01/14/2005, 00.00
INDIA
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Fishermen most affected by the tsunami

by Nirmala Carvalho
Clergyman accuses government for failing to deal with disaster and calls for greater assistance to help fishermen get back fishing.

Nagapattinam (AsiaNews) – In the three Indian states—Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala—most affected by the December 26 tsunami, fishermen experienced the greatest lost; they lost family, home and boats, and now have nothing with which to survive, this according to Fr Thomas Kocherry, an Indian clergyman born in Chambakkulam (Kerala) and a leading figure in the World Forum of Fisher People (a fisher people rights group).

"In Nagapattinam alone there are 25,000 fishermen still unable to work and living in emergency shelter," Father Kocherry said.

With the emergency phase over, "the most pressing need [. . .] is the repair of the engines, catamarans and boats," he stressed, "so that fisher men can start fishing again". But things will start to get back to normal "only when boats will be able to take to the sea and fisher families are able to safely live on land".

Although focussing on what needs to be done, the priest deplores the fact that the Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) established by the Indian Supreme Court—requiring houses to be built at least 500 m (1700 ft) from the sea—was not respected. "Had CRZ rules been observed, we could have saved many more lives," he noted.

Public officials are also to blame for not sounding the alarm in time. The tsunami hit Sumatra at 6:15 am, reached the Andaman Islands around 8:30, "but no fisherman was warned. So, many people died needlessly because of governmental negligence," he said.

What's more, Father Thomas decries the "spirit of competition between government, NGOs and local dioceses" and is critical of how the reconstruction effort is being handled.

He especially disapproves of many NGOs "who think they can solve everything we money". In his view, money may buy boats and build houses but the problem lays elsewhere.

"The law gives the government the power to confiscate the money if reconstruction and rehabilitation are not completed within one year but it will take two years to do the job. This is a crucial issue that must be dealt with," he said.

Meanwhile, fishermen are still barely coping with the trauma. A tearful Hindu fisherman explained that the "sea is the yama (the Goddess of Death). We always prayed to her and looked upon to her as provider. But now she has taken away my three children, my wife is still missing and my house is totally destroyed".

Father Thomas points out no one is being left out from relief assistance. "We do not make any distinction on the basis of caste or creed. The fisher folk are equally split in Hindus, Muslims and Christians and are treated with equality and respect. Only in Kanyakumari, a district in Tamil Nadu, are fishermen predominantly Christian, but elsewhere we are actively involved irrespective of religion."

The clergyman insists that the government, NGOs, and the dioceses of the country "must understand that housing, boats and fishing equipment are the fishermen's priority".

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