Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Communal Strife in Coastal Regions

Coastal Tensions in Kerala: One

By N P Chekkutty

The south-western coast of India, mainly consisting of Kerala and south Konkan, is one of the richest in the country in terms of biodiversity, abundance of fish population, cultural diversity of the fisher people, and historical traditions. With a recorded history of fisher life and trade relations with far-flung countries like ancient Greece and Rome and the Arabs going back to almost 2000 years, life in the coastal belt has been comparatively friction free and prosperous. There was an abundant trade in spices and other valuables through the major ports like Panthalayani and Kodungallur--known as Fandalini and Muziris in Arab and Roman texts-- and the sea has been bountiful. The social life of the coastal people had been comfortable and peaceful, and the people had devised their own traditional methods for sorting out their differences, and these systems remained durable for centuries. But in the past four decades, there have been increasing incidents of violent clashes and the fisher community has been divided vertically on communal lines. In the past few years, there were a series of such incidents occurring at regular intervals making an inquiry into the socio-economic factors behind this phenomenon absolutely necessary.

Kerala is one of the nine maritime states in India and it is also the largest fish producing state in the country. It contributes more than 30 percent of the total marine fish production and more than 36 per cent of marine products exports. It has a long and unbroken coastline extending to 590 kms, and nine out of 14 districts have the Arabian Sea as their western border.

The economic importance of the marine operations can be seen from the fact that more than 75 per cent of the population depends on marine products for their protein in food, supplied by fish vendors who reach every household on cycles carrying their baskets. They reach even the remotest of the villages on the eastern side, making marine economy an integral part of social life. The richness of marine wealth is one reason for the predominant role for fisheries in its economy: Kerala has an economic zone of 36,000 sq kms of marine water spread, rich in its diversity because more than a hundred varieties of economic importance are available in this region. The fishery resource potential of the continental shelf of Kerala, according to a 1976 estimate, was about 8 lakh tonnes a year, of which four lakhs were considered to be from the inshore sea area of 0-50 m depth. In 1991, the working group on resources constituted by the Government of India estimated the marine potential of Kerala as 5.70 tonnes per annum. Till 1989 and 1990, there was an abundant catch, reaching as high as 6.5 lakh tonnes, followed by a steady drop in fish catch. In 1991 it was 5.64 lakh tonnes, and the next year it dropped to 5.61 lakh tonnes. In the past one decade, there has been a continuous drop in marine catch, generating economic pressures on the fishermen population, which is one of the primary factors behind the social strife in the coastal region. As the pressure on marine resources has been mounting, the social tensions in the coastal villages have become more and more pronounced in the past decade.

Traditionally, the fisher population maintained their social and economic relations based on the principle of “common property resources” on the lines of any hunter-gatherer society despite their cultural and religious differences. They had developed a number of traditional social institutions that effectively oversaw any disputes. These institutions which continued to flourish for many generations have been increasingly under pressure in recent periods mainly because of the social and economic changes in the post-Independence years.

The abundance and diversity of the fish resources in the inshore sea of Kerala, arguably one of the richest in the world, is because of its unique geographical and oceanographic features. These shores lie within 20 degrees north of the Equator with relatively warm and stable climatic conditions round the year. Besides, the Arabian Sea estuaries are nourished by 41 rivers from the Western Ghats, providing fresh water and the right saline mix and source of nutrients for fish life. As a matter of fact, a river joins the sea at every 15 km on an average, bringing the ideal conditions for a rich and diverse marine life. Unlike in the more temperate regions, these waters have a large variety of species available in different colours, shapes and sizes. Sandy and muddy substrata, large coral reefs, rich benthic vegetation and coastal protective plants like mangroves are other important features of these waters aiding the biodiversity. The two monsoon rains occurring every year enrich the sea with oxygen and fresh water. These conditions helped the evolution of specialized relations between marine species, high marine diversity and high primary productivity, enabling the fisher people enjoy a stable and prosperous life for a long period.

Naturally, fishing has been one of the main economic activities, and according tot present figures, more than 1.5 million people depend on fisheries for their livelihood. Official figures say that there are around 1,50,000 active fishermen in the Kerala coast, working both in the traditional artisanal sector as well as in the mechanized segment.

