NEMMELI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Shankar Tilakvathy, 45, has lived all her life by the sea. Sorting, drying and selling fish is the only livelihood she has ever known.
But the mother of three from Nemmeli – a coastal village in southern India’s Kanchipuram district – doesn’t want any of her sons to take up fishing.
”The sea is too unsafe. You never know when death will pounce on you. I want my children to stay safe on the shore,” she said.
Chinnadayasappan Shankar, Tilakvathy’s fisherman husband, shares her feelings. “My grandfather taught fishing to my father. Father taught it to me. But after the tsunami in 2004, I decided not to send my children into the sea,” he said.
Two of their boys, they say, have learned welding and found work in a nearby town. But the family is pinning its hopes on the youngest son, Vikas, who is studying to be a business graduate in ‘Cyclone College’ – a community college that runs from a cyclone shelter.
The 19-year-old, who narrowly escaped death in the 2004 tsunami, will one day be able to buy a house away from the shoreline, the family believes.
Kanchipuram was one of the worst-affected districts when the tsunami struck. Though the number of deaths was relatively small at 128, the loss of property and assets was huge.
A total of 9,500 houses were destroyed. In the village of Nemmeli – a cluster of 15 hamlets and home to 2700 families – every house, boat and fishing net was washed away.
Afterward, as the rebuilding began, there was widespread fear of more tsunamis. Fishermen were uncertain about resuming their traditional lifestyle. Many, including those in the government, felt that the community needed a viable alternative to earn a living.
In 2011, the government of Tamil Nadu set up a community college in Nemmeli to give access to higher education to the region’s fishing community, to help them find alternative livelihood opportunities. Since there was no ready structure to house the college, it was set up in a cyclone shelter.
And so the college, a symbol of security to the locals, now became an institution that could help them live a better life.
Affiliated to the Madras University, the college offers undergraduate degrees in commerce and sciences along with disaster management as an elective subject.
Currently there are 461 students, all of whom are the first in their family to study at a college.
Mahadevan Vijaylakshmi, 22, the daughter of a fisherman in Nemmeli, recently finished a degree in computer science at the college and is now looking for a job.
”Eleven of my (class)mates have already found a job in IT companies. I am also going to apply. Later, one day, I would also like to get a masters degree,” said Vijaylakshmi who also studied disaster management and is a member of the Village Residents’ Resilience Committee, a group that raises awareness among the locals about disaster preparedness.
Coastal communities in the region face many hazards, including an alarming rate of erosion that has been visibly increasing, according to Ramaswamy Krishnamurthy, a professor of applied geology at Madras University and founding principal of the Nemmeli community college.
Since the tsunami, Krishnamurthy said, the sand dunes are disappearing faster and houses are caving in, slowly rendering the villagers homeless.
In New Kuppam village, Krishnamurthy said, several families have already moved away from the shore to higher ground along the highway.
”These families had been shifted here 30 years ago from Kalpakkam after the government decided to build a nuclear plant there. Now they are losing their homes again because of erosion. Internal displacement is becoming a regular phenomenon,” he said, pointing to a set of houses half buried in sand.
But moving to higher ground might not help them for long as the coastal belt is under serious threat of flooding, according to a team of researchers from the university who conducted a study in the area.
Rasikh Barkat, one of the researchers, said the study found that the entire area will be inundated if sea level rises by more than 1 meter – a level possible by 2100 or earlier under the most likely climate change scenarios.
“Right now, there is massive erosion in the villages along the shoreline. Fishermen complained to us that they didn’t have enough space to moor their boats. Buildings along the shorelines are caving in,” he said.
”Also, rice fields at the back of the villages are affected because sea water is intruding into them due to failure of coastal aquifers. The entire area coastline will be inundated if the sea level rises above 1 meter,” Barkat predicted.
Besides an advancing sea, fishermen are also struggling with a decline in fish catches.
Paneer Selvam, a fisherman in the village of Sulerikkadu said there are frequent changes in the direction of the wind and a lot of shifting of the sands, which requires fishermen to go further into the sea to get a good catch.
”We now can’t catch anything within 1,500 meters. Also, the catch is never above 30-50 kg. With 10 to 15 of us sharing a boat, the individual share of fish is just about 5 kg. It’s not enough,” said Selvam who has taken up a part-time job as a security guard in a private firm to feed his family.
Rajalingam Gunalan, a government official at the Department of Fisheries, agrees. In January this year, the government launched a survey of the district’s coastal villages to assess climate change vulnerability.
”Out of every 10 fishermen I have surveyed, 7 to 8 have been complaining of a drastic drop in their daily catch. Once this survey is completed, the government is planning to introduce aquaculture (freshwater fish farming) as a viable alternative livelihood for fishermen here,” he said.
However, some doubt such efforts can genuinely help people. Ramesh Kumar, a fisherman turned insurance agent, said increasing salinity in the groundwater means farming freshwater fish would be difficult.
”We depend on the fresh water supplied here every day by tankers. How can we grow fish here?” he asked.
Most fishermen believe the ‘Cyclone College’ can best help the younger generation, providing knowledge and information that they need to find new jobs and build new lives. The children’s knowledge of disaster preparedness is also an advantage, they said.
Fisherman Venu Desamuthu, whose son Satheesh is a graduate student at the college, said, “We are forced to fish because we have no other alternatives. But our children can now have the skills to find a job and also lead us to safety if disaster strikes again.”
Reporting by Stella Paul; editing by Laurie Goering