Two stranded migrant fish workers from Andhra dead in Gujarat. State governments get into action to rescue the others

Thousands of fishers from Andhra Pradesh are stranded in the boats along the Gujarat coast. They cannot return home because of the nationwide lockdown. With two dead, both the state governments are exploring options to transport the other stranded fishers via the sea route

Nidhi Jamwal
Deputy Managing Editor| Updated: April 23rd, 2020

Last rites of K Raju, a stranded migrant fisher from Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh being performed in Veraval, Gujarat. Photo: Traditional Fish Workers Union Andhra Pradesh

Every year, thousands of fishers from coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh in east India — Srikakulam, Vizianagaram, Visakhapatnam, East and West Godavari — migrate more than 2,000 kilometres away to Gujarat in west India to labour as fish workers. They number anywhere between 4,ooo and 6,ooo and mostly travel to the Saurashtra region of the western state.

Like every year, last year, D Raju, a fisher from Srikakulam district in Andhra (some claim he was 22-year-old, others say 29-year-old) migrated with fellow fishers to Veraval in the Gir Somnath district of Gujarat. He was to return home around this time of the year, but passed away in his sleep in the midnight of April 21-22, stranded in a boat in Veraval fishing harbour, Gujarat. His last rites were conducted there itself in the presence of other stranded fishers.

Raju will now never be able to return home in D Matchilesam village in Srikakulam and meet his family.

Fellow migrant fishers cry over a dead migrant fisher, D Raja, from Andhra Pradesh. Photo: Traditional Fish Workers Union Andhra Pradesh

He is not the only unfortunate stranded dead migrant fisher. According to the Traditional Fish Workers Union Andhra Pradesh, earlier his month on April 9, another fisher, 45-year-old T Jananathan from Sara Manalam village in Kalingapatnam area of Srikakulam died at Veraval, stranded in a boat.

“There are around 4,000 migrant fishers from Andhra Pradesh living in the boats in Veraval fishing harbour. Because of the lockdown, for the last one month, they are unable to do fishing. They are idle and want to go back to their homes and families,” Veljibhai Masani of the Boat Owners Association, Gujarat told Gaon Connection.

“We are providing them ration, drinking water and all the facilities, but for how long can they remain idle stranded in the boats. We are unable to send them home because all transport is shut,” he added.

According to him, the deceased fisher Raja was in good health, but anxious because of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). On April 21 evening, he went to sleep in the boat, but never woke up. Post-mortem shows he died due to cardiac arrest. “His last rites were performed the next morning, on April 22, away from his home and family,” informed Masani.

The death of two migrant fishers has angered fishers all along the Indian coastline. The country has a total of 16 million fishers and fish workers, almost half (5,570,217) of whom are women.

Yesterday, on April 22, the National Fishworkers’ Forum, a federation of state-level trade unions in India, shot off a letter to the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat highlighting the plight of stranded migrant fishers in the western state.

“India’s mechanised marine fishing fleet, which provides for 80% of the country’s annual fish landings, is crewed and operated overwhelmingly by migrant workers. Since there is no official census on the number of workers in this sector, it is hard to estimate just how many workers are stranded under the lockdown; what is known though is that they are in conditions which are less than ideal … the workers have been left to fend for themselves on board the fishing boats, relying largely on the boat owners to provision them with rations and everyday necessities,” reads the Forum’s letter informing “four thousand eight hundred fishworkers largely from Andhra Pradesh have been on board fishing boats in the [Veraval] harbour.”

The April 22 letter goes on to note “confined to their boats, which are designed as places of work and not residence, the workers have been stranded in overcrowded and cramped harbours. There has been an absence in the state’s extension of services, which has led to tremendous hardships and ultimately the deaths of the workers.”

Apart from two deaths, an accident on board the boat has left another migrant fisher with both broken legs, mentions the letter.

