husband Marie Cletus (39) was finally coming home. The 31-year-old mother of two young boys, was wondering if she should plan a nice lunch or dinner as a welcome home feast for her husband. Or should she wait for his call and then decide, after all he would have to spend the mandatory quarantine period away from home after he returns from Iran with the hundreds of other fishworkers. Yes, planning a meal can wait for a while, decided Jeeva, she was just grateful that the Indian navy had sent a ship to Iran to bring the menfolk back after so many stressful months. The Covid-19 lockdown may have cost them the loss of months of earnings, but their lives were more precious anyday. A homecoming was a celebration in itself. “I was just happy that we will get to see him. My boys are missing their father, I am so worried about his health too and just want him home,” she said.
According to sources, each fishworker had to pay 100 US Dollars for ‘local expenses’, this included food and the travel to port Abbas from the different areas they were staying in. The ‘ship charge’ was to be paid by the Tamil Nadu government. Those who reached the port, were allowed to board after the mandatory checks.
The Indian Navy ship Jalashwa had docked at Tuticorin port on July 1. Jeeva heard the news and waited for her husband’s call. He called. However, the phone call was from Iran. Cletus told Jeeva that he could not reach Iran’s port Bandar Abbas, to board the Indian Navy ship as he did not have the 100 US dollars to pay the ‘fee’ asked from each for the local ‘expenses’ and the journey to the port. Cletus was now forced to stay on in Iran, for another month at least. The news has broken Jeeva’s heart all over again, though her husband has assured her he is trying his best to come back and asked her to pray that the government of India sends a rescue flight soon to bring them home.
“What can I do but wait, and pray. I am only a housewife,” Jeeva told SabrangIndia over the phone from her village Ramanthurai, in KanyaKumari, Tamil Nadu. “You know only 687 fishworkers have come back from Iran on July 1. There are still 44 men stranded there because they have no no money to pay for the trip,” added another fishworker from Tamil Nadu.
On July 1, the Union Government announced that INS Jalashwa, deployed by the Indian Navy for ‘Operation Samudra Setu’ had arrived at the Tuticorin harbour. It stated that the ship had on board, “687 Indian nationals” who had embarked from Bandar Abbas, Iran. According to the government’s own figures so far the Indian Navy ships have brought back 920 Indian citizens from Iran.
This “embarkation of Indian nationals” had been “facilitated by the Indian Mission in Iran” stated that the “evacuees were received by local authorities at Tuticorin and arrangements were in place for speedy disembarkation, health screening, immigration and transportation of the evacuees.” According to the official statement, with this evacuation, the Indian Navy has now “repatriated 3992 Indian nationals from Maldives, Sri Lanka and Iran during the ongoing pandemic.” However, there has been no word on the Indians left behind. The families of the stranded fishermen say all they can do is wait, and console each other over the phone.
When he called from Iran, Cletus too told his wife Jeeva that he needs “almost 40,000 rupees to come back. He has not asked me to arrange it yet. I am waiting for his next call,” she said.
Meanwhile, some of the fishermen have been sharing a message over whatsapp that they hope will reach the authorities, or anyone else who can reach out and help.
They have said that they are “living in the middle of the street without any support.” They have appealed to the Indian Embassy of India to “take full responsibility for all our life.” They wrote “ We currently have 43 people without food and we are all staying in two rooms. With our money in our hands from Rs 2000 to 4,000, we are meeting our essential needs. So we have no coin (sic). We are making various efforts to return to the Indian homeland.”
“This is how they treat migrant fishworkers. It is a pandemic, the situation is bad all over the world and the Indian government must look after the Indian citizens and rescue these men,” said T Peter of the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF), who is keeping a close eye on the situation. Though he too says that there is no information yet on the plans to rescue these men. It is unlikely that another ship will be sent for only 44 fishermen, keeping in mind that this sea passage itself took months to materialise after India’s Covid-19 lockdown was announced in March.
“The schedule is not known. It was a Indian Navy ship that had brought the men back, the future decision is also theirs,” said Peter, adding that the fishworker community will continue to petition the political leadership in India to help… navy decision… They may not give one whole ship. However, the fishworkers say that the leaders often reply that “they are trying”, mere words that do not help them in any real way.
“My husband called again on Sunday, July 4, to reassure me. He said he may return by the month’s end. You know he said the 44 men are staying in two rooms. Imagine the condition. But he assured me he had food that was given by the local people,” said Jeeva, who lives with her 10, and 8 year old sons in her parents home, “My old parents have been feeding us. This was only the second time my husband had gone to Iran. We need the money. But now i don’t care. I will not let him leave India ever again,” said Jeeva as she disconnects. She wants to keep her phone line free, in case her husband calls again.