A tale of woe and neglect along Thiruvanathapuram coast

‘We live at the mercy of the sea which can turn ferocious any time. Governments come and go, but no one thinks about our lives,’ bemoans a fisherman

 A tale of woe and neglect along Thiruvanathapuram coast
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Ashlin Mathew

All along the Thiruvananthapuram coast from Shankhumukham, Valiyathura, Cheriyathura, Thoppu to Poonthura, all you will hear are tales of woe. At Beemapally, near Poonthura, it is particularly worse.

As soon as one turns into Muslim-majority Beemapally, broken homes, overflowing sewage, half-built groynes and a thin sandy beach littered with garbage is what can be seen. Youngsters in the area were cleaning up the beach because they were going to hold prayers to be able to catch fish. The local fishermen have not seen a good haul for more than eight months. This has them worried.

The fishermen in the area use the traditional gill nets (kambavala) and seine boats (thattamadi), but they have not been able to get a good haul. It takes at least 40 fishermen to work on the kambavala, but with hardly any fish being captured and each venture into the sea costs Rs 15,000.

“When we come back empty handed, the loss accrues. The problem is that fishermen from the nearby villages have been helped by various co-operative societies and they go out to fish in the night. When they do that, they capture all the fish by early morning, leaving nothing for us,” lamented Mohd Hussain, the owner of a boat. He was talking about fishermen from neighbouring Christian villages going out in the night on motorised boats for fishing carrying heavy lights.

The continued erosion of the shore has them worried too. “The coast has begun receding at a quicker pace once the construction at the Vizhinam port began. The sea had eaten into the entire shore till a few months ago. This pavement did not exist either. This pavement and the streetlight were rebuilt only recently by the MLA VS Sivakumar and MP Shashi Tharoor,” said Aboobacker, a fisherman. He added that these constructions were only temporary solutions as the sea was eating into their land.

“We have had to rebuild our house multiple times. If you walk along this coast, you will see crumbled structures. These used to be homes of our brothers, but the sea destroyed it,” asserted Aboobacker.

The beach was where they used to dry the kambavala, but now there is hardly any space to dry the nets. “The children here used to play football, that’s how spacious the beach was. Now, the beach has become a narrow strip,” said Imtiaz.

The wounds of Cyclone Ockhi are yet to heal here. “The government had promised several things. No one in Beemapally got any compensation for the destroyed homes, for the nets and the boats. No one from the LDF government can ever come here and make such a claim,” added Hussain.

 A tale of woe and neglect along Thiruvanathapuram coast

This time too the votes are likely to go in favour of UDF’s Sivakumar, whom they insist has helped them more than the government. “The politicians come here during the election and then they mostly forget about us. We continue to remain poor. During Covid-19, we got kits, but that was not enough to sustain the entire family. The government forbade us from going into the sea last year. How can we not go to the sea?” said Aboobacker.

According to AJ Vijayan, an environmentalist and a former member of Coastal Watch, Beemapally is usually a forgotten constituency. “As you travel along the coast, you will see the number of groynes are fewer in Beemapally, rehabilitation work is much less. It is because the community doesn’t hold much political clout. Also, Beemapally fishermen continue to use the traditional method of fishing and it is tied to their culture, so they are unlikely to move away from it,” explained Vijayan. He is also the founder-member of the National Fish Workers Forum.

Groynes are only a temporary solution, underscored Vijayan, and that too has not been done properly in Beemapally. “Here co-operative societies are inactive and in other places the church is active and that ensures an ear from politicians,” added Vijayan.

In Poonthura too, most houses were destroyed and the shells of those houses remain along the coast. “During Ockhi the sea destroyed our homes. At that time only Sivakumar came to our help. He came here when we could not go fishing during Covid-19 lockdown. CPI(M)’s Anthony Raju appears only during election season. We never see him after that. All we want is a harbour in Poonthura, but fisheries minister Mercykutty Amma says it would never happen,” said Susheela Jeyaras, a resident of Poonthura.

At Shankhumukham, the shore erosion has reached a critical stage where the entire stretch of the beach and the adjacent road were swept away last year. “This worsened after they built the Vizhinjam breakwater. Now, they are building a wall along the coast. How will we access the shore? No politician ever thinks about our future,” said Mary, who was selling fish on the broken portion of the road.

Breakwaters are barriers constructed in the middle of the sea to control the waves and ensure calm waters. Of the 3.5 km-long breakwater required for the port, construction of around 650 metre structure has been completed.

Vijayan asserted that the government was building the sea wall because they are afraid the sea would encroach the runaway. “All this erosion began after 1970 when they began the fishing harbour construction in Poonthura. Then erosion began on the northern side and accretion started on the southern side. When the erosion began in 1970, more than 500 houses were lost. Then people were living on the Western side. As the sea encroached, they moved to the Eastern side, where they continue to live. Only the older generation knows about this. I grew up there, so I remember,” added Vijayan. He added that the “sea is attacking us, but this is a man-made issue”.

Along the West Coast, the sand and sediment move towards north along the West Coast and south towards Kanyakumari. When there is a construction along the coast, it blocks the movement of the sand. Initially, the erosion was only in Ponthura and to stop it sea walls were constructed.

“The sea wall in Poonthura has been rebuilt seven times. If you dig, you will see piles of stones. They have all crumbled when the sea takes over. The current sea wall in Poonthura is hardly two years old. There is heavy erosion during the south west monsoon months of May-September, so there won’t be any beach in most places along the coast. There is minor erosion during the north east monsoon between December and January, hence the sand movement along the coast is slow, so a thin beach strip is visible,” explained Vijayan.

The MS Swaminathan CRZ report of 2005 had highlighted that coastal erosion was a major concern along Kerala’s coast. “The agency considering hard measures, particularly groynes or breakwaters should be made responsible for protecting the shoreline at least 500 metre on either side of the shoreline from erosion. In case of breakwaters for harbours, the stretch of the shoreline to be considered for protection should be at least one km on either side of the structure,” the report had mentioned.

But courts and governments do not pay heed to any complaints of sand erosion. “We live at the mercy of the sea which can turn ferocious any time. The politicians and governments change, but no one thinks about our future,” bemoaned K Patrik, a fisherman from Valiyathura.

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