Home >News >India >Radio links govt with fisherfolk

Gayathri Usman’s life as station head of community radio station Kadal Osai, based on the island of Pamban that lies halfway between mainland India and Sri Lanka, could until recently be described as idyllic by city standards.

A typical workday at Kadal Osai (meaning ‘sounds of the ocean’ in Tamil) involved broadcasting information about the price of fish, wind speeds and the weather, interspersed with traditional songs popular with the fishing community in the tiny island.

Now, like the rest of the world, the coronavirus pandemic has upended old routines at the radio station and the lives of its listeners.

Usman was forced to improvise the station’s tried-and-tested programming format to bring news of the pandemic and the lockdown to fisherfolk unprepared for an extended lockdown and the precautions they need to take.

From busting fake news to creating awareness about social distancing, the radio station in Ramanathapuram district in south Tamil Nadu has gained not only significance but also listeners over the lockdown.

Such community radio stations, mostly run by nonprofits, are still the only voices that reach communities in remote places such as Pamban, their on-air patter often a lifeline for isolated communities.

The fishing community in Pamban, much like others in India, is not used to the new measures to contain the spread of the virus. From the usual practice of four men to a boat, to scores of workers handling the catch during auctions at landing centres and then the retail markets, everything needed to be adapted to the new order.

Officials from the fisheries department, the police and the panchayats use the radio station to announce new protocols, social distancing measures and other updates. “Many fishermen believe the salt in the air and the fish in their diet will give them immunity. It is a difficult task to convince them to follow social distancing norms and wear masks," said Usman, who works for the Nesakkarangal Charitable Trust, which runs the station.

Fisherfolk, most of whom live off each day’s catch, were already worried about their livelihood when the lockdown came on 25 March. Most fishermen had stopped going to sea by 10 March as the winds were not favourable, said Usman. The lockdown, which came into force weeks ahead of the annual 61-day fishing ban from 15 April to help sea species regenerate, increased the anxiety in the community.

“We are getting a lot of requests to play traditional songs from the community. The most popular request is to play the amba song, which is sung by fishermen as they heave in unison dragging their boat from the shore and into the sea," she said.

“The sea is life, and not being able to go out is very hard both mentally and physically."

V. Vivekanandan from the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies and a former Food and Agriculture Organization consultant to the Tamil Nadu government, said, “With development activity pushing them from the shore side, and sea erosion squeezing them from the sea side, fishing hamlets are shrinking. This makes social distancing very difficult to enforce."

People from the fishing community call the radio station with questions about the pandemic. So, the shows now have local municipal staff, doctors and the police as guests to understand the concerns that fishermen have, and work out how to address them.

Government officials say there is now a semblance of order in fishing towns. “Landing centres are often the most crowded place as the auctioning happens. We have enforced social distancing norms...We have also told fishermen to take turns and go out fishing on alternate days," said Prabhavati, deputy director for fisheries department in Ramanathapuram district.

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