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A Precarious Life: Fisherfolk on the south Indian coast

  • 20 July 2018

Shannon, Jesuit Missions International Programmes Officer, recently visited the south Indian state of Kerala to visit Lok Manch, a local initiative supported by Jesuit Missions which is working with the fishing communities along this southern coastline to bring about sustainable livelihoods.

After a long train journey to the south Indian city of Trivandrum in Kerala, followed by a local bus ride to the small port town of Kadkkavoor, and then finally after a rickety rickshaw ride up and down some hills, I reached the local Jesuit centre called Sneharam. The phrase “Jesuits go to places where nobody else does” kept ringing true in my head as I travelled several miles along narrow isolated coastal roads with nothing much around but rows of small hamlets belonging to the fisherfolk. Here the local Jesuit’s have been working and living for several decades and have become pillars of support for the local community.

As I discovered, in this part of the world, the mighty sea and human life are in close quarters with each other. Fisherfolk here depend on the sea not just for their livelihoods, but even their culture, prayers and ways of socialising are inspired by the sea. They have an intimate relationship with the open waters of the Arabian sea, opening up into the Indian ocean. As a young woman called Santhy who belonged to the fisher communities of the region told me that she ‘respects’ the sea, and its power, but also fears it “You have to love the sea and also fear it, it gives us food and a livelihood, but it can also take away our lives”.

This precarious but vital relationship with the sea for fisherfolk like Santhy has been worsening. The harsh climactic conditions in this part of India, fuelled by global warming and climate change, means that fishing in the open waters is becoming a very dangerous profession with increasing wave sizes and shifting ocean currents. Here climate change quite literally leaves its marks on the lives of Santhy and her community. Santhy narrated the story of a young fisher boy who died a few days before I arrived because their boat capsized in the huge waves that now come crashing on the south Indian coast making it impossible for even the best local swimmers to get safely back to the shore in an emergency. Furthermore, Santhy explained to me that the recent Ockhi cyclone disaster, which hit many parts of the region last December, wreaked havoc in their villages. Huge waves, like never seen before in the region, crashed into houses and swallowed several meters of beach and many houses with it.

Supported by Jesuit Missions, a local initiative called Lok Manch has been working tirelessly with fishing communities, like the one Santhy belongs to, to bring them sustainable livelihoods within the region. Their aim is to make fishing ‘safe and sustainable’ for the fisherfolk who are intimately tied to the sea and its unpredictability, and also to provide support and accompany Santhy and her community as they recover from the disaster and try to rebuild their lives.

You can read more about some of the wider work of Lok Manch that Jesuit Missions are supporting throughout India here.