“If the fish dies it is GDP. If fisherman dies its ex gratia”

The long standing demand of fishworkers unions that central funds should be allocated for search and rescure teams has been consistently ignored

GratiaImage Courtesy:.ndtv.com

Four fishermen went out on their routine fishing trip on June 13,  a calm Saturday morning, off the coast of Rameshwaram, in Tamil Nadu coastline’s Mannar Bay area. As usual, they took the small mechanised boat owned by William Castro. This time, Castro opted to give the fishing trip a miss. So it was just Regin Basker, Malar, Austin Sujinder (also known as Anand) and Jesu, who at over 65 years of age, was the eldest of the team. They have fished together a number of times before. That day, they were around eight-10 nautical miles into the sea, this was as far as they usually went to fish near Ramanathapuram, adjacent to the waters of Kottaipattinam. 

In a few hours, everything changed. They noticed a small hole in the boat and water began seeping in, soon enough the boat also developed a mechanical fault. The men could not fix it and the boat started sinking. “We could just shout for help,” recalled Jesu. He is the only one to have survived after the boat sank. A week after the incident, other local fishermen from Pudukottai who had volunteered to go out for  a search operation found the bodies of Bhaskar, and Anand too. They say it is impossible that Malar has survived but as his body has not been found, the administration will not declare him dead. A strange situation for his family, as they have to hold on to an impossible hope that Malar comes back alive, or just wait for official word so they can apply for getting ex gratia payment, of upto Rs 2 lakh given by the government’s fisheries department if a fisherman dies accidentally.

“If the fish dies it is GDP. If fisherman dies its ex gratia,” said  A Palsami, state secretary National Fishworkers Forum (NFF), and president Ramnad Fishworkers Trade Union (RFTU). He and other fishworker activists have for long been demanding that a search and rescue system be set up for the safety of the thousands of fishworkers who venture out to sea every day, across the vast coastline of the Indian peninsula. “The government says there is no fund to set up a search and rescue department with boats and trained people. The navy boats also do not have standing instructions to help search with their helicopters and boats,” said a fisherman of the area who also confirmed that the bodies of the missing fishermen had been found on Saturday, June 20. 

Just a week ago, as their boat was sinking, the four men had held on to the large ice box that was still afloat. Jesu, the survivor is understandably still traumatised and is said to be in a deep shock and slipping in and out of consciousness. However, he narrated his ordeal when he was rescued by local fishermen, a day after the boat sank. He said Malar and Anand told them they would swim to the nearest island and bring help.  “We will go get help. Don’t worry,” they said and started swimming towards the shore as Bhaskar and Jesu tried to stay afloat and held on to the icebox.

The ones who had ventured out did not return even the next morning. By then the ice box too began breaking down. By noon Bhasker told Jesu: “no one will come to rescue us, I am willing to risk my life and swim towards the shore…” he had not swum far, and a shocked Jesu watched the younger man drown. An image he kept describing even through his own pain when he was was eventually spotted and rescued by fishermen of Kottaipattinam village, that is adjacent to Ramanathapuram district.  He was brought back on the shore on Monday night. He had been found around 11  nautical miles from the shore. “These are not deep waters, it is well within Indian territorial waters,” said a fisherman who wished to remain anonymous.

It was the local fishermen, most of them members of the area trade union who went out in five boats to rescue their colleagues. There is still a sliver of hope that the last one remaining may reached, or that his body washed ashore on the nearby islands. However, some of those islands are in Sri lankan waters.

Even as late as yesterday, a fisherman reported a foul smell, perhaps because of a decaying human body floating near that area. So, local fishermen ventured out on their own boats. But when the fishermen reached there was no body, perhaps it was swept away by the current flow. The search and rescue ops are on, but still no luck. Almost a week has passed.

“These are individual volunteers, no choppers or rescue department were sent. This is always the case, the department does not have enough funds to search and rescue. I am a fisherman and I can confirm that . I have gotten this reply more than ten times in my life too,” said Jones Thomas Spartegus who is now doing his doctoral research in disaster and fisher rights. He is currently doing field work in Thoothukudi.

“The irony, and the sad side of this is that the fisheries department has been slack and negligent,” said a Fisheworkers Union leader adding, “there has been a long standing demand from the fishing unions of Tamil Nadu that some funds should be allocated to search and rescue with boats and rescue teams, for fishers who are risking their lives during fishing, but there have been no funds.”

The fishermen’s families get a small ex gratia payment when a body is found. “This is how the welfare of the fishermen work. The fisheries department will wait for a body to be found and release an ex gratia payment,” explained Jones.

Now that two bodies have been found, the Fishworkers Union wants the officials of  the fisheries department to start talks with the counterparts on the Sri Lankan side to help search for Malar’s body. The Ramnad Fishworkers Trade Union ( RFTU) has said that they will be forced to launch a protest soon, after consulting the affected families, if their requests are ignored yet again. If the body is not found for over two months the department issues a notice. Only after that can the family claim the ex-gratia payment. Most of the fisher workers do not have personal life insurance. This is all they are entitled to under the official welfare schemes:




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