Voice of Fishworkers

Voice of Fishworkers

 

Prof. A Joseph Rosario

Formerly Administrative Officer, ISRO

 

Down the valley of the ancient ‘Veli Mala’ (Veli Hills) and nestled in the lap of Veli Lake backwaters on the Arabian Sea shore is the palm fringed Veli fishermen village, five kilometres from Trivandrum International Airport.  In a cool morning on Wednesday, 11 December 1957 neighbours in Veli Beach heard the shrill cry of a newborn infant from a thatched hut. It signalled that a new separate life has begun to the joy of Smt. Cleribel who gave birth to the new born, and father Thomas Fernandez.  Baptised at the Portuguese built 16th century St. Thomas Church of Veli , with the baptismal name Peter, the child grew up under his caring parent’s love and protection.

Fishing was the only source of livelihood to this traditional fishermen family. Being the eldest son, Peter had been lending a hand from his childhood onwards to his father in readying the fishing nets and catamaran to set out into the sea. His days in Veli Govt School and Vettucadu St. Mary’s High School were riddled with the dual roles between attending the class, and helping his father in fishing. The rough sea at times abruptly rendered his father to sit at home depriving that day’s livelihood of the family.   Fishing always depends on the vagaries of nature and the uncertain sea conditions. Even on venturing in to the sea daring the mountainous waves and casting the net from dawn to dusk, the dry sea often left Peter’s father empty to return shore dejected. There were occasional episodes during Peter’s school days when he had to quench his thirst and satiate his hunger drinking water drawn from the common well.  

At teenage, Peter began to realise how hard it was for his father to feed eight mouths – his three younger brothers and two sisters including him and parents. He began to adjust his time swapping between schooling and fishing to help his father. On holidays, he spent full time with his father in the sea immersed in fishing. His stint into fishing and the knacks of fishing he imbibed from his father moulded Peter as a seasoned and sturdy fisherman well acquainted with the warp and woof of fishing.

 

Evidently a versatile fisherman, Peter sensed and absorbed the sea as a whole in his soul. Only expert traditional fishermen setting out into the deep sea in catamarans with sails could fix for sure where the fish shoals are at the bottom of the sea floor for coral fishing. Hook and line fishing of rare varieties of fish including sharks with baited big hooks (‘koluthuvetti’) from underneath the coral crusts needs both experience and expertise. Peter was a deft deep water fisherman in hook and line coral fishing techniques besides his competence in mechanised fishing.

Whether in catamaran, country boat or mechanised boat, so skilful was Peter that he could perform with ease and accuracy the Visual Position Fixation (‘kaniyam’  Malayalam  or ‘kanicham’  Tamil) without GPS from  hundreds of nautical miles in fixing the desired locations both for identifying designated fishing sites, and to return shore with the catch precisely without losing the directions and shore destinations. ‘Kaniyam’ is the method used by traditional senior fishermen in finding out their locations by identifying land marks like mountains, church towers, high rise buildings and similar other tall structures during day time. At night, they use ‘kaniyam’ to find out their destinations based on the position of stars in the sky like ‘aaraami’ (Castor: six stars constellation appearing as a bright single star) and ‘uliyum kottuvadiyum’ (Pleiades: constellation of stars Seven Sisters).

A Gritty Fisherman Fighter

Government’s apathy and neglectful attitude towards the living condition of the fishermen community, and their exploitation by the usurious traders had always pricked Peter’s inner self as sore wounds.  When grown up as an adult fisherman, he began to question the exploitation of the fishermen by the politicians and officials who had been viewing and treating fishermen movements earlier as protests by activists of non government organizations (NGOs). When social reformers and leaders like Fr. Thomas Kochery and Nalini Naik took up the straddles of the fishermen movements in 1980s, political leaders and officials began to see the writings on the wall. They realized members of the fishermen community could converge as a formidable force to fight for their rights. It was at this juncture; Peter was attracted and drawn into the mainstream of fish workers’ movements to stand, fight and wrest out their legitimate rights and privileges from the government.  

Peter had an innate ability to effectively organize, manage and lead groups of fish workers in achieving their collective goals. When Fr. Thomas Kochery and Joichan Antony of Thumba, Trivandrum started the hunger strike on 15 June, 1981 in front of the Secretariat for complete banning of the monsoon trawling, Peter was in the fore front in organising and leading hordes of fishermen and fisherwomen from the sea shore declaring solidarity and support. Evidently it stirred the obstinate ministers and officials to act, or to face further mass upheavals. It also inspired the inland fishermen to come forward and take up the cause of the fish workers united. Peter also had a pivotal role in the 1988 blockade of surrounding the Vizhinjam Harbour with thousands of fish workers and hundreds of fishing boats compelling the government to enact regulations for banning the monsoon trawling. The Secretariat March of women fish workers against the discrimination of disallowing women fish vendors to travel in public transport in 1980s, had also been effectively organized by Peter.  This protest march resulted in commencing the operation of special schedules of transport buses exclusively for the women fish vendors.

Peter had both instinct and intuition in discerning fishers’ concerns and needs.  He organised not only the coastal fishermen community but also the neglected inland fishers and tribal communities in the interiors of Kerala and India. Mobilising necessary means and resources, he lead them to stand united in protesting even to the extent of months to get their grievances heard and redressed. For this Peter effectively liaised with the media to bring the fish workers’ demands and movements to the notice of the public at national and international levels. When Sr. Alice went on hunger strike in Kozhikode against the neglect and denial of  justice to the traditional fishermen community, and when Sr. Philomena Mary went on fast until death for the same cause in Trivandrum, Peter stood by them with hundreds of fish workers declaring solidarity and support.

Geopolitical, language, religious or cultural barriers never inhibited Peter’s efforts in organising the fish workers from the entire length and breadth of India.  In the 2019 Parliament March lead by the Fish Workers Coordination Committee against the Indo-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement allowing imports of fish from other countries, Peter stood as a stalwart in pooling together the fish workers from all littoral states of India to resist the government move. In vital issues like fighting against pollution of common water bodies and removal of sand from the beaches as also eviction of fishermen for tourism development, his stand was firm and uncompromising forcing the state and national governments to enact regulations restricting such activities.

Peter had always a broader and deeper analytical view of matters of grave concern.  The resenting stance and voice of Peter was so vociferous in the degradation of Silent Valley’s ecology and its bio- diversity due to mass deforestation. He foresaw the looming danger of the Silent Valley Project and its ramifications and consequences adversely affecting not only the precious Silent Valley, but also the coastal regions in the long run. Noted Social Activist Madam Medha Patkar appreciated Peter for his zeal and vigour on Silent Valley and the problems of the tribal people.

From Veli Beach of Trivandrum to the entire stretch of  Gujarat Porbandar Beach to Digha Beach of West Bengal,  Peter’s stentorian voice echoed igniting the fish workers of India  to unite and  fight against poaching by the  multinational companies  in the near shore fishing zones. This upsurge scripted a new dimension unparalleled in the fishing history of India. His brain child “ALAKAL” continues in compiling and sharing valuable information and data on fishing and fish workers’ problems. Unselfish and unyielding to pelf or pressure, Peter stood steadfast for his community and people in uplifting them in the socio-economic and education arena. He ran his marathon forcefully serving the fishermen community of India. His soul will rejoice seeing from above the budding leaders of his community to whom he has handed over the baton in continuing more powerfully the marathon he set off with no full stop.  


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T. Peter

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