Jumat, 31 Juli 2015

Fathimapuram - Forgotton Pains And Pangs

One afternoon four of us sitting on chairs within the feebly fenced 4 feet high compound made of wooden reapers around our house at Marianad, we were discussing, as usual, about many things connected to our work and the developments in the Diocese with Bishop Peter Bernard Pereira. Bishop Pereira was the first native bishop of Trivandrum Diocese, who founded Marianad out of barren land as a model village and Community Development Project (MCDP) to experiment the possibilities of improving the living conditions of the traditional fisher folks, who formed majority in his Diocese. The objective was to extend the lessons learned for a wider development work in his Diocese and elsewhere. Bishop Pereira used to visit us whenever he had important visitors interested in development to visit Marianad and on rare occasions, whenever he wanted to take couple of hours away from his regular work to visit us on the way after inspecting his Menamkulam and Vettuthura properties. He used to come in a 4Weeler Jeep, sometime himself driving even though he would have his driver with him. That afternoon discussion touched on some sad events in his official life as a Bishop connected to Fathimapuram village, which is located 5 KMs South of Mariand on the outskirts of St. Andrews Parish boundary. We found him bit emotional while explaining about a recent event wherein a coastal parish, St. Andrews Parish, in his Diocese denied cemetery space for a person from Fathimapuram village in spite of his direction to be buried in the local St. Andrews cemetery. Finally, after waiting for a long time, the frustrated relatives had to take the dead body to 50 Kilometres South to Karumkulam, to be buried. While talking to us about it, we found his voice changing, pausing for a while, removing his spectacles and cleaning his eyes with his kerchief.

Fathimapuram village 20 Km North of Trivandrum City, is a newly created settlement, located on the banks of Parvathiputhanar canal connecting Trivandrum and Quilon. For fishing reasons, active fishermen migrate to other less congested and new fishing areas during off season and when they find fishing in their village less economical. In 1960, Bishop Pereira started Trivandrum Social Service Society (TSSS), the first Diocesan Social Service Society in India, through which he initiated number of cooperative fishing and marketing attempts in different coastal villages and encouraged fishing families from the overcrowded fishing villages to migrate and settle down in Marianad, where they were provided with Cooperative housing and possibilities of socio-economic and community development. The author of this article worked as a social worker in Marianad under TSSS from 1969 for two decades and a third decade through other NGOS in India and Sri Lanka. Some of the fishermen families thus migrated from the overcrowded villages made huts on the seashore of St. Andrews and started fishing. However they kept their ties and were visiting their native villages for social and religious purposes particularly visiting en-mass during important religious festivities. On one such occasion when they returned after attending the annual festival of their Parish Saint, they found all their huts were destroyed deliberatively and thrown into the sea. 

When they tried to reconstruct, they were prevented to do so and further they were also prevented using St. Andrews beach. Couple of nights sleeping on the available open space; it came to the notice of local politicians. Seeing the plight of the landless and houseless fishermen and their families including children, the local Marxist Communist Party workers headed by their leader Mr. Ravi, the then President of Kadinamkulam Panchayat, helped them to put up their huts on the banks of the canal, which is a unassignable government land and situated one Kilometre away from the sea shore. The political party also intervened and made a settlement to allow the fishermen to use a narrow pathway to the seashore between St. Andrews and Puthenthope, neighbouring village –– only to use for the purpose of entering the sea. They were also denied of keeping their fishing equipments on the sea shore, whereby they had no control of the seashore, where the fisher folk generally live and keep their implements and do their fishing related work. The situation left the fishermen completely vulnerable to the sharks on land, which is more dangerous than those at sea. The new settlement on the banks of the canal - they called as Fathimapuram, with a religious connotation. As fishermen generally find collective psychological security in having their own Church and since they were prevented from entering in the local St. Andrews Church, they requested Bishop Pereira to help them with a priest for their Sunday services for which Bishop also helped them to have a temporary small place of worship. Priestly services were provided from the nearby St. Xavier’s College. Having own worshiping place and a priest provided fishermen without any assets a big moral strength to continue with their life. Fishermen compensate their poverty by adding grandeur and wealth to their Church in which they find pride.

