In Pictures: The Varkala Fishermen – Amidst Howling Waves, And Sparkling Fins

Posted on February 3, 2015 in PhotoNama, Society, Travel

By Sanghamitra Aich:

If you have been to Varkala, you will know it is one of the topmost beach destinations in the world. It promises economic international cafes, free WiFi, and a good swim. To me, it was all that, and more. It introduced me to a community that is striving for sustenance as storms, both literal and metaphorical, ravage their lives.

I had come face to face with fishermen previously as well – it was when I was in Cochin, I saw them using traditional Chinese nets; I remember being enthralled by the extensive manual labour; and I remember the silver catch. But it was only in Varkala where I understood the real problems these fishing communities face today. It was perhaps Raman’s friendly smile which started it all; which beckoned me to come and get a closer look at their work and become a part of their morning ritual.

Raman, a 48-year-old fisherman, said he had been to Mumbai, and even Kolkata, and could speak a scatter of Hindi and Bengali interspersed with English. He and his friend Babu stood on the shore, waiting for the pull to begin and calmly recounted the many flaws of modern day development using words and often frantic hand action – logging, development, pollution, dams water diversions – and the list was going on when I finally said the fateful word – “global warming”. They nodded their heads vigorously. Raman sighed, “āgēāḷatāpanaṁ”. A later search on Google pointed out that this was the Malayalam word for global warming.

Yes, one of the major threats to the environment in the 21st century is of course that of global warming. One only needs to go back to their school textbooks to remember how the water affects the temperature of the earth and vice versa. In view of increasing global warming, coastal communities are doubly disadvantaged. First, the fractured aquatic ecosystem impacts their livelihoods. Secondly, the effect of a rise in sea level means that coastal fishing communities are in the front line of climate change, frequented by storms and heavy rainfall. Babu, a 33-year-old fisherman voiced the very same concern. He told me that his sons feel fishing is a cursed trade in today’s world. The income is dwindling for traditional fishermen in the light of commercial fishing trawlers, and increased export. And moreover, the expenditure on daily maintenance is on the rise, as they have no catch to spare for meals, or money to repair their shanties after every monsoon. Raman pointed out that his generation could not refute the youngsters’ argument. This is why they are desperately trying to educate them well enough, so that they can get jobs in the cities, deep in the mainland.

Artisanal fishing provides a critical source of food and income to thousands of Indians, but the ever-increasing local and international demand for fish, combined with rapidly depleting stocks, is increasing strain on their way of life. Lack of modern equipments and skills has left thousands of small-scale fishermen, who provide directly for their families, unable to access deep-water species or make the best of diminishing coastal stocks. Raman’s group of fishermen use simple methods of nets stuck on stumps at mid-sea. This promises a regular catch of few small fishes that helps them earn around 900-1400 rupees at the local market, depending on the quality. The fish is shared among 13-14 fishermen, thus each earns around 100 rupees, or even less. The catch of the day is only worth around 1000 rupees. I was touched by their generosity when they offered me a few fishes despite their dire economic condition, as I had given company during their endeavour.

Locals eat 3-4 of those fishes, fried for lunch; people in well-to-do households that is. Some of the fishermen saved the black or spotted ones for home, tying them in their lungi, because these don’t sell well. Their wives will return home after working on the fields, or making pickle, to cook these for the entire family. They stood around the boats, laughing and teasing, while some others mended the nets where they had snags, and the fish- some blue, some silver, others a beautiful green, shined like jewels in the sunlight.

People assume there must be certain fatalism in continuing the early morning rise and reign. But quite the contrary is true. Amidst howling waves, and sparkling fins, groups of men continue to make a life for themselves and their families on the shores of India…and they do this with a smile on their face. This is a real struggle for conservatism of nature, culture and an older way of life.