A WhatsApp post currently doing the rounds in Kerala comprises an image in which a fisherman wearing a red cape, oar in hand, stands near a boat on which rests a cut-out of the state. The accompanying message reads: “Hollywood has Spiderman, Batman, Ironman, but we Keralites have all under one name – fishermen.

Some may consider this post to be an exaggeration, considering that a vast number of people across various categories of society – including students, professionals and armed forces personnel – have been involved in the rescue operations for the worst flood to hit Kerala in a century.

But these marine fishers are indeed the heroes of these operations. Navy officials, the press, people on social media, politicians across party lines and thousands of local residents who were rescued by them have commended their efficient and selfless service over the past few weeks, especially in the worst-flooded districts of Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha, Ernakulam and Thrissur.

The involvement of fisherfolk in the rescue effort is remarkable considering the fact that they belong to the lower rungs of Kerala’s socio-economic ladder, are often invisible to other residents of the state, and neglected by the government. Despite this, they mobilised swiftly and efficiently to join the rescue efforts – often at their own cost – and utilised their skills and equipment to help save thousands of lives.

The citizens of Kerala owe them more than a few words of thanks and social media memes.

Fishermen rescue residents in Chengannur taluk in Kerala’s flood-hit Alappuzha district. (Photo credit: HT).
Fishermen rescue residents in Chengannur taluk in Kerala’s flood-hit Alappuzha district. (Photo credit: HT).

Invaluable help

Nearly 1,000 fishermen and 500 of their fishing boats were involved in the rescue operations in sorties widely covered by TV, print and social media. Many of them even brought their own initial stocks of fuel and paid for the costs of transporting their boats by truck to the flooded inland districts. Their unique assets – motorised boats and GPS – and their ability to navigate flood waters fearlessly proved to be invaluable during the rescue efforts. In Alappuzha alone, fishermen rescued 16,000 people using their boats, according to a statement from the district collector.

Marine fishermen (as distinct from the women in their communities) are rarely seen in such large numbers in the midlands of Kerala. In fact, some of the people they saved, especially those from well-to-do families, interacted with them at close quarters for the first time during the course of their rescue.

The invisibility of these fishermen to ordinary Keralites is primarily because their occupation takes them out to sea, where they brave the waves to catch the fish without which most Keralites cannot enjoy their meals. When they get back from work, they have other jobs to do, like mending their nets and preparing their boats for the next day’s trip. In normal times, they have little time to interact with mainstream society.

Another post doing the rounds on social media is a confession of sorts, and provides a glimpse into how some Keralites view members of this community. It says: “My tuition master used to jokingly say that if I did not study I would end up as a fisherman. But this prejudice changed today when I heard that my cousin sister was rescued by fishermen from a luxury apartment building. They refused to take a bundle of money offered by her saying she was like their own sister. My sister said she cried her heart out”

What next?

With the floods now abating, the fishermen have returned to their homes and their livelihoods. With the state’s attention turning towards rehabilitating flood victims – where fishers have no role to play – their brave actions will fade in public memory.

But the rescuers have also sustained damages and injuries. For instance, many of their boats were damaged by the debris concealed by the flood water, which is not a risk they face at sea. Some of them were injured during the rescue efforts too.

Political parties are now competing to organise functions to felicitate them. But are long speeches and shawls an adequate expression of gratitude to these heroes?

Consider this. Marine fishing is a livelihood with the highest occupational risks. These fishermen face the wrath of unpredictable nature every day. Data shows that one Kerala fisherman dies at sea every four days. If life at sea is risky, life on land is also increasingly becoming so. Several fishing communities in the state have been fighting to save their homes from the sea, which has been ravaging coastal fishing villages every year due to a combination of natural and human made factors.

In fact, while people’s attention was focused on the floods, the damage to houses on the coast because of the ingress of the sea due to strong winds and other factors has not received much publicity. Also, now with unprecedented quantities of fresh water, silt and all forms of debris and pollutants pouring out into coastal waters, fishers anticipate unexpected changes in the behaviour of fish and their ability to harvest them. This has the potential to hurt their livelihoods. But this is not all. Coastal fishing communities have been outliers in the much-touted Kerala model of development for years, with their human development indicators lagging significantly behind the rest of Kerala.

The community has also just about recovered from the trauma of last December’s Cyclone Ockhi, during which they lost more lives at sea than has been lost during the current floods. The response of Kerala’s civil society towards their plight in the aftermath of Ockhi was at best lukewarm. Even agencies like the Coast Guard and Navy had a delayed response time during this disaster, constrained as they were by their strict protocols and inadequate facilities.

Some suggestions

It is clear then that the citizens of Kerala must do something for the fishers who helped them. Here are a few suggestions that could perhaps be a more fitting “Thank you.”

First, a proper local-level assessment must be made of all the damage to the boats of fishermen who aided the rescue effort. Quick assistance must be rendered to them so they can get back to fishing at the earliest.

Second, the damage to houses on the coast due to the unexpected fury of the sea in August – particularly to homes of fishermen who helped in the rescue – must, as a priority, be compensated from the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund.

Third, the government and disaster management authorities in Kerala, who tend to view the fishing community as permanent recipients of relief measures and disaster aid, must pick volunteers from among them and recognise them as a skilled cadre of permanent disaster response teams.

Fourth, recognising that there is no alternative to the traditional skills of fishers, agencies such as the Coast Guard, the National and State Disaster Response Teams must have statutory provisions to recruit youth from these communities. These recruits may not have high educational qualifications, but their skills will prove invaluable in crisis situations like the floods the state has just seen.

Fifth, there must be more formal government recognition of the heroic efforts of fishers in the rescue operations. Along with them, many other unsung heroes from other walks of life could be felicitated. November 21, World Fisheries Day, may be an appropriate occasion.

Finally, the rescue stories of fishers from different parts of Kerala must be recorded by an appropriate agency like the Kerala Council for Historical Research. Institutional memory of crisis events – something India critically lacks – is an imperative guide for the future.

Taken together, these measures can be a good way for us to really repay the community that rose to the occasion despite their own neglected status in society, becoming superheroes in the process.