Thursday, February 10, 2005

Fishermen, environmentalists and those who love/hate them

Feb 5th

My first stop in Chennai was the AID Chennai office in Gopalapuram. My friend’s house, where I was staying, is in MGR Nagar. Some advised me to take an auto or call taxi from there, but I chose instead to take a bus. Since it was the second or third stop, I got a seat - the bus was soon jam packed. I got off safely at Alwarpet and took an auto to the AID office. Balaji was at the office, talking with Prasanna and Guru about setting up an office for AID Bangalore with full-timers, projects etc. High time!

I also talked with Chandra, Ravishankar and our own Thothadri (of Twin Cities’ Infosys volunteering team and AID chapter-making fame). They talked about their plans for the future - which Balaji has discussed in a detailed manner in his report and I shall not replicate. I expect to spend more time in the week of Feb 15th in the AID Chennai office.
In the meantime, I went to meet Mr. DV Sridharan of Good News India and ECCO fame. Krishna and others in AID-US had read his appeal on his website and we were interested to know if we could support his work. Mr. Sridharan, or DV as he is commonly known, lives on his own in a flat in Adyar. He has no domestic help and so takes care of all household chores on his own. As he told me, when his first wife died, about 20 years ago, he could not even make a cup of coffee. On her death, he bought a farm in Kari Katte Kuppam and spent about 14 years there in a semi-recluse state. It was in this period that he got to know the villagers and developed empathy for their plight.
The hamlet of K K Kuppam consists of about 300 families and is primarily a fishing community. They have had a traditional Panchayat (representative body) in their hamlet for atleast 200 years. After 1991, a constitutionally mandated Panchayat with elected representatives was set up in the village of Muttukkadu, of which K K Kuppam is a part. An MGM resort has been built in the village and has proceeded to dominate the beach. They harass the villagers and have the support of the local police. In a recent protest outside the resort, a number of villagers and Mr. Sridharan were arrested. And then came the tsunami.
The hamlet had 15 boats and 150 kuttamarans, which were all destroyed or damaged. DV’s plan is to replace them all with fiberglass boats. He has received pledges for 60 boats so far and thinks that is sufficient for the 200 or so able-bodied men engaged in fishing activities. He is concerned for the rest of the community that were in supporting industry or do labor in neighboring communities and has some long-term plans for them.
In the meantime, the villagers are living in relief camps. Where they will go afterwards is still unclear. The government wants to settle them on high ground, which is owned by the Central govt. tourist board. Also, there is the concern about what MGM resorts will do now. These are issues that DV is monitoring closely. Another issue that irritated him is the presence of an evangelical church in the area. They organized a big meet in the relief camp and tried to get fisherfolk to join the Simon Peter society (apparently Simon Peter donated his boat to Jesus for his good works and is thus the alpha fisherman). All this in the middle of relief work seems in bad taste to DV, who considers himself quite secular. He thinks that the hamlet will not stand for this and so is not to worried. He is dismayed at the way they are turning into beggars, though - in the week after the disaster, he tells me they ate 6 meals a day! They have also been inflating the number of boats they had to outsiders - only because of his long association with them does he know their boat capacity. This is also why he is not confident of working in other villages.
He tells me a story to further illustrate this: the Rotary Club visited a nearby hamlet with the idea of repairing their boats. They had set up a contract with a nearby boat repair shop for this, with a fixed price per boat. Now some boats required an overhaul, while others required just a paint job. The villagers made a deal with the repair shop for a cut of the money they were receiving, with more for lightly damaged boats!
Now to future plans, Mr. Sridharan has plans to work on a bio-diesel plantation. The tree known as Pongamia Pinnata in technical terms, Karanji in Hindi and Ponge in Tamil, is native to India and capable of generating bio-diesel. Other plants like Jathropa have not been very successful because they are not native to India. It takes 5 years for Pongamia trees to grow to full productivity. From that point on, they increase in productivity till their eighth year. It is possible to get 25 litres of oil/tree/year. Thus a 6000 tree grove can provide 50,000 litres of bio-diesel replacement. A group in Bangalore, headed by Dr. Udipi Srinivasa from IISc, has already demonstrated the feasibility of this project somewhere near Hosur.
Mr. Sridharan is interested in getting financing for a trip to Bangalore with the villagers, for the purchase of saplings and to pay a stipend to village women for the maintenance of these trees. He thinks it is crucial that the first project does not fail. He sees in it an alternative livelihood for the villagers and an environmental regeneration. Since he has the hearts of the villagers, if not their confidence, he is pretty confident he can make it happen.
At a logistical level, he does not want to set up a Trust, create an NGO or apply for FCRA clearance (he did it reluctantly for the Tsunami in the short term). He has serious philosophical reservations about getting the government’s permission and filing reports with them etc. Not to mention he would need some admin staff for all the extra work. He expects that the project will cost Rs. 10-15 lakhs for the next 5 years and thinks he can raise it within India from interested individuals. Any help he can get from AID will be welcome within this framework.
I left Mr. Sridharan’s house after our 2 hour discussion entertained, intrigued and hopeful that we can collaborate in the future :)

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