Even before the discussion with Bishop Pereira in question, as social workers, we were aware and have had personal experience about the existence of caste in the form of class differentiation and consequent discrimination within the coastal population. But that day Bishop Pereira explaining about it and admitting its active operation among the Catholic fishermen of his Diocese and his helplessness saddened us as well as made us angry. According to him the people of St. Andrews are also from the fishing community, but some of them had the privilege of working in distant towns and different countries, thereby felt that they were a privileged set of people, and hence developed a caste discriminatory type of attitude towards other fisher folks, particularly the migrant traditional fisher folk. After Bishop left, we, Ms. Lauretta Farina, originally from Italy and a trained Medical person who came to work in Trivandrum Diocese and Marianad in 1961 as a member of a lay congregation called Catholic Feminine Auxiliaries (AFI) with HQ in Brussels, on the invitation of Bishop Pereira to work among his fishing stock and Ms. Nalini Nayak from Bangalore who joined the Marianad Team in 1966, soon after her University studies and myself, the first Team member from the fishing stock joined in the beginning of 1999, who were the then Marianad team members, felt so shocked to see the active practice of discrimination and exclusion even within the same Catholic rite. Our shock further grew after seeing Bishop Pereira emotional. My traditional fishing family background triggered the anger within me against this injustice and it grew further deep in my mind.

During our next Team Meeting, we decided to help the Fathimapuram fishermen by extending our work. More or less at this juncture Fr. Mathew  Nambiaparampil S.J., who was one among the priests from Xavier’s College, which is also situated in St. Andrews at the outskirts of Fathimapuram, visiting Marianad every Sunday expressed his desire to  do something in Fathimapuram. This led to engage the first Community Organiser, Mr. Peter John Culas, my younger brother, to work in Fathimapuram employed by Fr. Mathew. He worked there for some months living in a rented house in St. Dominic Vettucaud. While helping Fathimapuram fishermen to carry their catch through the narrow lane, he was interrupted by some local anti-social elements who prevented him and beaten. With this St. Xavier’s College supporting Community Organisers also stopped. Later through Marianad C.D.P. and its other different off shoot outfits, we continued to help organise the fishermen at Fathimapuram against the discrimination and subsequent economic and social exploitation. (Other community organisers, followed were Mr. David, Jones, Johnson, Eugene Herbert, Stella, Andrews, Mary Dass, Kennedy, Johnson, Daisy etc.). These community organisers helped to start and develop a fishermen marketing Co-op in similar lines of that of Marianad Coop. Through their marketing coop – they availed bank loans, started acquiring their own fishing implements thereby showed signs of improving their living conditions. However they were still under the clutches of sharks on land and still under their mercy. They witnessed silently their catches forcefully taken away for no reason by anti-social elements with the tacit support of the local community which has imposed restrictions on their fishing and daily life, their nets bought with bank loans destroyed on the sea shore in their absence when they were in their homes, far away from the sea shore and not allowed to lead a normal life in their own country amongst their own fishing stock.

The cooperative spirit that was developing enabled the Fathimapuram people to have serious discussions on the implications of their future without having any proper access and control on the seashore. At the end, they decided to exert their citizen’s rights and to put up huts on the sea shore, a public place normally used by fishermen for fishing related activities and for housing purposes. They sought cooperation from Marianad fishermen who also extended their support. After much planning, they collected coconut leaves, bamboos and other temporary building materials and built their houses on the midnight of 14th August 1984 to declare their freedom on 15th August, the country’s Independence Day, a symbolic and meaningful gesture.

