Search and rescue/recovery of fishermen, their boats and equipment was always an issue bothering search and rescue agencies like the Coast Guard and the Navy. Around 200,000 boats set out to sea from India every day and responding to search and rescue requests from fishermen in distress spread over such a large coastline isn't easy considering the above agencies have other things like coastal security, smuggling and cross-border issues to worry about.
Fishermen are best suited for search and rescue as they have an intimate knowledge of the coast. Community based/owned search and rescue systems are gaining acceptance in some parts of the developing world like the National Lake Rescue Institute (NLRI) in Uganda where a full-fledged rescue station functions with fishermen as volunteers.
In India however, despite having so much fishing activity, community based efforts haven't been identified or documented. This is probably a first time effort in that direction.
Conversations with Fishermen
on Search and Rescue efforts at sea – Malabar Coast (Part I)
We visited two districts of the Malabar coast last week – Kasargode and Calicut to check on community initiatives in search and rescue and met two fishermen, Ommer (47) and Peethambaran (48) who are active in rescue efforts around the Beypore area of Calicut.
Ommer's rescue work is the stuff of legends - he rescued three persons from a ferry which sank in the river Chaliyar when he was only 14 and from then on, Ommer was part of almost every search and rescue ops in the Chaliyar estuary which harbours most of the fishing fleet in that area as well as small cargo ships, coast guard vessels and ferries.
Peethambaran is more of a strong, silent back-up to Ommer which doesn't in anyway undermine his capabilities in sea rescue. "We need men with balls," says Ommer. "You can't go chicken in the middle of rescue ops. We had to pick up five men whose boat had dashed against rocks and it was late in the evening. All of them were in water and I was keeping the boat between the rocks and the breakers while Peethambaran was hauling them in, one by one. There's no time to reflect and think, we just do it and later worry about how we pulled it off," he adds laughing.
Maneuvering the boat in bad weather at the site of a wreck or where men are in water takes good boat handling skills. In bad weather, keeping a boat steady and in position requires rapid forward and astern propeller motions. The waterborne men have to be clear of the rescue boat's propeller and shouldn’t get slammed against the hull of the boat by waves. Good coordination is required between the rescue team and the man at the helm especially while picking up men in water, something Ommer swears by.
Both believe fishermen are best suited for SAR. When a boat's reported missing the fisheries department calls Ommer who puts together a team and sets out in search on a boat. Sometimes department people accompany them but after a few incidents of bad weather injuries, the frequency of visits and number of the captive audience reduced.
Both Ommer and Peethambaran insist the recovery of bodies lost at sea is important to fishermen and their families. "We've recovered almost all bodies we've searched for, says Peethambaran. Once, while cruising in search of a missing boat, we saw a tiny speck which looked like a coconut. On going closer we saw it was one of men from the missing boat, exhausted from lying in water for almost two days."
Both have rescued men from trawlers as well as country boats. Once, after they rescued men from a stranded country boat, a fisheries department person on board told them they couldn’t tow the boat back. Peethambaran jumped into the sea, swam to the stranded boat and stayed put after boarding it forcing them to put out a tow line. "What's a fisherman without his boat, asks Peethambaran, our livelihoods are as important as our lives."
The Fisheries department conducted sea rescue training for fishermen from the Malabar area and Ommer and Peethambaran ranked first and second as best rescue workers. To respond to an emergency, Ommer and his team now need the permission of the fisheries officer. Recently, Ommer took a boat out without waiting for permission and incurred the displeasure of the officials. He apparently ‘resigned’ from his duties and is now off the volunteer list.
"Cut the red tape, give fishermen the power to discern, says Ommer, and we'll do fine. Costs of fuel for SAR was never a problem, he adds. We'll find ways to source funds for fuel but the timing of rescue is vital - swift action saves more lives."
Besides being on call for rescue work, these trained fishermen are put on a daily wage during the 45-day monsoon period when the Arabian sea is roughest and the trawling ban is on. The department of fisheries has made a positive step training fishermen and using them for SAR – a first step towards developing community based/owned SAR systems of tomorrow