Alappuzha, Kerala: Fishermen who played a key role in rescue operations in flood-affected Kerala have a sad story of their own. Many are deeply indebted to cooperative societies and to private lenders for their boats. Floods this year have made turnaround a longer journey.

Several fishermen told Mint that fresh water released from dams due to torrential rains that submerged different parts of the state eventually reached the sea. This had forced salt-water fish deeper into the sea. The catch this year is poor, said Robert, a fisherman at Alappuzha’s Kanjiramchira beach.

Many fishermen have in recent years been forced to abandon their mortgaged boats due to low yields. Large mechanized boats are a luxury, instead, many find sustenance by fishing solo in small makeshift boats made of thermocol.

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“That boat you see has been abandoned by its owner, a former rickshaw driver, because the yield from fishing is low. He is not able to sell it either, because his financiers will then demand their due, " said Robert, pointing to a large disused boat on the beach. It does not make sense to go fishing in large boats when one doesn’t get much from the sea, he said.

“When we return from the sea with the catch, people gather around us and watch, but no one offers a good bargain," he said.

That, however, did not deter them from putting his all into rescue operations. Fishermen turned out to be a great resource for the state administration in flood rescue operations. This has won them praise from Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

Gilbert Vachaal, a fisherman at Mararikkulam beach here, who used his mechanised boat to rescue over 250 stranded people over a four day mission since last weekend, said sailing in flood water over submerged walls and other structures is different ball game. His boat’s gearbox is damaged; it could cost him over 20,000 to have it fixed.

“We are in debt. We have not been able to pay dues for about seven months, “ said Gilbert. He and nine others had taken a loan for a boat from Matsyafed, an apex body of cooperative societies with over 300,000 members in the state.

“We will be grateful if the state authorities open their eyes to our indebtedness. A loan waiver will bring immense relief, “ he said.

The worst flood in Kerala in a century has caused several deaths, displaced over a million people, and damaged roads and houses. State authorities estimate crop and property losses of 20,000-25,000 crore. This estimate is likely to rise.

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