Accessing the Seas of Mannar

12 Aug

Time and tide they say wait for no man!
Now though, through the intervention of an infrastructure project funded by the European Union to help fishermen, tides have been taken out of the equation.

Fishermen of Mannar who had missed the tide, walking out to sea

Fishermen of Mannar, who had missed the tide walking out to sea

The Palk bay, running along the coast of Mannar, is known to many for various reasons, not the least of which is the controversial sethusamudram project.

Sethusamudram is the shallow sea off the Gulf of Mannar. She has allowed contact between India and Sri Lanka for millennia via simple boats, but ships cannot navigate her. Plans to dredge a deep channel to overcome this handicap have been proposed from over 200 years ago, starting with the British (and recently India) – but there were always other issues to be considered; economic, ecological and environmental. There still are.

In the meantime however, while the ship farers muse as to what to do, the boat farers had their own worries. The sea is a difficult mistress, but to Mannar fisherman, she was often also an inaccessible tease. If they didn’t time it right to operate within a few hours of high tide, the sea receded kilometers away from shore, making them either drag their boats out and in, though slush, or give up fishing for the day.

Pushing their boat out through shallow water

As the sea’s ebb and flow changed from day to day, they could not always bank on planning in advance to catch the tide, in order to minimize the stress on their bodies and boats.

“There were fishermen who got up at 3.00 am in the morning to catch the tide – but then had to wait more than an hour at the shore because the tide was late coming in,” says J. Manoj (50), a fisherman from Pallikuda village. “Then there were those who reached the shore at 6.00 in the morning only to see an expanse of marshy land before them, as the sea had receded.”

It was no easy task dragging their boats through this marsh out to sea, though it often wasn’t more than a kilometer. The fishermen, who are highly superstitious about not disrespecting their means of livelihood, would never dream of plying out to sea with footwear on. And so they waded barefoot, often encountering sharp, jagged coral or even crabs, sea cucumbers and sea snakes in the slush.

Even without those hazards however, the marshy bog they had to wade through was no cakewalk.
“It felt like the soil sucked the energy from our feet” remembers S. Rajkumar (42), secretary of the Fisheries Cooperative Society of Pallikuda-Valarmathy village. “It drained us to just lift each knee in front of the other, through that bog. Add the equipment we had to carry on top of that, and on some days we’d just cave in and decide not to go.”

Rajkumar is a teetotaler but most fishermen here aren’t. They have only one panacea for all their ills – the locally brewed and very potent Palmyrah toddy.  Elaborates Rajkumar, on how the sea’s vicissitudes played out in their daily life:  “Many a fellow here would trace his steps to the shore, see how far the sea had receded and change his mind about going fishing for the day. He would then retrace his steps – not back home, but to the local tavern. In the evening, the wife and children dependant on his daily income, waiting expectantly for father to come home with fish and money, would see him stagger home  empty-handed instead, drunk and in debt.”

A fisherman turning back

When the European Union Support to Socio Economic Measures (EU- SEM) project was launched in Sri Lanka however, many of these fishermen finally had a fighting chance of achieving a long held dream – excavations by their shores to prevent the sea from receding.

“Fishermen of this area have long known that channel excavations would help ease their burden,” says S.B Mirando, the Assistant Director of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Mannar. “But they did not have the financial resources required. Many different village communities tried digging channels manually but it was never enough. They couldn’t dig deep enough and the shallow excavations thus dug would keep the sea in for only a few months before shoring up again. The EU and ZOA (aid agency) have done us a valuable service. I regret that they could not do so for all our deserving fishing communities, and so I have asked our engineers to prepare proposals for the villages left behind, in the event of new Aid coming in.”

According to R.Oampragash, Technical Officer supervising the project for ZOA Sri Lanka, the EU’s implementing partner on the ground, the project was ground breaking in that it had never been attempted before. “We did feasibility studies with the aid of the Department of Coast Conservation’s engineers – but since nothing on this scale had been attempted before – we were all clueless as to what the project would entail and how it would eventually turn out. Naysayers deterred us from starting the project for a long time, claiming that the dredged up sand would shore in soon and so the project would be a failure.  However the Department of Coast Conservation finally gave their assurance saying that as we were planning to excavate up to six feet, it would take five years to shore up – and that too could be prevented by yearly maintenance work to dredge up the shored sand. The villagers joyfully agreed to undertake this maintenance work themselves, and so we went ahead.”

As a testament to what kind of soil it was the fisherman encountered everyday, Oampragash and his team nearly lost two back hoes in their excavation attempts. “They were huge machines but they simply started sinking into the soil,” he recalls. “Since we were unprepared for these soil conditions, we wasted time figuring out what to do, during which time they almost sank completely. Fortunately, we were able to dig them back up using Palmyra trunks.”

