Revered and reviled: floods from the eyes of Kerala fishermen
News18 Immersive
Sons Of The Seas
The fishermen of Kerala tapped their full potential in different flood-affected areas for rescue efforts.

Thiruvananthapuram: In a quaint little town of Alapad on August 17, Sajith Chandran’s wife was worried sick thinking about her fisherman husband. His wallet had been found by a policeman in Pandalam and his phone was unreachable. She assumed the worst till her husband got in touch with her a few hours later.

“I know you are safe. I’ll come home once I’ve done my best here and saved as many people as possible,” he told her.

While Kerala had been reeling under incessant rains and flooding for the past one month, it was on August 15 that things got out of hand and the rivers went in a spate, so much so that the gates of the Idukki dam had been opened after 26 years.

Sajith and fellow fishermen who became the backbone of the state’s biggest flood rescue operation.

The Deluge And The Clarion Call

Mincing no words, Sajith said he knew things were bad when he saw the visuals on TV. His town had seen the wrath of the sea during the tsunami. Hundreds of lives had been lost. “The water never stood in our village. It would hit and then recede. Those who held onto trees and those who could swim made it out alive. But we knew the repercussions if the water flooded houses,” he told News18.

The local WhatsApp group started buzzing with requests for boats. The next thing Sajith knew was that he was out there rescuing the stranded.

He was among the 3,000-odd fishermen from across the coastal belt of Kerala who wasted no time in leaving their homes and reached the worst-affected areas of Pathanamthitta, Alapuzha, Kottayam, Thrissur, Ernakulam, Malappuram and Kozhikode. The tehsildaar wanted them to wait for the government to officially contact them, but according to the fishermen of Alapad, they didn’t want to wait. “We could not have,” one of the fishermen said.

In Velli, the fishing community was mobilised for operations by the administration. Police officials in the area noted the names of all people who would be going out for the operations, chalked out a plan and the time for the boats to leave. A list was circulated for everyone to see. The entire village knew who was going with whom and when. Trucks were arranged for the boats to be transported to the affected areas.

The fishermen didn’t go alone. They carried a few essentials, including baby food, biscuits and water, to give to the families they rescue.

James, one of the first people to have left with his boat, said the village had contributed in such a way that every boat that went out had a few thousand rupees with them. In Alapad, too, it was a similar situation. Here, they even took the floating tubes that they had been given after the tsunami.

Back in the state capital, an entire system was coming alive to give logistics support to these men. Speaking to News18, Fisheries Minister Mercikutty Amma said she asked all relevant district authorities to rally fishermen from their respective areas for the operation.

The first batch of boats went from Kollam on the 15th. “We had seen what (cyclone) Okhi could do and we were worried about a repeat. We alerted all districts and asked them to be cautious,” she said.

The local WhatsApp group started buzzing with requests for boats. The next thing Sajith knew was that he was out there rescuing the stranded. (Photo: Aishwarya Kumar)

Interestingly, Chengannur MLA Saji Cheriyan called her early morning on August 16 and asked her to send boats to his district. Saji would later go on record two days later asking the central government to send in choppers or lose thousands of people in one night.

Mercikutty made her way to Kollam soon after that call and called back all the fishermen who had gone to the seas for their daily routine. She left no stone unturned in rallying the fishermen into an army and sent them off, one after the other.

Now, to get the boats to the affected areas, there had to be a mode of transportation. All the trucks that were available locally had been used up in the first few batches of boats that had gone. So Mercikutty called on the respective administration officials to seize the trucks that had come to Kerala from places like Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu with flood relief and aid.

"We had seen what (cyclone) Okhi could do and we were worried about a repeat."

With the boats out, systems were set in place to ensure that the fishermen did not run out of fuel. “We told the men that we’ll take care of it. And we did our best in those circumstances,” she said, adding that barrels of fuel were sent off to affected districts.

All that she asked the district authorities to do was not meddle with the fishermen’s moves. The operation centres that the state set up at various districts one after the other, she added, were to provide relief to the fishermen and not run a parallel rescue operation. She also apprised CM Pinarayi Vijayan of the situation and the move to mobilise the fishermen on the night of August 16.

Who Are These Fishermen?

Fishing in Kerala is one of the riskiest jobs. As an example, earlier this year, the Arabian Sea lashed about 700 homes in Chellanam, forcing thousands to flee for their lives. This was not the first time it had happened. The community had barely recovered from Okhi, which hit the coast in December last year. The government had done very little or nothing to help the fishermen, the majoritarian victims back then. The whereabouts of hundreds of fishermen are still unknown.

The participation of the fishing community of the state is commendable and so is the appreciation being showered on them, considering that they are often relegated to the lower ranks in societal hierarchy. Their mornings are spent at the sea getting their catch and once they come back, they mend their nets and prepare for the next day. By virtue of their job, not many fishermen can be seen in the regular social sphere of Kerala society.