Constructing, the huts at midnight on the sea shore without the waking up of the locals from their midnight slumber was not any easy task. The insulated and closed bodied fish van of Marianad Fishing Cooperative Society (MMUCS) brought the building materials. The team consisting fishermen and labourers were busy engaged in the construction. Some of them were to be on the look out for any possible leak of information or any counter actions. But soon found that none of them was reporting back. As a result, individuals from the spot, were sent out one after another to find out and report if something was happening outside, but soon we realised that none of them were returning. The number of people working diminished. However the work continued.  Some individuals of the local villages saw the hectic activities taking place in the thick of the midnight on their shores. They alerted their leaders and the people of the neighbouring villages. Within no time the Church bells started ringing informing unexpected calamity for their Parish and asking people to assemble. Needless to say that within no time people in hundreds from three surrounding parishes, a big hostile mob assembled with sticks and batons etc. They marched towards the huts and started beating all those whom they could find – say about 15 - 20 of us. Seeing a big crowd approaching us, some, who were with us, started jumping into the sea. Others who were left including Mr. Xavier Culas (he is the present Chair of CECT) and Mr. Pauline of Marianad and me received heavy beatings.  Providentially, by this time I heard a familiar voice from the crowd and identified one of the local political leaders from Puthenthope, Mr. Mousolini, who was known to me and a personal friend of mine. A few years back when we were travelling together on my motor bike in Trivandrum, both of us met with a road accident and were taken to the nearby Medical College Hospital. Realising that I was in the group and as he found me in real danger, he came out from the crowd, held us with his arms around us,  led us away and told us the seriousness of the situation and to save ourselves from the scene in no time. That is yet another occasion I personally experienced the presence of God through fellow beings.

As soon as we reached the main road, we walked away, we deliberately avoided running, through those who were running towards us towards the beach. We, escorted by Eugine Herbert, went to the neighbouring village Menamkulam, beyond Fathimapuram into his house. Eugeine Herbert was one of our colleagues, who have also worked as our Community Oorganiser in Fathimapuram. We were taken that night by him to another house in a distant place, where I lived underground for almost a week. Meanwhile, making use of the connection with some fellow judicial officers of my brother, who was the first Community Organiser in Fathimapuram and at that time an Inspector in the Excise, I was produced before the Magistrate in his house and obtained bail. Later I was told that at the instigation of some local politicians who had direct contact with the then Home Minister Mr. Vayalar Ravi and also because the night was leading to the Independence Day, in the thick of midnight itself a large contingent of police had arrived at the scene looking for us. Early morning they went and searched for me in Marianad and arrested some of the fishermen, who were active members of Marianad community. I also heard that Mr. Oliver from Marianad, who took no part in the attempted hut construction was picked up from his house and taken to the Police Station and badly beaten. Mr. Vijayan who was driving the Marianad fish van also was taken to custody and later released.

Later, after a few weeks, having realised the real reason behind the attempted hut construction on the sea shore, which is public property, some friendly police officials and other sympathisers advised us to purchase some land for housing the Fathimapuram people. Although this was not a new idea, it was an impracticable one as all the local parishes around Fathimapuram have already proclaimed their unwritten law not to sell any land to the Fathimapuram fishermen families even though the later may have means for it. If anyone from the three nearby and surrounding Parishes of Fathimapuram – ie. St. Andrews, Puthenthope and St. Dominic Vettucaud - sell land to them will be excommunicated – that was the unwritten law of the Parishes. In this predicament, Mr. Joyachan Antony, who was the President of the District Fishermen Union and a native of one of the nearby coastal villages, Thumba, volunteered to buy the land in his name provided we raise the necessary cost. We promised to raise the required money and Mr. Joyachan Antony found Mr. Lazer Silva wanting to sell about two acres of his land and building on Puthenthope coast. As both of them knew each other very well and worked earlier in the same political party, Mr. Lazer Silva agreed to sell his property for a very unreasonably high price. We raised the Advance money and an Agreement for Sale reached between the two.

