(February 2005) Ravi is a weathered fisherman in Chennai, India, who survived the recent Indian Ocean tsunami. But weeks after the event, he speaks of what might be the tsunami’s biggest victim along Chennai’s 25-kilometer coastline: the livelihoods of the more than 40,000 fishing families who live there.

“We never thought it was possible,” he says. “But we are poorer now. We had no education. No drinking water. No toilet. No drainage. No health care. We were poor and exploited. Yet we survived, protected by the sea that gave us a living. But now, we face an uncertain future with all the basic socioeconomic inadequacies staring us in our face.”

Capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and bounded on the east by the Bay of Bengal, Chennai is one of the oldest cities in India and one of the 13 districts of Tamil Nadu officially declared “tsunami-affected.” Nearly 100,000 families live in the 44 villages on Chennai’s coast, with approximately one-half of these families huddled densely in thatched huts built within 500 meters of the high-tide line (HTL).

Almost all of these families are involved in fishing and allied activities, and almost all had their housing and equipment badly damaged by the giant waves on December 26 of last year. The tsunami, however, also exposed the systemic vulnerabilities Chennai’s coastal communities face—ranging from declining incomes to an utter lack of sanitation and health care to deficiencies in literacy and alternative skills.

Population Density, Housing, and Other Problems Magnified by the Tsunami

Only 206 people in Chennai died from the tsunami. But the devastation the waves wreaked on property, fishing craft, and the livelihood system of fisherfolk was enormous for the fragile coastal villages of Chennai, with damage estimates ranging from $17 million to $45 million. Officially, 25 villages and 65,322 people in Chennai district have been classified as “affected” and the number of damaged huts is put at 17,805—almost one-quarter of the district’s total dwellings.

However, a number of factors put the coastal population of Chennai both at special risk for the tsunami and at a disadvantage in recovering from it. These factors include population density, rudimentary housing, dwindling ways of making a living, poor sanitation and health care systems, and lagging literacy and education. Coastal dwellers have also traditionally been isolated from the rest of the district and are at the bottom of the region’s socioeconomic ladder.

Population Density and Housing

Chennai’s coastal population density (1,752 per village) is very high compared with the Tami Nadu average of 1,247 per village. And while population density per square kilometer averages 478 along the Tamil Nadu coast, density in the state’s fishing villages (1,338 per square kilometer) is almost three times that figure. All those living closest to the sea dwell in thatched huts that are easily washed away by a sea intrusion such as the tsumani. Most residents of these villages do not even own the land on which they live.

According to Professor John Kurien of the Centre for Development Studies in Trivendrum, India, such population density is one of the most important reasons for the poor quality of life in the region’s marine fishing communities. But Kurien adds that the very nature of fishing lends itself to such high density. Fisherfolk prefer to live as close as possible to where their families’ crafts launch and land, and the highly dispersed nature of the fishery resource leads to decentralized operations that cluster in villages.

Dwindling Livelihoods

As recently as a decade ago, according to B. Karunanidhi, General Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Fish Workers Federation, livelihoods were not an issue for Chennai’s fisherfolk. The daily arrival of catch at the Kasimedu Fishing Harbour in north Chennai—home to 2,000 catamarans, fiber boats, and small trawlers—was 300 to 400 tons, and Tamil Nadu’s fishing industry earned $600 million in foreign exchange every year.

But Karunanidhi says this prosperity has declined because of dwindling catch attributable to pollution; the increasing operation of giant trawlers; the lack of modern crafts for small operators along with the rising costs of diesel fuel, nets, and boats; falling prices for fish; and a lack of government policies tailored to the needs of the coastal community.

So the tsunami hit a region where fishing incomes were already fragile. These incomes were falling, according to Ravi, from anywhere from 8,000 rupees to 10,000 rupees ($160 to 200) every week 10 years ago to hardly 1,000 rupees ($20) a week today. Increasing commercialization of the fishing industry has also forced fishermen to borrow heavily from middlemen and traders to upgrade their vessels, binding these fisherman to pay high interest rates and to sell their catch to lenders at prices far below market rates.

Fluctuating fish harvests and unpredictable sale prices also mean uncertain daily incomes and living standards for the average fisherman, who is usually part of a crew of three or four on a catamaran or small motorized trawler.

Sanitation and Health

Those living along Chennai’s coastline have some of the worst sanitation and health indicators in Tamil Nadu state, according to the Bay of Bengal Programme for Sustainable Fisheries. Morbidity, mortality, and frequency of illness are much higher among Chennai’s coastal communities, and particularly among women, than in the rest of the district.

