| Hope alive: A boy plays on a beach near Nagapattinam. (File picture)
Nagapattinam (Tamil Nadu), Feb. 5: As you walk into Kameshwar village in Nagapattinam, the fishermen turn suspicious.
“Who are you' Why have you come here'” asks one who seems to be their leader.
They have reason to be wary. Any outsider could be a kidney racketeer, out to lure the poor fisherwomen to sell one of theirs.
Unlike their tsunami-ravaged brethren north of the capital, Chennai, the fisherfolk in Tamil Nadu’s worst-hit district have not fallen prey to the illegal trade that has victimised hundreds of the state’s poor. The constant vigil is one of the reasons.
In the fishing villages, the panchayats are so strong and the sense of social solidarity so binding that “no kidney broker dare walk into our villages and ask for such organs”, says K. Shanker, a panchayat member at the Nambiar Nagar hamlet.
“People are aware and watchful,” says Kathirvel, a young fisherman. “No outsider can talk his way into luring our women to part with their kidney or any other organ and then cheat us, as recently happened near Chennai.” Kathirvel has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the Bharathidasan University and is looking for an alternative job.
The formation of women’s self-help groups (SHGs) — and the training imparted to them to make handicrafts, soaps, detergents, incense sticks, coir products and bricks — is another reason. The fisherwomen of Nagapattinam can now add to the household income without desperate measures.
“We earn Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 a month after paying the bank instalments. My husband has given up fishing and taken up a job at the local railway goods shed,” says Semmalar, who runs the Alaimagal SHG in Kameshwaram. She sells incense briquettes under the brand name Computer Saambrani.
“But it’s still difficult to make both ends meet. There is poverty and joblessness among the fisherfolk. But I have still not come across any woman who has been forced to sell her kidneys.”
Some of the fisherfolk had come to attend a congregation at which the saint from Kerala, Mata Amritanandamayi, handed over the keys of 400 houses her trust had built for the fishermen of Keelapattinamcherry village.
In a symbolic gesture, she gave 10 keys to chief minister M. Karunanidhi, who presided over the function.
The 324-sq ft houses cost Rs 1.80 lakh each. The trust has pledged to build about 6,200 of them for tsunami victims in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry and the Andaman and Nicobar islands, earmarking 650 for Nagapattinam.
The DMK government, sensing that the delay in building houses for the fisherfolk has been one of the reasons behind the kidney racket near Chennai, has decided to speed up construction.
Karunanidhi announced at the programme that his government would not only complete 32,668 houses across the districts by the end of this fiscal, but add another 22,000 in the coming months under the Centre’s Rajiv Gandhi Tsunami Rehabilitation Project with an outlay of Rs 550 crore.
Although the situation varies from one fishing village to another, there is a huge backlog of houses to be built. The fisherfolk say the rise in the prices of land and construction material has been a hurdle.
In Nambiar Nagar, where the Ramakrishna Math and Mission built the first set of 60 houses, another 892 are needed.
“An NGO, World Vision, came forward to take up the construction but could not proceed beyond 100 houses as initial estimates went awry,” says a fisherman from the village, adding he does not want to be named.
“Soon after the tsunami, the district administration pegged the cost at Rs 1.50 lakh per house. The land was to be provided free. But now estimates have gone up to Rs 2.50 lakh and contractors are backing out.”
“We fishermen do not have a political voice like the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes,” another man says.
“There is no quota for us in jobs and we have not even got the free colour television sets and gas stoves under the DMK’s schemes. But we have managed to ward off social evils like selling kidneys.”