As per the fisheries department, the fishermen population of the state for 2014-15 is estimated at 10.18 lakh. “The amount of hard work they put in is not reciprocated in their living standards. There are many middlemen who treat them like mere coolies. We are trying to eliminate that,” Mercikutty said.

They mostly come from the ‘lower castes’ like Velan, Mukkuvas, Marrakans and the Christian; Muslim fishermen are largely considered to be converts from these Hindu castes.

As the community rallied together in rescuing lakhs of people during the floods, Pinarayi Vijayan announced Rs 3,000 per boat for each day that were needed in the operations. In addition to that, the government assured them of repairing the boats that had been damaged.

Maglin, one of the leading activists in Kerala fighting for fishermen’s rights, said the money was an insult. These were men who knew where to turn the boat when the wind turns, where to drop the sail as the water turns turbulent, she said.

“They think we rescued people for money? That’s how low they think of us?” she asked. Speaking to News18, she said that the community has time and again protested for better opportunities.

“We lose people every year because of improper relief operations. We know what loss of life means. There are many from our community who have been staying in make-shift relief camps for years now because their houses stand destroyed by the waters. How does the government plan to fix that?” she said.

Maglin narrated the tragedy of a united community as it came forth during cyclone Okhi. “When the Army and the Navy finally got around to helping us, we forced them to let the fishermen accompany them on their boat. We told them we knew where our men had gone and how far their dead bodies would have drifted. That is how much we know about each other and the sea. We consider ourselves to be lucky to have been able to save so many lives,” she said.

Tales of Love, Despair & Discrimination

At the time of writing this report, most of the fishermen have returned from the operations. There are still a few out there helping in the last leg of the operations, but the focus, as stated by the CM in a press conference, has now shifted to relief and rehabilitation.

Traversing areas where they could not gauge the depth of the water, and hitting upon trees, electric poles, and at times, boundary walls of houses completely under water, the unsung heroes, however, have come back with stories that they would remember for life.

Sajith, for one, clearly remembers this one family that his team was able to rescue. “One of the members came thumping his heart to make sure it doesn’t stop. That’s how bad the condition was,” he told News18.

He rescued about 500 people from Pandalam, one of the worst-affected areas. This was where his phone fell into the water and he lost his wallet, leading to the rumour that his boat had vanished and he was nowhere to be found.

Sajith rescued people who were stuck to their chairs; the chairs were brought on to the boat as it is. He had ensured that the phone numbers of the fishermen on his boat were on Facebook so the calls never stopped coming.

“But God chose me and several others like me. Everything during these 5-7 days has been a lesson. A lesson in love, compassion and courage.” (Photo: Aishwarya Kumar)

From Pandalam, his boat moved to Pandanad and then further to Prayar.

“There, a boat from the Odisha Fire Force was stuck in the flow of the water and we tied it to our boat and got them out. That boat had about 7-8 women and the boat had tied itself to a tree to prevent it from drowning in the water flow,” he told News18.

Just like Sajith, Bichu Chandran, who was on a month-long leave from the Army, made his coordinates public on social media. Bichu was handling operations in Veeyapuram in Alappuzha district, one of the worst-hit by the floods. He had carried thermocol slabs on his boat, which helped him save people from various places where the boat could not go.

“While we were there, we had no mobile connectivity or any indication that the dams had been opened. As we kept moving further ahead, the water current kept getting stronger. We prayed to a million Gods as we made our way through the water. There is no way we can see what is beneath us in the water,” he said.

On the first day of his arrival on 16th August, he rescued hundreds of people along with other fishermen from his village. Interestingly, the district authorities only set up a relief camp after scores of people had been dropped off to a safe zone, Bichu added.

Bichu said he will never forget the face of a Chennai-based man whose family members were stuck in Pullithi in Chengannur. When Bichu got a call for help, he set out to the location with fellow fishermen. They had to go to a different district altogether. On the way, however, Bichu intercepted wails from a woman and her three-day-old daughter. The duo was picked up by the men but weather conditions demanded them to return to Veeyapuram to drop the young mother and child.

"We all know how to swim. That has to be the biggest leap of faith that I could have taken."

“The look on the man’s face was one of dejection. We made our way to Chengannur for the second time. By the time we reached his house, they were sitting on the terrace, without talking to anyone, not having eaten anything for the last two days. They had a dog for company named Josie,” Bichu recollected.

The dog, however, didn’t let the fishermen come near the family. So they lowered the man on their boat with the help of the thermocol and swam with him to the parents.

“As soon as Josie saw the man, it jumped with joy. But the dog refused to come with us because of the current water and the strong winds. So, we left some food and water for the dog and left the house with the parents. There was no other option,” Bichu said.

