Resilience and economic compulsions brought the tsunami-affected fisherfolk back to the sea in 2005, and today fishing is a thriving business along the 188 km coast of Nagapattinam district.However, the occupation is constantly subject to nature’s fury, the most devastating being the December 2004 tsunami. Tamil Nadu (TN) was India’s worst affected state, and Nagapattinam the worst affected district. About 6,000 people were washed away, and thousands were affected economically and psychologically.
Nagapattinam is a major contributor to Tamil Nadu’s (TN) marine production. In 2006-07, its share was 20 per cent. Fishing employs about 75,000 people directly and indirectly.The government supports the occupation in various ways, one of which is subsidising diesel. Also, to compensate for boats damaged by the tsunami, the government gave boat owners a subsidy of Rs 5 lakhs and a loan of Rs 15 lakhs at a seven per cent rate of interest.The flip side to such a policy has been an increase in the number of boats. Pandurangan, Fisheries inspector , says, “Post-tsunami, there has been a 20 per cent rise. This has led to a significant fall in the catch per trip.”
This view is echoed by many boat owners. Mechanised boats (MB), fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP) boats, and catamarans are the three types of boats used for commercial fishing. At present, there are 1,014 MBs, 4,200 FRPs and 2,500 catamarans in the district. While an MB costs Rs 20 lakhs, an FRP costs Rs 85,000. Fisheries department officials say about 35 per cent of the boats are at sea at a given point of time. An MB employs about six fishermen, while FRPs employ four and catamarans two. These boats go out for a fishing trip at night and stay at sea for three days to return with around 500 kgs of fish. Once docked at the harbour, they stay for 35-40 hours before venturing on another trip. During this period, the boats are cleaned and maintained by boys called “night watchmen”.The expenditure for an MB is around Rs 22,000, while the value of the catch is about Rs 26,000 to 28,000. The profit margins for FRPs and catamarans are similar.
Fishing has a cascading effect on other industries. In Nagapattinam town, 20 ice plants employ about 200 workers. Net-making employs about 50 workers.Women play a critical role. When the boats reach the harbour, the catch is offloaded to the fish-landing centre (FLC). The biggest FLC is in Keechankuppam. At the FLC, boat owners employ elakaaris, who facilitate the auction of the catch and hand over the collection to the boat owners. The women charge a percentage of the collection for their services. While most of the buyers are fisherwomen who sell fish in the nearby towns, there are also separate counters for wholesale agents; these agents then sell the fish to other cities in and outside TN. While the womenfolk buy in terms of aluminium creels (chattis), the agents buy on the basis of weight. In Keechankuppam alone, there are about 100 auction women, 1,000 fisherwomen and 25 agents.
The risks involved in this occupation are many; to mitigate some of the adverse impacts arising from them, the government helps fishermen in various ways. It gives them a compensation of Rs 500 for the fish-breeding season from April 15 to May 31, during which period fishing is banned. When fishermen stray into Sri Lankan waters or go missing otherwise, the government provides a daily relief of Rs 50 till the fishermen are traced.