Sri Lanka's fishing industry was ripped apart by the tsunami which destroyed thousands of boats and with them people's livelihoods.
The main focus early in the recovery process was on repairing and replacing the smaller boats of poorer, individual fishermen.
However, having examined the plight of the fishing community, the British Red Cross started reaching out to a broader number of people in an innovative programme.
K. Parameswaran is one boat owner who will benefit directly from the scheme.
“I came back because I had to, because I am so poor. Fishing is my job and I have no other work to do,” he said, resting on the stretch of beach that is his fishing ground, just north of Batticaloa on the east coast of Sri Lanka.
The fishing industry is one of the largest employers in Batticaloa, but the tsunami affected almost all of the district’s coastline and destroyed or seriously damaged 2,000 boats.
The larger beach seine boats and their associated ‘pardu’ (a government assigned fishing area) have traditionally been owned by relatively better-off men, yet many more lives are dependent upon them. A beach seine boat can offer regular work to as many as 30 people, whereas a smaller craft will employ a maximum of five people.
Now, the British Red Cross, together with other Red Cross societies and Oxfam, is working to tackle the issue of replacing these larger boats so that not only the needs of K. Parameswaran, but also those of the workers and their families that depend on his boat, can be met.
More than one hundred ‘beach seine’ boats in Batticaloa were lost or damaged, leaving a similar number of crews with an uncertain future. The British Red Cross and its partner agencies are talking to K. Parameswaran and other owners in the district to agree how profits from replacement boats and kit can be shared more equally with the workers.
Already the owners have identified a variety of ways to make the industry fairer for all. Suggestions include the owners paying back the entire cost of the boat and equipment, about £4,500 including safety equipment, not to the Red Cross, but to the workers over the course of five years. Other owners prefer to change the profit-sharing from the usual fifty-fifty split to forty percent for the owner, sixty per cent for the workers, or even a more generous twenty-five, seventy-five split.
Boat owners here are called ‘mudalalai’ – ‘capitalist’ in Tamil. However, as K. Parameswaran explained: “Not all mudalai are rich, there can be great differences between them.”
“I’m a very poor mudalai. I used to borrow money to pay the workers, both when there was no catch and for the yearly advance to ensure they stayed loyal to my boat. I had 25 workers in my pardu and used to help them when they had problems. I can only pay back the debt by fishing.”
At just 24, K. Parameswaran had worked hard to own his own boat and felt confident he could support his wife and their two young sons. Having learnt fishing at the age of nine from his father, he had his own sea canoe.
He saved money for a few years and borrowed the rest until he was eventually able buy his own beach seine boat. For the last five years, his boat helped his workers and their families try to make ends meet. This lifeline was taken away from them on 26 December last year.
Memories of the tsunami
K. Parameswaran remembers being on the beach when the tsunami struck.
“I was preparing the nets, calling the workers and getting ready to go,” he said. “The current seemed quite fast so we hesitated, then suddenly the water rose and we saw a tidal wave coming. We dropped everything and ran.”
When he mustered the courage to return to the beach the following morning, he found his fishing equipment scattered everywhere, the boat damaged and nearly all his nets lost.
For four months, K. Parameswaran and his crew did not go back out to sea. There were radio warnings of another tsunami. But over and above the fear, there were other, more practical reasons. Reports of fish eating people who had been swept away by the wave slashed demand. There was also the risk of further damaging their already compromised equipment. The beach had been cleared but not the sea - logs and other debris still threatened to rip through nets.
With no other source of income to turn to, by May 2005 they had repaired the boat, mended the remaining nets and started fishing once again. With few other options of earning a living, most of the crew has returned to work the same boat.
Kalidas Ramadas, is one such worker. Aged 59, he is nearing the end of his working life and is quite an exception on the pardu. Hauling in the catch from a beach seine boat is such physically demanding work that most fishermen have to retire in their 40s and are forced to rely on their children for support.
“Before the tsunami the catch was very good and I had no problems with daily living, but since the tsunami I have undergone severe difficulties as I haven’t been at sea for several months,” Kalidas said.
“There were no jobs for us and we had to borrow to pay for food and clothing. Even now, because the situation continued for more than four months and since the catch is not that satisfactory, it’s difficult to manage. I bring home 50 to 100 rupees a day but need around 200 (just over £2) to look after my family.”
Kalidas started fishing from the age of 12 alongside his father as his family was too poor to send him to school. Kalidas and his wife, R. Thailamai have raised six children and still look after his daughter and her three children who lost their father to the conflict.
His wife and mother used to sell breakfast to the fishermen on the beach but the wave also took away that source of family income. “If I have enough money to make them, I prepare string hoppers and short eats [Sri Lankan snacks] which I sell to neighbours in the village. If there is a good catch I sell to people on the beach but I can’t do that this month as it’s very poor,” R. Thailamai explained.
The grandmother, Kaliammah, used to live on the beach but she has moved to a wattle and daub hut on scrubland inside the village. At 80 years old she has had to swap making string hoppers for collecting firewood, walking great distances with bundles of logs on her head.
Hopes rest on new equipment and a good season ahead to help K. Parameswaran, his men and their families recover the losses of the tsunami.
“I need nets, a boat and a good ‘madi’ [part of the net where the catch gathers] that won’t break,” he said. “If these things are provided the workers will also benefit as there will be more fishing, more income and they will be able to work continuously.”
In the meantime, he and his crew meet at the pardu every morning at 7am. Once the nets are prepared, they wait for the signal from the foreman that a large school of fish is nearby and then some row the repaired boat out to sea, whilst others wait on the beach ready to haul the damaged net in, hoping that it won’t break with the strain of a big catch.Meanwhile, on shore, the beneficiary lists have been agreed with the fishermen unions, the boats are on order and crews should soon start receiving the equipment to make new nets within the coming weeks.
The first five pilot boats for those who lost everything will hopefully be working by the time the season starts in September. The next step for the British Red Cross will be to find ways to make the lives of Batticaloa’s fishermen and their families more sustainable. The long-term aim is to assist communities to develop opportunities for people to find different ways of earning a living, so the young have other options open to them and the elderly, like Kaliammah, the grandmother, can live the more comfortable life they deserve.
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