The fisherman regrets not saving the dog, but he had to make the difficult call.

The men have come back with stories of families crying their hearts out at the thought of leaving their pets behind, of people not having food for two days, of the despair in the state. The fishermen, themselves, had no access to food for almost two days. Considering the magnitude of their operations and the fact that most of them were being moved from one area to another on a war footing, the men said there was hardly any time to eat.

James, from Velli, however smiled at the thought of food. “I can go on for two days without food. I’m used to being at sea and there are times when we don’t know when we are going to head back,” he said.

"We prayed to a million Gods as we made our way through the water. There is no way we can see what is beneath us in the water." (Photo: Aishwarya Kumar)

Further down in Pandanad, Moni Chettan and his army of men were looking out for people to save from the floods. The time, he added, was something he could never forget. “We reached Pooparithi colony. Among all the houses with temporary asbestos sheet roofs, stood one house which had more than 120 people. There were three pregnant women in the house. Four new mothers who had delivered barely four months ago. There was a baby who was just 28 days old. One of the pregnant women had not urinated for the last three days. There were elderly women and also a physically challenged child,” he told News18, as his eyes welled up.

It was already 7:30pm by the time the fishermen had reached this house.

Scared, the pregnant women and the mothers didn’t get on the boat.

Promising them that they would come back the next day, the fishermen left with 36 other people from the area. As they reached a safe spot, the phones stopped working, except for one of the fishermen’s.

“Soon, my job was then to attend to calls. Our numbers were already public. Njan cheriyo oru koda edutha irinu. Call varum, njan address oru paperilla ezhuthi ee payamarku kodukum (I sat down with an umbrella and my only job was then to take calls. So, I would take the call, note down the address on a piece of paper and hand it over to the boys on the boat for rescue),” Chettan told News18.

Various accounts of fishermen showed that they were getting calls from not just within Kerala but also from the Gulf and the United States.

Jose, also from Velli, remembered his first day on the operations on August 15. Bitten by leeches and fighting off snakes on his boat, Jose survived the crisis that has now become the “proudest moment of his life’. Working a day job away from the seas, Jose was called because he knew how to swim. Along with him, there were 11 others from Velli who had nothing to do with fishing in the sea.

“But we all know how to swim. That has to be the biggest leap of faith that I could have taken,” Jose laughed.

Sony recollected how, in Pandalam, they had to tie a 2-kilometer long rope from one house to the boat because the lanes were too narrow to get the boat to the house and the water current too strong for them to swim without support.

In Velli, the fishing community was mobilised for operations by the administration. Police officials in the area noted the names of all people who would be going out for the operations, chalked out a plan and the time for the boats to leave. (Photo: Aishwarya Kumar)

Another fisherman narrated how in Aaratapuzha, they found a family that was neck deep in water. “When we held their hand to pull them up, their hands were ice-cold. It felt like dead bodies,” he said.

The fisherman said that the family was so cold that they couldn’t even speak, forget about screaming for help. “You know how we got to know about them? They beat utensils with spoons,” he said.

Ensuring that the people on the boat did not lose hope was another job that the fishermen took seriously. Many narrated how they were themselves scared for their lives and the only thing they hung on to was taking God’s name every second. As people were being rescued one by one, they also came with whatever they could grab from their homes. While the traditional country boats that were used by fishermen are hard to turtle, the fishermen had a tough time calming the people on the boat. “What do we do? We can’t tell them that the water is rough and there are slim chances. We had to lie through our teeth and tell them we’ve dealt with greater problems. In reality, we hadn’t,” Jose said.

The relief operations also helped the fishermen show a mirror to the society.

"These rich people started hurling abuses at the people who were with us."

A fisherman in Alapad said while his community was portrayed in poor light, the sight of people holding onto caste during such a tragedy was heart-breaking. “During the rescue operations, we had people from the ‘lower caste’ help us with the ways. At one point, when we were around the upper middle-class area, we ran out of food and water so we had to say no to the people asking for it. These rich people started hurling abuses at the people who were with us. The lower caste people in our boats were told to ‘watch out’ since they would eventually come to these rich people for work once all this subsides. Even during such a massive tragedy, we found people who only had venom,” he said.

Sony, too, said they faced instances where people refused to get onto their boats.

“We know why that happens. And plus, we weren’t even dressed well. Unlike the Navy and the Army, we were in civilian clothes or bare-chested. Our appearance was not trusted by many,” he said.

For a community that has always been looked down upon, the sight of further discrimination was something that they had not expected to see. “But God chose me and several others like me. Everything during these 5-7 days has been a lesson. A lesson in love, compassion and courage,” Sajith smiled.


Produced by — Sheikh Saaliq
Illustration — Mir Suhail
Pictures — Aishwarya Kumar
Video produced by— Rupsha Bhadra
Video edited by— Nitin Sharma