“We left in three boats. We saved around 500 people”: The fishermen rescue team of Kerala’s Neendakara port return home

At around 7 pm, 11 fishermen returned after three days of rescue operations. Russo Alexander, one of the fishermen, said, ''We are coming back after completing our rescue duties. We left in three boats. We saved around 500 people. I am happy about it.'' AATHIRA KONIKKARA FOR THE CARAVAN

At 7 pm on 20 August, when I reached the Neendakara port in Kerala’s Kollam district, it had finished its business for the day. The silhouettes of the berthed boats were still visible in the light of the night sky, fishermen could be heard chatting in the distance, and the breeze over the Ashtamudi lake carried the smell of freshly caught fish. I approached a group of people— around eight men and one woman—who were standing under a street light before a row of empty boats. They were all party workers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI-M, from Neendakara village. Each of them occassionally glanced towards the entrance of the fishing harbour. “Three boats are coming back today,” Jessi Mathias, a local committee member of the CPI-M, said. “We are waiting for them.”

Natural calamities in India have frequently seen the country’s armed forces join the rescue operations. However, in the disastrous floods that have swept Kerala this monsoon, scores of survivors are thanking rescue workers from unlikely quarters for ushering them to safety—the fishing communities from the various ports in the coastal state. One such community is the fisherman of Neendakara port, which literally translates to “long bank,” in Kollam district’s Karunagapally taluk.

Around ten minutes after I reached the port, 11 fishermen returned after three days of rescue operations. As a truck approached the gates of the harbour, Mathias said, “Look, the boats are here.” Two more trucks followed in quick succession, and each of them carried one boat and a few fishermen. As soon as the fishermen alighted from the truck, the CPI-M workers stood in front of them, and with their closed fists raised to the sky, they began to chant, “Abhivadyangal, abhivadyangal! Nalla manassin abhivadyangal! Veera manassin abhivadyangal!”(Salutations, salutations! To your great hearts, salutations! To your brave hearts, salutations!) The exhaustion among the fishermen was evident—they smiled faintly in response to their hero’s welcome. The party workers continued chanting, “Keralasainyathin abhivadyangal!” (To the Kerala army, salutations!)

“We just returned from Edathua,” Russo Alexander, one of the fishermen, told me. Edathua is a village in Kuttanad, a region that falls within the area of three districts, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Alappuzha. “We are coming back after completing our rescue duties. We left in three boats. We saved around 500 people. I am happy about it.” The group also travelled to Changanassery town, in Kottayam district, and Thakazhy village in Alappuzha, among other places, for rescue operations. They said that the water in these regions had started receding.

The fishermen told me they wanted to participate in rescue efforts since they first watched the disaster unfold on the news. “Everybody supported us,” Justin James, another fisherman in the group, said. “It was our own fishing community who arranged for travel. Those who are in-charge of this harbour arranged for everything.” James emphasised the help and support of Neendakara’s fishing community, which in turn, enabled them to “help in rescuing a lot of people.” He added, “We are happy and they are happy as well.”

In addition to the logistical difficulties of reaching the stranded locals amid the torrential rains and flooding, the fishermen encountered an unexpected problem. Aji Aloysius, another member of the fishing group, recounted: “The biggest difficulty we faced was that many people did not cooperate with us. They did not venture out of their big houses. They were still holding on to the hope that they will be able to continue to live in their homes.” Aloysius added that they largely faced issues with “cash teams”—referring to the wealthy residents in Kuttanad—who live in “big big houses.” He continued, “Eventually, we even went to their houses accompanied by the local police.” According to the fishermen, despite the police accompanying them, many residents continued to stay in their houses, waiting for food to be sent to them.

Their unfamiliarity with the localities made it difficult for the fishermen to reach the stranded residents as soon as possible. During their rescue operation in Changanassery, Aloysius told me, they took two and a half hours to reach the houses. The boats have also suffered damage in their journeys, as they had to plough over sharp surfaces. On 19 August, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced that fishermenwho participated in the rescue operations would be granted a new boat, fuel and Rs 3,000 each. When I mentioned this to Alexander, he replied, “We will accept it and send it to the chief minister’s relief fund.”

During their rescue operations, the fishermen would accommodate 15–20 people in a boat, though they said that they were sometimes compelled to take up to 23. Aloysius explained, “Twenty three is too much, but they were in groups and all of them wanted to enter the boat together. They wouldn’t agree when we told them that we will return to get more people.” Women, children and the elderly were top priorities during the rescue work. “We met an 86-year-old grandmother. We had to lift her up. She said that water had risen very high in this region when she was 12 but it was not so much even then,” one of the fishermen, who appeared to be in his thirties, said. Almost in unison, the group told me that they are willing to go again if necessary.

The risky work undertaken by the fishermen has their families extremely worried back home. At the port, Suma, whose son Vishnu Raj is a fisherman, told me, “He was gone for four days, leaving his mother, wife and little kids behind. He returned yesterday, still wearing the life jacket, looking emaciated.” She said her son had gone for rescue operations in Kayamkulam, nearly 30 kilometres from the Neendakara port. She gave me Vishnu’s number, repeatedly insisting that I should talk to him and tell him what his mother said. I was unable to reach him at the time.

“Six boats were sent from this port for rescue operations. 18 fishermen had participated. All of them have returned now,” Antony Vallarian, the CPI-M’s Neendakara branch secretary, told me. In another press conference, on 18 August, the chief minister stated that 600 fishing boats were deployed for rescue exercises all over Kerala, which were reportedly deployed with nearly 3,000 fishermen. In Kollam, apart from Neendakara, boats were also sent for rescue operations from the Vadi and Thangassery ports. Kollam sent the highest number of fishermen for assistance, and the districts of Thiruvananthapuram, Alappuzha and Ernakulam, too, witnessed their respective fishing communities participating in the rescue operations. From the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, fishermen and boats joined the operations from the Thumba, Veli and Vizhinjam ports.

At around 8 pm, the group of fishermen climbed onto the trucks that had brought them and their boats back to the Neendakara port, which would take them back to their homes. Visibly proud, the CPI-M member Mathias told me as the trucks left, “You are lucky that you were here just in time to talk to them. They all are our children.”