Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: AP diaries Asia - Back to the sea

Originally published
Cheddipalayam is one of many fishing communities that lay in the path of the Tsunami, and 71 of the village's families have petitioned the Home for Human Rights for support. We go out to visit, and find that the families have gathered in a courtyard and are overflowing into the streets. The mood is tense. There is more to this than meets the eye.

Perhaps they are turning their back on the sea. We have heard that some fishermen were so terrified by the memory of the Tsunami that they are looking for other work. But this is not the goal of the Cheddipalayam group. They say they have recovered from their fright and want to return to fishing.

Perhaps they want to rebuild the fleet. Six of the village's 32 boats were completely destroyed, and another 19 were too badly damaged to put to sea. This has left many villagers out of work (because each boat employed two crewmen). It also robbed another 15 families, which used to dry fish, of their only source of income. The Tsunami even wiped out the "tea boutique" of S. Kobalapillai, who fortified the fishermen with hot tea before they went out to sea.

It would make sense if the villagers want all this restored. But again, this is not quite what they want. What emerges - slowly and in bits - is a new variation on the familiar theme of discrimination and inappropriate aid.

After the Tsunami, Cheddipalayam received many visits from aid agencies, seeking to help the fishermen. The most generous donation came from ACTED, a Catholic agency which gave six sturdy new boats and engines.

This has caused enormous divisions in the community.

The reason is that the boats of Cheddipayalam are owned by mudalalis, which roughly translates as "magnates." Under the system, the day's catch is sold at the end of each trip. Half the proceeds go to the mudalali, and the remaining half is divided equally between expenses (fuel) and the two crewmen.

In the Sri Lankan society, the mudalali has power and wealth. P. Sinnathamby is one of only two mudalalis in Cheddipalayam who owned two boats before the Tsunami. He earned 25,000 rupees ($2,500) a month, which is more than ten times the average wage of his crewmen.

Most of the crew members have been out of work since the Tsunami, and they were disgusted when ACTED handed over new boats to the six mudalalis who lost boats in the Tsunami, instead of spreading the aid among the entire community. ACTED even replaced the second boat of P. Sinnathamby, reinforcing what many saw as an unjust system. The price of fish has risen since the Tsunami, putting more money in the mudalalis' pocket.

This is the issue which prompted the letter from the 75 families. In what is becoming a familiar pattern, their letter is as much of a protest as a request. It is another sign of how the Tsunami has mobilized communities along this coast.

Interestingly, P. Sinnathamby is the only mudalali to attend our meeting. This takes some guts, although some of the others grumble about his presence.

S. Nagalingam begins by making a powerful appeal. He is secretary of the Cheddipalayam fishing society, and has to support several children. He has a good education and had a chance to take another job, but he says he is committed to the sea. How many others feel the same? Most of the hands go up.

The question is how HHR can help. There are basically two options. The first is to help the mudalalis, which would provide work for their crewmen but perpetuate the unjust system that existed before the Tsunami. The other option is to help the crewmen directly - and undermine the monopoly of the mudalalis. This would be bold and subversive.

Still, this meeting is resoundingly in favor of the second option. Several brothers and friends would like the chance to work together and own their own boats.

There is one major practical problem. HHR has only budgeted $3,000 for this entire village, and a single new boat costs $3,500. How can HHR's small contribution be used judiciously and without creating further divisions?

One thing becomes clear. If we discuss this much further in public, we will start to make some promises. We are told that a small army of agencies has passed through Cheddipalayam and conducted "assessments" but failed to deliver. They include Oxfam (which took photos of the destroyed boats that have not been returned), the Swedish Cooperative Society, Seva Lanka, Save the Children, and the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (the relief arm of the LTTE). Several asked the families to fill out questionnaires.

This community is tired of being assessed. While one can sympathize with the agencies, which have to identify their beneficiaries carefully, one can also understand the irritation of these villagers. This is another unfortunate feature of aid - it gives out mixed signals, and makes promises that it cannot keep.

It is important that HHR does not make the same mistake. It is clearly beyond HHR's resources to transform the fishing industry, even if this were wise, but HHR can act as an advocate for the fishermen. Xavier decides to fund a detailed survey of the villages fishing needs, and take the issue up with larger NGOs and UN agencies - the UN Development Program and the International Labor Organization. HHR's lawyers will also help the 71 families form a legal association, and register with the government departments of Fisheries and Cooperatives.

HHR's also decides to build on what it has learned elsewhere and support sewing classes. 40 applicants, including several men, have applied and word is getting around that this is something HHR does well.

HHR can make one more intervention that will help the entire community. HHR will restore the tea boutique of S. Kobalapaillai. At least those who will fish will have a hot cup of tea before they set out and on return.

After we return to Batticaloa, Sanathani and I visit some of the fishing boats of Batticaloa just before they leave for the night's fishing. Before they head out to the unreliable sea, their crews light incense and say a prayer to the Hindu goddess Kadalatchiamman who watches over fishermen.

They tell us that their confidence was badly shaken when a small temple to the Goddess was washed away in the Tsunami. But life must go on.