In these times of uncertainty unleashed by the COVID-19 outbreak, the shallow waters around the coast of Mumbai have become a safe haven for 41-year-old Kishore Patil.
“It is better to stay in the sea than to get beaten up by the police on the way back home,” said Patil, reassuring his wife of his safety over the phone, as he remains holed up in his wooden trawler with eight others a km into the sea at Uran.
Close to 4,000 migrant workers like Patil working on fishing boats are now staying put on trawlers and smaller boats that are anchored at sea along the western coast of Maharashtra after the sudden imposition of the lockdown caught them off guard and left them with no time to return home.
Patil, who works as a fisherman in a trawler with nine others, had reached Ferry Wharf in Mumbai on March 22 with his catch after spending 15 days at the sea. But by then, the Janata Curfew had kicked in. That was followed by the Maharashtra lockdown and then the nationwide lockdown that made the journey back home in Raigad impossible.
Rajesh Kale, who owns the boat on which Patil works, stocked it with 15 days of supplies and asked his men to stay put on the boats. “We live in small houses in Mumbai and do not have enough space to house them. So, it was safer for them to stay on the boats. They call me once in two days if they need anything,” said Kale, who sent both the boats off to Mora in Uran where they are usually parked during the off seasons.
The calls are not frequent, as the phones can be charged only when the boat’s engine is switched on. That consumes a lot of fuel, so charging a phone is a luxury.
Ramdas Sunde, Chairman of Maharashtra State Fisheries Co-operative Limited, said at least 4,000 workers, comprising nearly 25 per cent of those who work on 20,000-odd mechanised and non-mechanised fishing boats, are at sea currently. Many who made it to land began their journey on foot and were stopped at various district borders and subsequently quarantined.
Virendra Kumar Nishad, who had come to Mumbai last September from Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh, is living with seven others on a boat about a kilometer into the sea at Versova. “We would like to return home but with the borders sealed, there is little option left. Living on the boats is much safer than life on land, as there is no chance of coming into contact with anyone and catch the virus,” said Nishad, who cooks on a kerosene stove and skips breakfast to ensure that supplies don’t fall short for the next two weeks.
The supply of essentials as well as the monthly salary is borne by boat owners like Rajesh Kale, who are already hit by the lockdown. Kale had to suffered a loss of nearly Rs 1.5 lakh, as there were no takers for the catch at Ferry Wharf, Sasoon Dock and the wholesale fish market at CSMT.
Chairman of the Purse Seine Fishermen Welfare Association, Ganesh Nakhwa, blamed the government for doing little to help the fishermen. “The government begun shutting offices since March 13 but did not intimate the fishermen to not send their boats out in the sea. As they returned after 10 days, the national lockdown was already in place, and with no possibility of any export, these fishermen have to dump their catches back into the sea,” said Nakhwa.
Sunde argued that the fisheries industry should also be categorised as essential much like fruits and vegetables. “The government should give out relief packages to the fishermen along with farmers, as they are equally hit – first with the consequent cyclones and now with COVID-19 outbreak,” said Sunde.
But for now, the only hope that the thousands of fishermen have is that the Union government has asked for a list of those stranded at sea.
“We have been asked to give a list of the fishermen in the state, who have been affected…. we have given the same. A similar list was asked after the cyclones, but no relief was given,” said Sunde.
In a tweet on April 3, N Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party had put out a list of 60 Telegu fishermen stranded at Madh Island urging Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to provide them essential commodities.
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