How should the fishing community’s selfless service be suitably rewarded, despite their protestations that they don’t need anything in return? One way could be to engage them as an auxiliary component of India’s disaster management system.
TOKYO: Kerala, perhaps the most literate state in the world, with declared 100% literacy of its 35 million people and its extensive Diaspora in the Arabian Gulf, North America and Europe, suffered massive flooding when rainfall heavier than in decades past combined with the simultaneous opening of multiple dams’ outlets when they reached dangerous levels. Amidst the shock of the calamity, came uplifting news of the incredible service provided by 4,537 fishermen who participated in the rescue operation with 669 fishing boats. They managed to rescue more than 65,000 people from various affected districts, as per the estimates of the Kerala government. What is very remarkable is that ordinary people, who would otherwise be considered flood victims, joined hands with fishermen, local government, police, armed forces, doctors, nurses and other public health personnel in an exemplary case-study in resilience.
Fishermen took their 20-metre boats with dual outboard motors on trucks hundreds of kilometres away to the affected areas, then launched into urban and rural flooded waters to rescue people, crossing walls and submerged buildings and other obstacles, without the fear of losing their own lives, their boats or their outboard motors. All this forever changed the perceptions of Keralites about the fishing community. The men who go out in a range of boats, from canoes to mechanised trawlers, and the women who then sell the fish have always existed merely on the periphery of the daily vision of the Keralites, even as they partake of very tasty fish curries and sautéed seafood catches. And in Japan too, while people are broadly aware of the distances to which fishermen traverse the oceans and bring in catch to what was the world’s largest seafood market at Tsukiji that is now moving to Toyosu, Tokyo, there is little comprehension of the extent of their risk-reward livelihood, where risk is not merely financial.
How should the fishing community’s selfless service be suitably rewarded, despite their loud protestations that they don’t need anything in return, even the daily payments announced by the Kerala government? One way could be to engage the fisherfolk as an auxiliary component of India’s disaster management system, which sent 46 trained officers to Japan following the horrific earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. Japan and indeed the United States, following massive natural calamities, did not hesitate to accept foreign no-strings assistance. With the support of the Japan Foundation, the Indian Government’s National Disaster Management Authority and Response Force, the Embassy of Japan in India, Dr Kurokawa, who chaired Japan’s parliamentary commission on the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and my Harvard classmate, Dr Uehara, who was a public health coordinator in the affected areas, we organised an event as part of the Japan embassy’s celebration of 60 years of diplomatic relations, for the Indian force that served in Onagawa, Japan, at a New Delhi function.
Despite having an acknowledged annual season of typhoons and periodic earthquakes, torrential rain and landfalls, Japan has not yet established the Indian and US equivalents of the NDMA/NDRF, which is called the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the US and whose mission is “helping people before, during, and after disasters”. It is the after disasters reconstruction and building resilience aspect that is often missed, and having a dedicated force that can coordinate multiple and disparate resources in these respects is essential. Japan can adapt the experience of the US and India in the creation of these dedicated entities. Indeed, by incorporating fishermen into the structures, it also gives them both recognition and compensation for days lost to inclement weather when they can be re-deployed on disaster management training for the landlubbers.
Because of the collapse of the tourism market in Kerala due to the floods, a large number of sole proprietorships are facing the prospect of losing their livelihoods, ranging from those who operate houseboats on the famed backwaters of Kerala, to tourist vehicle operators—all of whom have been paying equated monthly instalments (EMI) on high-interest loans, often over 14% in India, as compared to less than 2% in Japan. Rather than allowing banks to repossess and then sell at deep discount the businesses and properties of thousands of Keralites, the impact of a force majeure should be recognised by the Central and state governments, with practical deferred-loan clauses for loans outstanding. And innovative financial mechanisms are essential, such as debt-equity swaps. It was clear from a Harvard University debt-for-development project that I directed nearly 30 years ago, that when debts cannot be repaid at the existing high interest rate they ought to be convertible to a variety of essential products and services. But it takes much more flexibility and innovation than is customary in the administrative system of compounded rules and historical practices inherited from British colonialism and which have largely remained intact with little modification. The super-compartmentalisation of administrative structures and fiefdoms as is seen in India and even Japan do not easily facilitate drastic financial and structural innovations that are the need of the hour.
Expressing profuse thanks cannot suffice for what the fishermen did, and having served as a young doctor in a Kerala fishing community at Neendakara, I am very aware of how precarious their lives are having to fish in sometimes over-harvested waters even with competition from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing of murky pirate trawlers. Fishermen and women ought to be incorporated into a new auxiliary force on disaster preparedness and management akin to the National Guard of the US that are reserve components of the uniformed services. India’s National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) s not a military force, but rather comes under the Home Ministry, and similarly Japan’s Coast Guard comes under the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. When fishermen are integrated into auxiliary structures on disaster preparedness, they can come under the dual control of the state/prefectural and Central governments as is the case with the National Guard in the US.
For days they serve as reserve components, which coincide with days lost to fishing anyway, it would be much better and more useful and worthy of their service to compensate them for days like that when they engage in practice sessions with the population, bolstered by the medical/public health community.
Japan and India are inexorably linked into the future in multiple dimensions, with Japan being the earliest and most transformational investor in India’s automobile sector that made Maruti-Suzuki a household name. Its technology has been historically key in India’s steel sector and it is increasingly an investor-nation with great technology, but lacking a large consuming population market as it ages. In this case of disaster management, India has taken concrete steps from which there can be useful joint learning. In the process, the fishing communities of both India and Japan should get their due share of recognition and respect.
Dr Sunil Chacko holds degrees in Medicine (Kerala University), public health (Harvard) and an MBA (Columbia). As a physician he has delivered babies of the fishing community even in candle-light. He served in the Executive Office of the World Bank Group, and is an Adjunct Professor.