As the sale of land had been announced earlier, within a few weeks, Mr. Lazer Silva had to disclose about the Agreement for sale to Mr. Joyachan Antony about whom others in Puthenthope had doubts of his intention to settle the fishermen from Fathimapuram. Hence Puthenthope church leaders demanded Mr. Lazer Silva to withdraw from the sale of land to Joyachan Antony and threatened with the consequence of ex-communication. Mr. Silva informed this to Mr. J. Antony and requested him to withdraw from the attempt as a friend. Mr. Joyachan Antony refused. Mr. Silva who wanted to avoid an excommunication action against him and his family reported the matter to the Puthenthope Parish. On this, we were told that later the Puthenthope Parish under the leadership of its Parish Priest - Fr. Stephen Mathessery, had held a special One Hour Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for the sole purpose of praying for the change of heart of the person – Joyachan Antony, who was going to purchase the land for Fathimapuram fishermen. Upon this, we were told that Puthenthope Parish, in which most of its members are absent economic migrants in many foreign countries, also contacted the Home Minister of the State to intervene. It was beyond his legal purview to stop the sale. However, he assured that if that land was purchased for the housing purpose of the fishermen of Fathimapuram, against the wishes of Puthenthope Parish, the Minister would help the Puthenthope people by not providing protection for enjoying the land. This again put us into further difficulties and complications – as even after raising a huge amount and purchasing the land it would not be available for the purpose for which this was bought. Further, the land would be illegally encroached. Needless to say the situation in which we were caught – it was like between the devil and the deep sea. My be Puthenthope people’s  prayers were answered, final wisdom prevailed to withdraw from the Sale Deed and receive the advance back from Mr. Lazer Silva, who later was very thankful to Mr. Joyachan for his great gesture of understanding his and his family’s plight in his community.

Back to square one – our search for land continued endlessly. Now, our new search was geared to locate a plot of land in the vicinity, which does not belong to anyone from the neighbouring three parishes where the ban to sell land for Fathimapuram people was in force. It was at this time, one of our friends Mr. Sharma, who in 1978 helped us to locate the land and building in the heart of Trivandrum near the Secretariat, adjacent to the Accountants General’s Office, came forward and with the details about a four acre of land, where the Fathimapuram fishermen live now, as belonging to some outsiders. Although this was on the vicinity of their settlement, we never new that it belonged to some outsiders. The land was attached by Bank of Baroda as a recovery asset for a loan given to a local business man to start an Ice-plant cum Fish processing Plant and the Bank was about to sell the land through Court Auction.. So we engaged Mr. Sharma on our behalf, as our direct involvement would elicit wrath from St. Andrews Parish people, to participate in the Court Auction only to realise that for some unknown reasons, the bank preferred direct sale to someone with high offer. By this time the St. Andrew Parish leaders came to know that we are behind that land and they equipped themselves to buy the land at any cost. Upon this we have decided to use one of our earlier and successfully tried strategy of invoking the Land Acquisition Act to acquire land for housing purpose of fishermen through Alillathura, which means village without people, which was later changed to Mariand, Houseing Cooperative Society, which was originally started by Bishop Pereira for implementing the Housing Scheme at Marianad. Although within the same Panchayat (local Council), this Coop did not have Fathimapuram within its area of operation – a lion without teeth as for the purpose of land for Fathimapuran people. The matter was discussed in the Marianad Housing Cooperative Society Governing Body which, subsequently, decided to extend its area of operation throughout Kadinamkulam Panchayat area to include Fathimapuram people to have their housing. Accordingly, the Bye-laws of the Housing Coop were amended in its General Body. The whole process took a long time. Meanwhile almost all fishermen of Fathimapuram were enrolled as members of the Housing Coop. The amendment was finally approved by the State Department of Cooperation. The General Body of the Housing Co-op took decision to approach the State Government to acquire the four acres of land belonging to the Bank for Fishermen Housing Purposes. All paper works were done meticulously and cautiously and moved through the Cooperative Department to the District Collector, who is vested with the authority to make notification through the Government Gazette for acquiring land for public purposes including for fishermen housing purposes, which was duly notified. This was an unexpected blow for the leaders of St. Andrews who then changed their strategy of opposing the purchase and turned into physical opposition.

