Caught in a storm

ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY | Updated on July 30, 2011

LF29_FISHERMEN   -  Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

LF29_FISHERMEN7   -  Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

LF29_FISHERMEN8   -  Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Everybody talks about Mumbai's resilient spirit, but this spirit is alive and kicking in many parts of India and across livelihood battles. Barely a day after torrential rains, triggered by a deep depression over the Bay of Bengal, had devastated Kolkata, and 33 fishing trawlers with 550 fishermen onboard went missing, a group of fishermen ventured into the rough sea from the Diamond Harbour. When quizzed on the dangers of doing so, defying the dark grey skies, one of them said, “We don't have any other means of income; if we don't go fishing, who will feed us?” At the Kakdwip fishing harbour, the scene was no different. Fishermen were silent, dejected and yet preparing for the next voyage.

Manik Das, captain of a fishing trawler, finished his lunch of rice and prawn curry inside the small cabin of the trawler. His teammates came in to provide the latest update on the weather, and the fate of their missing colleagues. Some had managed to return to shore, while the rough sea had claimed one.

“Dada, the life of fishermen in Bengal is at stake today, and fishing has become a big struggle,” Das said, adding, “So many of you have come here today because several trawlers are missing, but no one bothers when one or two trawlers go missing due to bad weather or the crew gets arrested in Bangladesh.” The lucky ones sighted at some remote location are helped by the fishermen's association to return home. It also liaisons with the Bangladeshi authorities to get them back. “Most of us do not have identity cards for this job, and we don't carry our voter ID cards for fear of losing them on the sea.”

We find the distressed wife of one of the missing fishermen searching desperately for her husband. “After seven years, my husband had gone to the sea. He was working as a driver and didn't like to go fishing. But he lost that job and had no other option” she wept.

Communication is a major problem for the fishermen during storms. “Our mobile phones do not work beyond a point and we use low-frequency wireless phones. But both become useless in inclement weather,” says Jaykrishna Halder, President of the United Fishermen Association in Kakdwip.

While the West Bengal government has no reliable data on the number of fishermen, the association says there are about two lakh fishermen in South 24 Parganas and Purba Medinipur districts. They use mechanised, non-mechanised and country boats for fishing.

West Bengal Minister for Fisheries Abu Hena said, “The government is looking into many things. At first, we need to improve the weather alarm system and increase the telephonic network to improve communication.”

But the fishermen say they have suggested the setting up of a weather office at Namkhana or Frezargunj, so they can get early alerts about depressions and cyclones. “The government has never thought of creating a disaster management team to handle crisis at sea during cyclones,” said Halder.

He added that compared to the facilities available to fishermen in States such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the fishermen of West Bengal “live and work only with the grace of God”.


Published on July 28, 2011

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