By Muskan Garg
While Kerala witnessed the worst floods of the century, hundreds of fishermen emerged as heroes by rescuing thousands of victims, in what seems to be the largest ever flood rescue operation led by a single community in the country.
Over 950 fishing boats and more than 4,500 fishermen from coastal areas of Kerala volunteered for the rescue mission between August 15 and August 19, evacuating at least 65,000 people in Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha, Thrissur and Ernakulam districts.
Their boats, GPS facility and the experience in navigating choppy waters proved invaluable during the crisis. They brought initial stocks of food, fuel and other essential relief material and paid for the transportation costs themselves.
“When we put out the suggestion in social media groups, many fishermen expressed their willingness to join the rescue work. The fishermen took it up as their responsibility. When our social media groups got distressed calls and messages about people stranded in submerged houses, we passed on the location details to the fishermen,’’ T Peter, National Fish Workers Co-ordination forum secretary, told Indian Express.
According to experts, the design of their wood and fibre twin-engine country boat is adept at navigating strong undercurrents and withstanding damage by underwater objects. Instead of waiting for government help, the fishermen pooled money from their own pockets to hire trucks for the rescue mission.
They coordinated with each other using Whatsapp groups and mobile phones and tracks stranded people using GPS. Local people and government officials assisted them as guides.
“They were in tears when we saved their lives. They treated us like God. They touched our feet and said that they will never forget us in their lives,” said Stephen Pallithottam, who was one of the fishermen involved in the rescue mission.
Recognising their role, the state government held a special felicitation programme for the community at the capital. They were also hailed as heroes and ‘coastal warriors’ across the state and on social media.
The State has announced that it would provide Rs. 3,000 to every fisherman for each number of days they participated in the rescue operations. It also took responsibility of repairing their vessels damaged during the operations.
Kerala is home to over a million fishermen, out of which 700,000 work in marine fishing.
The coastal fishermen community was, in fact, recovering from a devastating cyclone, Ockhi, which hit the state in November last year, leaving at least 76 dead and over a 100 missing.
“The biggest lesson that Kerala got from this is that fishermen should be made ready in such disaster management activities. It has proved to be effective for the disaster in the sea and on land,” said Thomas Isaac, Finance Ministe, Kerala.
“The Government of Kerala had earlier decided that to train 200 fishermen in Sea Rescue Operations. We need to add more. Kerala should have a volunteer rescue mission for its own peaceful disaster.”
The Kerala cabinet has decided to recruit 200 of the fishermen as coastal warden in the police department.
The government has also decided to train 750 members from the community at Mumbai Maritime Training Institute, to put their skills to better use, especially in times of crisis.