Although the initial inspiration and support for the work out side of Marianad CDP were given by Mariand Team, number of which increased by now including Mr. John Kurien and other members working in other villages, in 1977, a new Non Government Organisation called Programme for Community Organisation (PCO) was formed with the Patronage of Bishop Pereira and Marianad Team Members and other colleagues in other villages as members. This was done with the idea of providing a legal umbrella for all the work initiated in the coastal areas of Trivandrum Diocese. With the failed attempt to put up huts on St. Andrews coast, our work started getting direct attacks from several quarters and different thought process evolved in PCO to address the Housing problem of Fathimapuram fishermen. The dominant one was to resort to a political solution to the problem. The second line of thought was to help the fishermen to own their own housing plot and then resort to political intervention. This means strategies including chasing land etc. Although approaching it through political process received majority, some of us were for the second option. This division also came to reflect in the Marianad Housing Coop. Hence, some of us decided to implement next steps through another NGO called the Coastal Educational and Cultural Trust (CECT). CECT was registered in 1984 for the purpose of taking up initiatives which were not covered by the existing organisations which were created by us at different times for working in the coastal belt of Trivandrum. Some of us borrowed money right and left from private individuals, including from Rev. Fr. Bosco, my close relatives and many others and negotiated with the Bank. With acquisition notification hanging over its head the Bank was now willing to sell for the price it had to recover from its creditors to anyone willing to come forward. Accordingly, it was sold to the nominees of CECT which was willing to purchase it on the background of the acquisition orders of the Government. The land was purchased in the name of Mrs. Reggie Nelson, from Kochuveli and then Chair of CECT, Mr. S. Franklin from Valiya Veli and Trustee of CECT, Mrs. Helen Mary Dass, Puthenthope etc. Land was registered and assigned in the name of private individuals in order to protect it from any eventual illegal physical attack from the locals who were against the fishermen occupying it.

The fishermen gained confidence once the land was bought for them, although it was with borrowed funds and in the name of private individuals. However, it took several months to further organise them, prepare them to get out of the shock they received from the failed attempts and constant opposition and assign individual plots in the name of fishermen. Three acres of land was divided into 5 cents each and assigned to 60 families. The balance 1 acre with an existing building turned into a Community hall was earmarked for community purposes – which was assigned in the name of Trivandrum District Fishermen Federation, an off shoot of South Indian Fishermen Federation (SIFFS) started while I was the Coordinator of PCO in 1980 – as network of all Fishermen Societies in the District with fish marketing as the core activity initiated under the guidance of Marianad Project and PCO. Once the land assignment was complete, the fishermen with land titles approached the State Fisheries body – MATSYAFED - for housing loans. When they received the Housing Loan, the Housing Programme became a Government Programme and a function was organised to inaugurate the laying of foundation stone on………..for the housing Programme. Two State Ministers, including the Fisheries Minister Mr. Rama Krishnan and the Minister for Youth Mr. Neela Lohida Dasan Nadar participated. To commemorate the memory of a great visionary behind bringing changes in the coastal belt of Trivandrum, a name - BISHOP PEREIRA NAGAR- was carve in a big Foundation stone and unveiled by the two State Ministers present. Although the police intelligence report was against the Minister’s participation, on the grounds of law and order, they had expressed personal commitments towards such a noble cause and attended the function. The function was a great success. The minsters participated also because the local left political parties by that time came to the rescue. Mr. Stellus Netto, Mr. Newman, Mr. Carmal Miranda, Mr. Maria Dass and many others played an important role in this. I remember many including my 77 year old father and mother, my sister and many of my relatives who were with me during all trials and tribulations and who borrowed huge amounts for purchasing the land solemnly participated in this function as if it was a award giving ceremony for me personally.

One would imagine that further journey towards the construction of houses would go without much difficulty. Matters did not end there. It was only the beginning of another chapter. By this time, many things also changed in Marianad, where the Parish Priest took forceful control of all people’s organisations working in the village under the pretext of his position as Parish Priest. The St. Andrews Parish leaders with political motivation and back support given by the same elements in the neighbouring Parishes, particularly by Fr. Joseph Maria of Marianad Parish vehemently started opposing the housing scheme by filing police cases, law and order cases against individuals and as a group. Years later, when providence had taken me to be settled in the United Kingdom, I met with some of the NRIs from St. Andrews. They have told me about their financial contributions towards legal, police and other expenses related to their Parish campaign against the alleged Fathimapuram encroachment in the very heart of their village. However, with the involvement of the State Government, fishermen felt more confident of reaching their goal and took it on themselves the responsibility of bringing building materials, arranging masons and carpenters, supervising the buildings etc. The first stage of construction of foundation went ahead without much problems and they obtained 1st Stage Completion Certificate, the families received their Second instalment of housing loan. The second stage of constructing the wall also progressed without many problems.