A back hoe at work in one of the sites

A back hoe at work on one of the sites

Today, walks along those shores which have had channels excavated (nine in all), tell their own story.  A boat cleaves the water neatly at 11.00 am on a hot day at one of these villages, as a group of fishermen come speeding right up to shore, bearing their day’s catch and happy grins.

Speeding up to shore

“What difference have these channels made in your life?” I ask them.

“We would have to stagger back over 1km with our 50kg of fish if not for this channel,” they respond. “And that journey would have taken us over an hour. We carried the fish on our heads, and the sun beating down on it that length of time, made it spoil fast. So people had to cook and eat it immediately. If they didn’t buy it, our entire days’ efforts would go to waste.
Even so, we would have to drag ourselves back to sea again to clean our boats and bring them back – as they were too valuable to leave behind, along with our engines, nets and kerosene. Those who felt lazy to do this in the past have paid for it with the thefts of their engines and nets, and sometimes even their boats.”

Due to these exertions which resulted in severe bodily exhaustion, fishermen thus affected went fishing only three days a week at best, as they needed to rest and recuperate every alternate day. Now not only do they go out every day, but even two to three times a day – which has led to a marked increase in their income.

These being rural areas without access to even electricity in most places, they used to lose a lot due to wastage and damage, especially if they arrived too late to miss the morning market. “People here shop before 10.00 am, to prepare for their lunches” explains one. “If we missed that time bracket the fish would have to be either thrown away or sold at absurdly low prices.”

ZOA Sri Lanka under the EU SEM (2011-2014) project however, introduced not only the excavation channels but also auction centers to collectively sell their fish as well as marketing reps from various areas, to break the hold of the exploitative middlemen they were selling to.

Before, as soon as a fisherman dragged his catch to shore, he would be glad to dispose of it to anyone who would buy, especially if he had gone out too late and thus had a lesser market as well as rapidly deteriorating fish. Now however, collective sales have improved their bargaining power. They can time their fishing to come in early without being dependant on the tide. And even if they choose to go out again for a second time’s catch, they can opt to keep the fish in cool boxes till the next day if the middlemen standing by with coolers of their own do not offer a good price.

Fish being auctioned at one of the newly introduced auction centers

Auctioning of fish at one of the newly launched auction centers

It has had a marked difference in their lives. “For the first time, we are living a life free of debt. We did not even know that such a thing was a possibility within our trade,” says S.Jeyaranji (29) who has broken ground as a female manager of a Fisheries Co-operative Society in this heavily patriarchal area, where girls are often even kept off the beach. There are women living here in some coastal areas who have thus never seen their beaches, much less gone out to sea.

“The semmatis (middlemen) cheated us on the scales used for weighing our fish, cheated us on the rates they offered, and cheated us on when they would pay the money –  only at the end of every week,” says Jeyaranji. “Now, with these Auction Centers that ZOA built for us, our catches go for instant cash at double the prices the semmatis used to offer. Many of our men, motivated by the high prices and easy accessibility to the sea go out early in the morning and are done with their day’s work by 10.00 am (unless they choose to go out yet again), leaving them free to be more productive in other areas.”

Jeyaranji’s own husband is a disabled fisherman, who would not have been able to access the sea, if not for the excavated channel. “He had to have one leg amputated below his knee, due to shelling during the war,” she says. “But now, thanks to the channel, he can go out and come in early enough to help look after our daughter while I take care of work at my office.”

She adds smilingly, “He is the one who cooks lunch.” This intervention therefore can be said to have contributed not only to livelihood improvement within their community but also aided in addressing issues of women’s empowerment. Not all men are currently as supportive of their wives working as Jeyaranji’s husband – but it has given at least some women like her, a head start.

For a young woman who cowered heavily pregnant in a bunker during shelling and despaired of life for herself or her child, Jeyaranji has come a long way. She and her fellow community members have been through a lot; war, displacement, poverty, exploitation – but they are yet resilient and resourceful.

Getting these literally shell-shocked people back on their feet has been an arduous task. But this one intervention has given them a buoyancy and hope that has an impetus of its own.

The fishermen of Mannar are now far ahead of the farmers, in their journey to sustainability.


One Response to “Accessing the Seas of Mannar”

  1. Koom Kankesan August 15, 2014 at 9:40 pm #

    Hi – I’m sorry to leave a comment here but I could find no other way to contact you. Are you the person who left that lovely comment almost two years ago after the isrilankan website reprinted my essay about discovering r k narayan for the first time and the impact he has made on my life? If so, please contact me on Facebook – I am the only Koom Kankesan on there. I would love to talk to you some more. I’m sorry but I only read your comment today.

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