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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.