New Internationalist

Sinking Hope

Issue 136

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VIOLENCE [image, unknown] Fisherpeople fight back

[image, unknown]

Sinking hope
A Westerner watches an Indian fishing
community fighting for its life.

THE light on the beach held for a moment the deep grey that precedes the tropical dawn. We waited as the sun peered a bloodshot eye over the horizon, the others squatting on their haunches with an ease and grace I couldn’t hope to emulate. The peace of this South Indian sunrise was such that its imminent shattering seemed unimaginable.

Still less conceivable was the idea that the fisherpeople beside me were intent on violence. I studied Semi from the side - a haughty profile, though the mouth spoiled the effect by moving ruminatively as if it rued the absence of betel to chew. Only the stick on the sand at his feet betrayed his purpose.

He’d shown it to me the day before, saying ‘Tomorrow I must be an attacker.’ He’d sounded as resigned to the prospect as Hindus are taught to be with their lot - it was unpleasant but inevitable. If he hadn’t convinced me of that then his wife Nusu would have done. She’d told me about the dwindling fish stocks on which her village depended as though I might somehow restore them with a whisper of my nonexistent but still over-rated Westem magic.

She’d told me how, when a trawler made a sweep of their coastal waters, they took everything in their fine mesh nets - from adult fish through to prawns and the fingerlings of next year’s harvest, They swept the waters clean. For weeks afterwards all the fishing nets of the local villages would be empty.

And what of the future? For the intensive bottom trawling was in the spawning season, destroying millions of eggs on the seabed waiting to be fertilised. Her children were having the food taken from their mouths. Nusu had already lost one child and it was obvious that the other two badly needed the protein that would come from full nets brought back from the sea.

The alchemy of the new technology was doing its work. All around the Indian coastline the fisheries were being mechanised with the help of overseas aid. Businessmen had discovered high and fast returns were to be made by investing in trawlers. It was the pink gold rush - a rush to cash in on the Japanese and American taste for prawns and lobsters. The laws to stop the trawling of the rich inshore waters were being flagrantly ignored - leaving Sami. Nusu and their community desperate.

And now a local businessman had bought a new and even bigger trawler - a purse-seiner - scorning the State’s licensing laws and bribing the police so that they would not interfere. The idea of fighting back was not new to the fisherpeople but never before had feeling run so high and unanimous. ‘What else can we do?’

The sun was clear of its roots by the time the big boat came into view around the headland. The villagers sprang up and ran to their canoes with a suddenness that seemed unnatural to India. The Yamaha outboard motors erupted one after another. Prows rising through the surf, they cut their way through the water.

It was clear that the purse-seiner’s owner had got wind of the attack and hired extra men to defend his property. They stood along the side armed with wrenches and hammers - the flotsam and jetsam of the jetties and wharves. One set of hungry people - too desperate to turn down any job, however squalid and temporary - pitted against another set of hungry people. The businessman himself was nowhere to be seen.

It was over very fast - the fisherpeople had blows rained on their heads while they were climbing aboard and one fell into the water. But once they were face to face with their opponents there was only token resistance - one side had a heart for the fight and the other didn’t.

The crew were ferried back to the beach and told they could leave. Instead they stood with the rest of us, transfixed, staring out to sea. It had only taken a little kerosene to start the fire. We watched the flames engulf the wheelhouse and waited until the engine-room exploded. The boat sank very slowly and sadly.

There was no jubilation on the beach, no victorious celebration. If the businessman did not take out his own revenge perhaps he would persuade the police to act for him. It was just possible that there would be no retaliation, that the State Government would not back someone who had been breaking the law himself.

But the fact of having to fight back, of there being no alternative, hung in the air like a threat as we turned away from the beach. Sami led the way home in silence.


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