Most of Chennai’s coastal residents live without basic amenities such as drinking water, toilets, drainage, or a health care system. The common use of the beach as a public toilet and the excessive crowding caused by the villages’ cluster-settlement pattern have also given rise to poor health conditions. Ironically, these deficiencies were nonissues post-tsunami in Chennai’s coastal villages, simply because fisherfolk did not even know about them.

The quality of drinking water these coastal villages get, usually from nonpiped sources, is severely compromised by the 267 million liters of sewage (partially treated/untreated) discharged daily into the city’s waterways. The Adyar and the Cooum rivers, the Otteri channel, and the Buckingham canal—all crucial sources of water in Chennai—have become open-sewage conduits. The stagnant waters breed disease and cause germs, leading to a variety of waterborne diseases. Chennai accounts for nearly 70 percent of the urban malarial cases in Tamil Nadu.

Literacy and Education

Marine fishing communities in Chennai also lag behind the general population of Tamil Nadu in literacy rates and education levels. Close to 85 percent of Chennai’s coastal village population is illiterate. If they send the children to school at all, most families stop the education of their children early, as the fishing industry has traditionally absorbed young workers in large numbers.

But with profits dwindling, these employment rates in fishing are dropping. And while many coastal Chennai families want to move away from fishing in the wake of tsunami, they find themselves unable to do so because of their lack of education and alternative skills.

A Policy Framework for Helping Chennai’s Fisherfolk Rebuild

Relief for those affected by the tsunami in Chennai district was quick to arrive via the Tamil Nadu government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and individual and corporate philanthrophy. Almost all of Chennai’s residents who had lost their dwellings and means of livelihood were accommodated in more than 100 relief camps and provided food and medicines. While the rescue, relief, and recovery phases ended on Jan. 7, 2005, construction of temporary shelters and repair of damaged boats and fishing nets are still ongoing.

However, Chennai’s fisherfolk are traumatized by the tsunami and still reluctant to return to the sea. Many also think that the Tamil Nadu government, in an attempt to “take over” the state’s long coastline for tourism and industrial development, will use the fisherfolk’s fear as a pretext to resettle them permanently away from Chennai’s seafront.

A Tamil Nadu government official who asked not to be identified denied that the government will force fisherfolk to move permanently from the seafront. However, he admitted that the residents will not be allowed to reconstruct their homes within 500 meters of the HTL.

Analysts such as Dr. K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies and Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, chair of the Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, argue that Chennai’s fishing communities should be rehabilitated holistically. Such an effort would concentrate not just on rebuilding, but also address the lacunae and inadequacies that have kept fisherfolk impoverished.

Swaminathan says that such an initiative must clearly articulate the structure of rights over the coastal area ecosystem—an interface of land and water—and its resources. “There needs to be an integrated coastal systems research covering 10 kilometers of land and sea from the shoreline that also looks at the well-being of farmers and fisherpeople,” he says.

Swaminathan also argues for aquarian reforms that allocate specific user rights to different classes of fisherfolk, such as those who do not own their crafts or own small boats, as well as others (such as salt panners) who depend on the sea for their livelihoods. And these rights, he adds, must relate to both use and conservation of resources, focusing on long-term interest of the coastal communities.

Other aspects of this policy framework, analysts say, should include:

  • Developing multipronged and location-specific plans for provision of clean water and adequate sanitation that include prevention measures for waterborne diseases.
  • Framing a master plan for fisherfolk livelihoods that provides affected communities options for making informed choices and offers plans for those who wish to remain in fishing and those who do not.
  • Conducting a family census and developing some baseline data on Tamil Nadu’s coastal communities in order to gain a meaningful understanding of their socioeconomic conditions. The poor quality of data and information available regarding the coastal communities makes it difficult to target social security benefits or plan for rehabilitation of these communities.
  • Generating local organizational support for identifying social security needs and the proper targeting of benefits. Formal social security should build on the informal, traditional fisheries management systems in the fishing communities in Tamil Nadu. These systems have helped reduce conflicts among fisherfolk and encouraged community unity.
  • Planting mangroves or fostering coral reefs as natural barriers to resist the sea’s fury, instead of building a proposed seawall along the Tamil Nadu coastline.
  • Recasting India’s Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Act, which strictly regulates activities within 500 meters of the HTL, to protect the rights of fisherfolk, not those of industrial and hotel construction interests.

Enacting such policy measures would be cheaper than the tsunami compensation now being handed out by the Indian government. These policies would also improve the socioeconomic conditions of the coastal communities, reducing substantially the damage of future disasters.

Asha Krishnakumar is senior assistant editor for Frontline magazine. She is based in Chennai.