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Bank of distress for survivors
- Three years on, scam stalls loans to tsunami fishermen

Chennai, Dec. 26: Candles flickered in the crisp winter breeze as thousands of fishermen paid homage to their dead and the now-serene ocean “mother” who had turned a pitiless destroyer this day three years ago.

The killer waves that struck coastal Tamil Nadu on a lazy 2004 morning after Christmas have long subsided, but there has been no respite for the sea-ravaged fishermen.

Homeless and jobless, most haven’t been able to get back to the sea.

Promised Rs 20 lakh as part of the Rajiv Gandhi Tsunami Rehabilitation Programme to buy new mechanised boats, they are yet to get the money.

Balraj, a fisherman from the worst hit Nagapattinam district, mirrored the ordeal survivors like him are going through.

Once a proud owner of a boat, he looked a hopeless wreck as he fumbled for words before a three-member “people’s tribunal” on the status of post-tsunami rehabilitation in the state.

Balraj, whose mechanised vessel was destroyed, had been selected for assistance under the rehab scheme, which involved a state subsidy of Rs 5 lakh and a bank loan of up to Rs 15 lakh.

The subsidy was paid to him by cheque but the nationalised bank concerned is yet to clear the loan.

“We are eight in our family and there is nothing else we can do without a boat,” Balraj told the panellists, historian K.N. Panikkar, social activist D. Asghar Ali Engineer and Yasodha Shanmugasundaram, former vice-chancellor of Mother Teresa University.

“Recently, my mother attempted suicide, but was stopped in the nick of time,” Balraj, who now works as a daily wager for other fishermen, sobbed.

He wasn’t the only one suffering, he added. There were 68 other fishermen in Nagapattinam who were in the same boat.

“You should all file a joint petition in the high court,” fumed Engineer.

An elderly fisherman, Rajendran, then explained why the money had not reached them.

Under the rehab scheme, each beneficiary was to open a joint account with the assistant director of fisheries in their districts. Balraj, too, had done it and the subsidy of Rs 5 lakh was deposited in the account.

The trouble started, Rajendran said, when he as well as several other fishermen, all hard up for cash, approached banks for help.

The bank Balraj approached let him draw Rs 1 lakh for immediate expenses, including repairing his damaged home, against the Rs 5-lakh cheque. But the assistant director of fisheries was not informed.

“Once fisheries officials came to know of this, the department, through the local panchayat, put pressure on us to repay the Rs 1 lakh to the bank, which we did,” Balraj said.

A probe revealed collusion between some fishermen, who wanted to take shortcuts to the loan, and some bank officials who allegedly obliged them for “cuts”.

Sources told The Telegraph clear violations of norms were detected and the fisheries department filed criminal cases against several commercial banks, while nearly 3,000 FIRs had been filed for procedural irregularities by the Nagapattinam crime branch.

“As many as 16 branch managers of various nationalised banks have got anticipatory bail,” the sources said.

The banks are now refusing to sanction the (Rs 15 lakh) loan until the fisheries department withdraws the cases against them, the sources added.

Caught in the bureaucratic crossfire, the fishermen have been left stranded — unable to go back to the sea.

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