“We are fisherfolk and have human rights. Fishers stranded in boats due to lockdown are living in unhygienic, cramped conditions with no basic facilities,” T Peter, the general secretary of the National Fishworkers’ Forum told Gaon Connection. “For the last one month, we are requesting both the Central government and the state governments to rescue the stranded fishers. But no help has come, so far,” he added.

The Forum has demanded a compensation of Rs 10 lakh each towards both the deceased migrant fishers, a job in fisheries department to a family member, and an action plan to help stranded fishers get back to their homes.

Gaon Connection has been reporting on the plight of over one lakh migrant fish workers stranded in the boats along Maharashtra’s coast, too.

Andhra Pradesh fishers stranded in boats in Veraval fishing harbour, Gujarat. Photo: Traditional Fish Workers Union Andhra Pradesh

According to the Traditional Fish Workers Union, Andhra Pradesh, a week back, the union had informed the chief minister of Gujarat, Vijay Rupani, about the poor condition of migrant fishers from Andhra Pradesh in Veraval and asked for relief.

“After the first death of a migrant fisher in Veraval, we wrote to the Gujarat chief minister on April 16 informing him about the dense living conditions of fishers in Veraval and anxiety related to the coronavirus, which was affecting both their mental and physical health,” Rehman, member of the Traditional Fish Workers Union, Andhra Pradesh told Gaon Connection. The letter was also copied to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the union minister of fisheries, and the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.

“We requested our fishermen to be sent back home by making special arrangements as the lockdown was further extended till May 3. However, no action was taken and now one more young fisher has died,” he added.

After the second death, on April 22, the Traditional Fish Workers Union again wrote to the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, asking for immediate help. “The Andhra fishermen in Veraval fishing harbour are in deep trouble and are facing may problems because of poor food, lack of sanitation and hygiene and under great mental stress because of the deaths of their friends,” notes the letter.

It again asked for immediate arrangements to bring back the stranded fishers to their villages in Andhra Pradesh and quarantine them in local facilities to ensure there is no threat of spread of COVID-19.

It seems the death of two migrant fishers has now geared both the state governments into action. As per the latest news reports, Reddy has discussed the matter with Rupani, and both the state governments are figuring out a way to transport the stranded fishers (possibly 5,000-6,000) through the sea route to Visakhapatnam port in Andhra Pradesh.

Migrant fisher from Andhra Pradesh stranded in Gujarat. They want to return home, but cannot due to the lockdown. They mostly speak only Telugu. Photo: Traditional Fish Workers Union Andhra Pradesh

“We also want migrant fishers to return home safe. They have been coming to Saurashtra region for the last 20-25 years to work as migrant fish workers,” said Masani. “There are large cruise boats in Goa. One such boat can accommodate 300-400 people. A couple of such cruise boats could be used to send the migrant fishers back to Andhra,” he added.

Meanwhile, the National Fishworkers’ Forum has been demanding a special relief package for the fishers from the Central government since the day the lockdown was announced on March 24. “Because of the coronavirus and lockdown, fishers have lost out on more than a month’s earning,” said Peter. “On the east coast, 61-day fishing ban has already come into force. Within a month, the ban will also be enforced on the west coast. Thus, fishers can now resume fishing only in August month. The government must compensate us,” said Peter.

In its latest letter dated April 15 to the Union Fisheries Minister, Giriraj Singh, the Forum has asked to “immediately provide livelihood financial relief measure of Rs 15,000/month/fishing household across capture and allied sectors and include all workers, sorters, dryers, vendors [without the limiting condition of Aadhaar card]. It also asked to “immediately undertake measures to secure the health and safety of the migrant workers in the sector and arrange for their safe repatriation to their places of residence.”

“It’s been a month we are pursuing with the Central government to offer a financial relief package to the fishers. So far, it has not offered anything. We are very unhappy with the Centre’s attitude towards the fishing community,” said Peter. “We are fishers and not beggars. Respect our livelihoods and contribution towards the country,” he added.

Read the first part of the story published on April 2, 2020 here

Read the second part of the story published on April 14, 2020 here