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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Sounds of the sea give fishermen covid-19 updates

  • A community radio in Tamil Nadu, Kadal Osai, bridges the communication gap between fisherfolk and government

CHENNAI: A little over a month ago, Gayathri Usman from the island of Pamban in Tamil Nadu had the difficult job of conveying the news of the lockdown to the fisherfolk of her town. Most of the families on the island between India and Sri Lanka were not prepared for an extended lockdown or the precautions they needed to take to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

As the station head of community radio station, Kadal Osai, which means ‘sounds of the ocean’, Usman is often the bridge between the government and the fisherfolk of Pamban. From busting fake news to creating awareness about social distancing, the community radio station in Ramanathapuram district in southern Tamil Nadu has not just gained significance but also has listeners during the lockdown.

The fishing community, much like others in India, are not used to the new measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. From the usual practice of four men to a boat, to scores of workers handling the catch during the auction at landing centres, to 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. “Fishermen believe that 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 Nesakkarangal Charitable Trust, which runs the channel.

Fisherfolk, most of who live off each day’s catch, were already worried about their livelihood when the lockdown began on 25 March. Most fishermen had stopped going to the sea by 10 March because the winds were not favourable, explained Usman, 35. The lockdown—which came into force weeks ahead of the annual 45-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," she said.

The radio station began operations in 2016 and is said to be India’s first community radio for fisherfolk. Usman estimates that there were at least 15,000 active listeners on the island before the lockdown began. With the virus keeping people indoors, Usman says listenership has increased though she can’t put a number to it.

Fishing communities across the country, and especially in Tamil Nadu, tend to live in clusters and exclusive hamlets. “This is the hallmark of the community. There is no concept of private land, and their lives and livelihoods depend on common resources like the beaches and the sea," said V Vivekanandan from South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies (SIFFS) and a former FAO consultant to the Tamil Nadu government. “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," he added.

People from the fishing community regularly 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.

When the lockdown was announced, there was no clear policy ahead, and confusion ensued all along the Tamil Nadu coast. “The central government decided fish was essential and fishing was allowed. However, opening markets was not allowed. There were no guidelines on how to operate logistics initially," said T Peter, general secretary for National Fishworkers Forum.

After initial confusion, 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 and have requested retailers not to come here directly. We have also told fishermen to take turns and go out fishing on alternative days," said Prabhavati, deputy director for fisheries department in Ramanathapuram district. “My field staff is always going over to the station to pass on new updates, and norms. It makes our job easier," she said.

The 10 employees at the radio station also address issues on payouts and schemes for the community and mental health. “Even before the lockdown, we were getting updates on the weather conditions, prices and other crucial information," said S P Rayappan, the president of the Ramanathapuram District Country Boat Fishermen's Association. “The FM station is now a life-saver, like an umbrella on a hot day. It’s simple but useful, and saves us a lot of time and energy by giving regular updates on the coronavirus situation."

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