A major factor behind the changes in socio-economic features of this highly skilled, traditional area of operation is the advent of the mechanized segment and the pressures generated as a result of the policies of economic liberalization and globalization in the recent years. The traditional skills were the mainstay of fishing operations till the late 1960s. The artisans had developed their own skills based on a rustic technology, beautifully described in books of fiction like Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s Chemmeen, a book on the life of fisher people in the Arattupuzha coast in Alapuzha. They had developed various types of craft and gear adapted for various types of fishing operations. For example, kattamarams—known as the only unsinkable craft in the world-were designed as the craft most appropriate to the surf-ridden beaches for launching and landing. It can be propelled manually or by wind power. The ‘mesh size’ of nets was the main principle behind the traditional gear technology. For each species a particular gear with specific mesh size is designed so that it will catch that particular species and among them only the adults, thus causing minimum damage to the environment and preserving the younger population.

The accumulated knowledge system of the traditional variety has been quite substantial and it stood in good stead for thousands of years. The traditional fisherfolk refer to the famed shore-seine operation as the best example of the superior and sophisticated scientific and technical skills of the artisan fisher-folk. From the beach, expert fishermen could examine a shoal of fish migrating at a distance of 2 –3 km away from the shore, and they can judge accurately the type of fish, the depth at which they are traveling and their speed. Scholars in the fisheries sector say that the traditional fish workers have been most careful in their operations and have done nothing that damaged the marine ecosystems.

Historians say that the traditional knowledge system goes back to the early historical times in South India, indicated in the rich Sangam literary texts that belonged to circa 3 rd century BC to 3rd century AD. According to scholars, the southern region—known generally as Tamilakam which included almost the entire region south of Deccan-- was divided into five geographical segments and those who inhabited the coasts, known as Neithal, were described as Meenavar or Paravar in Sangam literature. The Sangam texts refer to a variety fishing operations and also mention about fishes like ayala (salmon) and sraku (shark), still popular in the region. They also speak about marakkalam, a wooden vessel that floats on the water. Those who operated these marakkalams later came to be known as marakkars, a sea-faring community in the south.

The social life in the southern coastal region has an interesting history: the ancient tribes were described as meenavars and paravars, and, through migration from the interior came other groups like vambamuriyars, koshers and moka-aryas or mokayars. They are the dominant castes in the coastal villages who worship Kurumba Bhagavathy, a Dravidian deity.

The traditional Hindu fisher-folk are divided into 12 sub-castes in the south-western coasts, prominent among them being mokayas, mukkuvas, valers, nulayars, arayas, and mokaveeras. For administrative purposes, these groups were clubbed into one—the dheevaras—through a Government Order in 1961, giving them the Other Backward Community status (OBC) because of their social and educational backwardness. These communities were ruled and controlled by the sthanis (seniors) or kadakkoties (sea courts) of the respective area who obtained theetturams or decrees from the local rulers. They had de facto control over the social and economic life of the people and these systems were in force till the end of the colonial administration who had accepted the kadakkoties, or sea courts, as a legitimate quasi-judicial authority in matters relating to seafaring activities. Though these communities keep their separate identities and have their own separate deities, in recent years there has been a visible tendency of communal consolidation among them as a result on the spread of communalist and identity politics in the coastal belt. Sociologists have pointed out that in many places the mother goddess kurmumba bhgavathy has been giving way to new deities like vettekkorumakan, indicating a shift from matrilinear to a patrilinear society.

But the politics of communalism and the resultant communal clashes in the coastal region is a recent phenomenon and their roots will have to be searched for in the socio-economic factors that divided the coastal society in the post-1960 phase when new forms of economic competition brought fresh pressures to their life. The fact is that the present demographic patterns among the fisher communities have been remaining unchanged for a long time: The Muslims and Christians were part of the coastal society ever since the advent of these religions in the region. The Muslims were a powerful group in the social and economic life for many centuries and the Christians also became an equally important group during the past few centuries. At present the demographic strength is almost equal among the communities, with 27 per cent of the population being backward caste Hindus, 30 per cent Muslims and 37 per cent Catholics, mainly the backward Latin Catholics who are confined to the southern parts of the state.

These communities lived in the coastal villages for many generations and they had developed a vibrant social and economic system in which members of all communities had an important role to play. In fact, many Hindu temples owned by coastal people like Mokayas had established customs like special avakasams or rights for Muslim families. For example, a mokaya temple at Vatakara had observed a tradition in which Muslim families in the vicinity making ceremonial offerings like betel leaves and areca nuts on the occasion of the annual festival.

But nowadays that seems to be part of a forgotten history. The reality in many parts of the southern coast is different. It is a communal agenda that is taking the upper hand and all social occasions are now observed separately, with the society and the public sphere being consciously stratified and divided. A new kind of exclusive identity is being super-imposed in which self v/s the other community is the dominant category replacing the inclusive ways of social identification that used to be in force for a long time.

Why such a change to social mobilization on communal lines? For an answer, we will have to look at what happened in the past four decades.

(Originally published at

No comments: