Nearly 70 deaths and counting: A lethal trap code-named Muthalapozhi Mini-Fishing Harbour in Kerala

Fatal accidents due to technical defects continue, urging policymakers to address the plight of fishing communities.

ByDr Benny Chiramel

Published Jul 13, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdatedJul 13, 2023 | 9:00 AM

Muthalpozhi, the estuary that has become a death trap for fishermen at Perumathura in Thiruvananthapuram. (KA Shaji/South First)

The latest in the series of fatal accidents came on Monday, 10 July, when a fishing boat capsized, killing four people.

The anguished cries of women, children, and others, rise over the constant susurration of the sea that claims their dear ones at regular intervals in the coastal villages of Perumathura, Poothura, Thazhampally, Champavu, Mampally, Anchuthengu, and beyond in Thiruvananthapuram.

The collective wails echo the urgent need for justice and compassion — something that has been eluding the villages. This harrowing situation at the Muthalapozhi Mini-Fishing Harbour highlights the severe human rights violations the fishing communities have been enduring as both the state and Union governments persistently fail to rectify the technical flaws that have led to fatal accidents.

The time has now come for policymakers and the general public to take notice, extend compassion, and deliver justice for these marginalised communities.

In the face of unimaginable grief, the voice of a grieving wife pierces the silence. “Will you bring back my husband with ₹10 lakh? Why can’t the Union government intervene since the state government has failed in dealing with the issue for years? Are you all neglecting us because we are mukkuvas (fishermen community),” the wail went unanswered.

Her heart-wrenching plea, laced with despair, is a damning indictment of the democratic system of governance that should value and protect the lives and livelihoods of all its citizens.

Continuing apathy

It is disgraceful for the state and Union governments to allow such neglect to continue.

Broken promises and years of neglect have made fishermen community to stare at a dark future. (KA Shaji/South First)

Broken promises and years of neglect have made fishermen community to stare at a dark future. (KA Shaji/South First)

Valerian, an activist of the Kerala Swatantra Matsya Thozhilali Federation, reflected on the loss of trust in the government, stating, “We no longer trust any of the governments. They keep giving us false promises. We do not know how to proceed in the aftermath of the Vizhinjam struggle.”

The frustration and disappointment are palpable as authorities have been repeatedly leaving fishermen with broken promises and a lack of meaningful action.

However, amidst the despair, Anitha, a woman leader, still hopes that the government will finally address the issue. “We do not know when such a tragedy could occur to one of ours… We are under constant threat and insecurity. We feel so helpless in this situation,” she said.

Her statement is a stark reminder of the urgent need for decisive action to ensure the safety and security of fishers and their families.

The Muthalapozhi Mini-Fishing Harbour has been a struggle for fisherfolk seeking safe and sustainable livelihoods. For decades, the concerns of the fishing and coir-dependent communities around Muthalapozhi have revolved around two critical issues: Fatal accidents during the monsoon season, and persistent waterlogging.

The latter issue was solved with the construction of the harbour. But the issue of ensuring fishers’ safety and livelihoods remains unresolved.

Also read: Kerala’s eroding sea shores threaten lives of fishing communities

Estuary of death

Nearly 70 fishermen have lost their lives in and around the harbour due to unsafe conditions, not to mention the many daily accidents occurring there.

Traditional fish workers have lost faith in the district administration's promises of safety at the harbour. (KA Shaji/South First)

Traditional fish workers have lost faith in the district administration’s promises of safety at the harbour. (KA Shaji/South First)

The latest in the series of fatal accidents came on Monday, 10 July, when a fishing boat capsized, killing four people.

The Lok Manch, a national programme including four organisations, Trivandrum Social Service Society (TSSS), Cheru Resmi, Family Integral Development and Education Scheme (FIDES), and Sneharam, worked tirelessly to address this pressing issue.

Memoranda were submitted to authorities, besides raising awareness through videos and policy briefs prepared by a team of researchers from Sussex University led by Max Martin.

Through mobilising the local communities and engaging religious leaders, the government initiated some action at Muthalapozhi.

Dr K Vasuki, the former district collector, proactively listened to the concerns of the fishers, especially against the backdrop of the competition between small boats from the Anchuthengu-Mampilly area and the bigger boats from the Thathampally-Perumathura area.

However, recent developments revealed a disheartening failure by the Kerala government and Adani Ports Private Limited, which promised a solution to the issue at Muthalapozhi — but not delivered.

Earlier, an action committee had rejected a proposal for constructing a wharf for Adani at the Thazhampally side. Unfortunately, the committee became inactive due to a lack of coordination and support from the church authorities, leaving the fishing communities feeling betrayed.

Even the Muslim community in Perumathura, who initially welcomed Adani at Muthalapozhi due to the prospect of a tourism project, now feel deceived and joined the plea for justice.

Interestingly, the Adani Group and the district administration took advantage of the communal polarity between the south and north of the Muthalapozhi.

Also read: Caught between poorly planned structures and the deep blue sea

Way forward

Regrettably, the dangerous harbour conditions persist, claiming new victims from Anchuthengu, Mampally and surrounding villages during the treacherous monsoon season.

The primary focus should be on securing the safety and security of fishers. (KA Shaji/South First)

The primary focus should be on securing the safety and security of fishers. (KA Shaji/South First)

The traditional fish workers have lost faith in the district administration’s promises of ensuring safety at the harbour. It is imperative to reorganise church-based meetings, engage religious and political groups, and mobilise the people once more to amplify their protests and address their grievances.

The primary focus should be on ensuring the safety and security of fish workers. Immediate action should be taken to guarantee their safety at the harbour, as a short-term solution.

This includes proper maintenance of the groynes, installation of safety mechanisms such as signal lights, and the active involvement of the coastal police, including a Marine Ambulance Response Team (MART).

Looking ahead at long-term solutions, the sustainability of fishing can only be assured if timely and accurate weather forecasts and information on fish stocks are accessible to fishers for free.

Community-based disaster preparedness becomes paramount. Additionally, comprehensive social security measures, such as life insurance and food and livelihood security provisions during adverse weather conditions, must be implemented.

A social audit must be conducted to assess the impact of developmental projects on fishing communities and marine ecology. This is crucial in understanding the repercussions of such projects and ensuring responsible development.

Serious breaches of the Kerala Marine Fishing Regulation (Amendment) Act, 2021, and other zone-specific regulations on different types of fishing boats are yet to be firmly implemented to protect the traditional fishers who use small boats with outboard engines.

Last, the demand for Adani to rectify the technical defects at Muthalapozhi Mini-Fishing Harbour is a call not for the privatisation of common resources but for its sustained protection in the surrounding area, including the sea, seashore, and the traditional fishing harbour.

Also read: Kerala planning to develop global business hub in Vizhinjam Port

Call for justice, dignity

It is a call for justice, compassion, and the recognition of the dignity and rights of the fishing communities that have endured immense hardships for far too long.

The time has come for policymakers and the public to recognise the gravity of human rights violations at Muthalapozhi Mini-Fishing Harbour.

The cries of the affected families, amplified through the programmes such as the Lok Manch advocacy campaign and that of the local parishes, must not go unheard.

Let justice prevail, and let compassion guide the path towards a safer and more dignified life for the fishing communities who have endured far too much.

(Views are personal. Dr Benny Chiramel is a Jesuit priest, social activist and researcher on coastal communities. Currently a faculty with St Xavier’s College at Thumba in Thiruvananthapuram, he was the former director of Sneharam Centre for Social Action and Research, which actively engaged with the distressed fishing community of Mulathapozhy. Chiramel, who hails from Thrissur, is a powerful voice for the fishing community across the country).