One evening the local Parish leaders collected their anti-social elements and hired thugs from neighbouring Parishes – lead by Fr. Joseph Maria of Marianad Parish marched towards the housing site and demolished all constructions, including the foundations. Although matter was reported to the police, no action was taken and nothing much happened. Later, we tired to negotiate by involving the local Panchayat President Mr. Basline Perira, who outwardly expressed sympathy and cooperation. We have offered to reduce the number of houses to 1/3rd and use the rest of the land for community purposes. Agreement was reached in Trivandrum. After the agreement six of un including Mr. Perira, we went for a lunch to a hotel opposite to the Ayurvedic College. Even now I remember the taste and size of Neymeen fish fry we had for the lunch. With renewed hopes the fishermen borrowed money and started re-constructing their houses. After completing the wall structures, they mobilised timber for their roof with the hope of completing the constructions and having their house warming ceremonies within weeks. Again, the inevitable happened – mobilising anti-social elements from and outside the St. Andrews Parish, the gang moved towards the housing site and demolished the constructions including burning the timbers collected. The culprits with the backing of the local Parish which was mobilising money from their NRIs from foreign countries for averting ‘encroachment of their village’ were untouched and unpunished. By this time, it became too much for the poor fisher folk without any external support and with the burden of two sets of loans from the government and from private sources. God alone knows how they survived. Every time they were attacked, apart from demolishing the constructions they were also beaten up not only family members but also the Community organisers who were appointed to work with them, thereby demoralising each and everyone involved in helping the fisher folk. After the second attempt also failed, the fishermen lost all hopes and the supporting mechanisms from the NGOs also met with severe internal difference of opinions and resource crunch. Finally we had to withdraw our involvement from Fathimapuram.

Rest of the story, what I know, is that during the next general election period, the Fathimapuram people were promised physical support by the left political parties and during the campaign they constructed huts in their land and started living there. It did not lost for long. Towards the end of the campaign, their huts were burned, upon which they retaliated with all their force and with the support of the political parties. They attacked the houses of those who were directly responsible for demolishing and burning their houses. This time it was not safeguarding their land and properties, but inflicting physical damage and injuries to the perpetrators that provided them with the courage and strength to rebuild their huts again and live there. This slowly led to construct their houses one by one and remained in the condition in which they are now – it is the result of their fifth attempt to construct a dwelling place on their legally owned land.

During the period of regular oppositions against constructing houses for the fishermen, Fr. Theo Simons of CEBEMO, the Netherland Catholic Agency which provided partial support through CECT for initiating a Community Development Programme including the Housing Programme in Fathimapuram on the strength of our experience and commitment to the fishermen cause asked us two questions:
1) Was it wise to purchase the land when there was so much of opposition, especially from the local Catholic Church/s?
2) Would it not have been wiser to negotiate with the local Church leaders before going for purchasing the land?

My answer was – negotiation have to be on equal grounds; and not based on mere mercy of one party - of the enemies of the fishermen, who were illegally denied land right and right to life. This is unchristian. Only after land has been purchased, fishermen acquired legal right over their land, and only after that the fishermen acquired the right and confidence to negotiate around the table on equal terms. So ownership of a piece of land is basic to lead any decent human life.

This is the story behind the Fathimapuram fishermen against all oppositions and odds to have a settlement of their own in their own country. Any attempt to understand the history of their new Church building will be incomplete without understanding the struggle for their own settlement in Fathimapuram.

 In January 1999, six months before I left India for good, I made a short visit to Fathimapuram to introduce a foreign friend to its history and situation as part of my development experience. Reaching UK, along with other UK and Indian friends, together we founded Voice of Dalit International (VODI) - (www.vodintl.org.uk), an International NGO to highlight the human rights and developmental aspects of Dalits, ‘the historically broken people’ who are made intergenerationally poor due to caste reasons. They constitute 1/3rd of the global poor.

With all the best wishes for the people of Fathimapuram on the occasion of the inauguration of their new Church on 13TH October 2011.

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