It is only the fishermen who have gone for fishing to the seas and their families living close to sea on the shores who are affected most in times of natural calamities like torrential rains, rough seas, strong winds, storms, tsunami etc. that normally occur during monsoon.
These people usually live near the coast, in residences built mostly in poramboke lands or in the sand dunes. They do not have property documents like the patta and often unable to get approval from the government for building houses there. They are also unable to obtain bank loans, as their dwellings basically remain unauthorized constructions. Fishermen hence live mostly in temporary dwellings like thatched or tiled houses, all over the country.
The lives and conditions of fishermen living in as many as 13 states like Tamilnadu, Kerala, Puducherry, Andra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat, and union territories like Diu-Daman, Andaman-Nicobar, Lakshadweep, are indeed pathetic. This is especially so for those who live states like Andhra, Odisha, and West Bengal.
Fishermen’s means of livelihood are impermanent. Their boats, worth lakhs of rupees, can get destroyed in no time under the fury of mother sea. Their lives are in constant danger and there is always a fear that even their bodies won’t return. Only those whose bodies return or are found are declared dead and their families become eligible for relief. If their bodies are not found for seven years, they will not be declared dead and their families are often in the streets without their sole breadwinner.
Fishermen lives are bound with the sea, not with the rest of society. They know little else to do in terms of earning a livelihood. Their families suffer a lot if their bodies are not found.
During Ockhi, due to the publicity it got, relief was more readily available. But such deaths occur every year. Typically, in most coastal states, fishermen families are offered a relief of Rs 2 to Rs 3 lakh if fishermen die in the sea. For the first time, in Puducherry, the government has come up with a scheme of giving compensation of Rs 10 lakh if fishermen lose their life at sea and Rs 5 lakh if he dies in an accident on shore.
Having said this, the best solution to this is prevention rather than relief. There should be better communication with fishermen so that they are warned if a storm or tsunami is forecast. The government has made some efforts towards this. The Indian Space Research Organisation has been working on such technologies. There has been a suggestion that satellite phones be given to fishermen after due process and with subsidies.
Based on my inputs, a South Korean firm has made a proof-of-concept device that would enable such communication. The google phone is capable of communicating up to 200 nautical miles. It has attached cameras that can give people in the shore a view of what is happening in the boat and around it. The tablet also functions as a GPS. People can call fishermen on their boats and give them distress warnings so they can come home. The device is being validated and tested. Originally designed for use in the trucking industry, I request that the government distribute this after validation to fishermen and subsidize it.
(The author is the chairperson of National Fisherfolk Forum)