New Internationalist

Tom Kocherry: fisher for justice

Issue 452

The 71-year-old legend of social movement politics in India shows no signs of slowing down, as Richard Swift discovers.

Redemptorist priest, union leader, anti-nuclear activist and people’s movement educator – Tom Kocherry (pictured below) is a senior sage of India’s environmental and social justice movements. Despite scars from many battles, he remains an inveterate optimist – ‘Every fight, every movement, every reform is an optimism,’ he says.

You just can’t stop Thomas Kocherry. After four heart attacks, innumerable fasts and 16 stints in jail, he shows no sign of slowing down. His current target is the controversial Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu. The campaign has mobilized local villagers and activists from across the country who fear that, like Fukushima in Japan, the plant may be vulnerable to a tsunami. The movement has fought tooth and nail since construction started in 1989. ‘You cannot talk about social justice without talking about the environment,’ says Kocherry. ‘There can be no shortcuts, no depleting of natural capital.’ This in part explains his anti-nuclear stance. When not campaigning, he travels South India putting on seminars for young activists.

Richard Swift
Tom Kocherry Richard Swift

The fifth of eleven children, Kocherry grew up in the Backwaters region of Kerala, where poor fisher folk used small boats to eke a living from the fresh waters that parallel the Indian Ocean. The two influences on his early adult life were the church (particularly the social gospel of the Redemptorist Fathers) and the radical Left movement that contested Keralan politics (led by the Communist Party of India) from the first days of independence. It was natural enough for Kocherry to make common cause with the poor inshore fisher folk and their struggles. He and three other Redemptorists made their living as part of the Shore Seine fishery, and helped organize health clinics and nurseries amongst the hard-working but desperately poor fishers systematically exploited by a series of wholesalers and merchants.

In the late 1970s, Keralan fishers started to organize and assert their rights on a whole range of issues. They set up an organization called the Kerala Independent Fishworkers Federation. In 1981 Kocherry and fellow leader Joyachan Antony went on an 11-day fast in favour of a Monsoon Trawl Ban (the breeding season for many varieties of fish) in Kerala. Kocherry was arrested on trumped-up charges; in the course of defending himself he managed to fit in a law degree at Kerala University.

By 1982 the fishworkers’ struggle had gone national, with Kocherry elected president of the National Fishworkers Forum. In the mid-1990s he led a nationwide campaign to stop the Indian government from opening up the country’s fishing industry to a growing fleet of 2,600 large foreign trawlers. With 10 million Indians dependent on a sustainable fishery for their survival, the stakes were high. A militant campaign included marches, fasts and blocking of major fish ports around the country. The Indian government was forced to withdraw the legislation – one of the first and most significant victories against corporate globalization. Kocherry, who went on to help form the World Forum of Fisher People, understands the tensions of fighting for the rights of the fishing community in an era of declining global fish stocks. ‘You simply cut from the top. The biggest, most destructive, trawlers go first and you work your way down until you reach a sustainable fishery.’

Kocherry has thought a lot about people’s movements – how they succeed and fail. These days, he is highly critical both of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the established Christian church. ‘They become institutionalized, create dogmas and rituals and statues of their gods, they become powermongering or give in to the power of money.’ For Kocherry, the strength of a people’s movement lies elsewhere. ‘It must be from the bottom up. The challenge is to create an evolving revolutionary structure that never becomes institutionalized or ossified by power.’ It is a vision that would strike a chord with today’s Occupy Movements and their search for new organizational forms.

Richard Swift is a former New Internationalist co-editor.

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