Imprisoned on their boats along Guj coast

Migrant fishworkers beg to be sent home to Andhra Pradesh


Raju, a healthy young man in his 20s who hailed from a fishing community in Andhra Pradesh’s Srikakulam district, must have gone to sleep on his boat anchored at Veraval in Gujarat’s Gir Somnath district hoping that he will wake up in morning on April 22 to the good news that he will be able to go home soon to his village in Srikakulam district. He never woke up. Raju had died in his sleep that night. He was found still, by his friend who had gone to wake him up for morning tea. The cause of Raju’s death is unknown so far. The other fishermen on the boat speculate it was stress that killed Raju. 

Around 4000 fishermen who have been stuck for months on their boats, now harboured on the Veraval coast are probably feeling the same stress. Most of them had come here by train to work as contract fishermen in Gujarat as they do not own large boats backhome. They migrate mid-August, when the fishing season begins, and return home around mid-June, before the monsoon rains ground them. 

This has not been a good year for the poor fishermen working as migrant labourers on the shoreline of Gujarat, far away from their homes in Andhra, Maharashra, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. This fishing season had already faced a few cyclones and was barely starting again when they were hit  by the sudden Covid-19 lockdown on March 24. With the extension of the lockdown and the ban on inter-state travel via road or rail, fishermen like other migrant workers have been stranded wherever they work. Even though local governments have been instructed to provide accommodation the fisherman are living on their boats. While they do have basic food and water, there is no access to proper medical care, and social distancing remains a myth.

According to data from the National Fishworkers Forum, India’s mechanised marine fishing fleet, that provides for 80% of the country’s annual fishing  is manned  by migrant workers who come from Central and East Indian harbours and move to the West coast each season.

Their living condtitions on the boats are of course less than ideal, “and most likely in violation, of the Standard Operating Procedures under the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs” say fishing associations. Now stranded, most of the workers can just wait on the boat with no work and with no idea of when they can go home. They have been supplied food and water by the boat owners.

These stranded fishermen say they are stressed and just want to go home to their families.According to NFF officials fishing activities cannot be resumed under the present lockdown conditions even though exemptions have been granted by the Ministry of Home Affairs. They have been seeing financial relief a huge financial losses have already been incurred and even if the lockdown is lifted after May 3, it will not help the fishing sector. “It takes lakhs to run one boat, just the fuel is around three lakh, and another three lakh or so for the workers on board including their food and water etc,” said Veljibhai Masani, a social worker and presidents of  the Boat Owners Association, “this season is over, shut down”. 

While the boat owners are facing massive losses, the migrant workers stranded on the boat are facing great mental and emotional stress that is adding to their misery.  Raju’s is not the first death being reported from the harbour of Veraval, Gujarat said the National Fishworkers Forum. “A few weeks ago, in the period of the lockdown, another migrant worker starved to death on board a fishing boat. His body was cremated by the officials in Gujarat, but no further details of his death are known,” they said. The deceased was identified as T. Jagannathan,45, resident of Gara Mandalam, Kalingapatnam, Andhra Pradesh.

There are also reports of accidents on board one of the boats, a worker D. Korlaiya, Chinnapallu village, Vizianagaram district is said to have sustained fratures in both his legs, his current condition is unknown. The boats, say NFF,  are designed as places of work and not residence, the workers have been stranded in over- crowded and cramped harbours. 

“There has been an absence in the state’s extension of services which has led to tremendous hardships,” they say that there is a “complete absence of relief and support from the government officials to address the extremely difficult circumstances under which the migrant workers are stuck.”  In spite of repeated efforts to reach out to local, State and Central officials, nothing has been done to address the issue at hand, say members of various fishing associations. 

According to an NFF statement, Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh has requested the Chief Minister of Gujarat to look after the migrant fishworkers. However, it is not clear if a discussion on bring them back home has been initiated by the two CMs.

“The continued neglect of the sector has resulted in the financial ruin of many boat owners; more troublingly it is now resulting in the death of workers,” stated the NFF. 

The fishing associations, have demanded that a task-force consisting of local, State/UT and Central government officials be put together, to coordinate relief efforts to transport the thousands of migrant workers back to their places of residence. They also asked that medical attention be given to support the fishermen’s physical and mental health, and to quarantine then  under the Covid-19 protocol.

“At this critical stage, the workers must be immediately air-lifted from Gujarat to Andhra Pradesh and quarantined locally since it has become clear, following the second death at Veraval harbour today, that leaving the workers on the fishing boats is endangering their lives”, said the National Fishworkers Forum members.

“However, the workers have not been consulted regarding their needs; similarly representations made by the workers at various official levels remain unheeded. The neglect of the workers is taking a significant toll on their physical and mental health with reports of panic attacks, and ultimately of death,” says NFF. 

The NFF has now demanded that the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh and the Chief Minister of Gujarat must coordinate and arrange for the fishworkers to return back to their homes in Andhra Pradesh. “The National Fishworkers Forum recommends that the fishworkers from Andhra Pradesh be airlifted immediately from Gujarat, be medically examined and quarantined accordingly.”

They have also demanded a compensation of Rs 10 lakhs along with a job for a member of the families of the two fishermen who have died on their boats in Gujarat.

The Hindu Businessline had recently reported that the Andhra Pradesh Government will be bringing back by sea route the thousands of fishermen who are stranded in Gujarat due to the Covid19 lockdown. However, the fishing groups and welfare associations have yet to confirm this. 

According to sources, thousands of fishermen from Maharashtra have returned home by sea route, to areas such as Dahanu, and are now under home quarantine as prescribed by the Covid19 protocols. According to Mopidevi Venkata Ramana, Minister for Fisheries, AP, told Business line that it is expected that special boats will be being arranged to ferry the the migrant fishermen back from Gujarat.



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