There are millions of expatriates working in the Gulf region. They come from different countries, the majority being from Asian countries. When misfortune befalls them, they are fairly represented by their respective diplomatic missions in the Gulf countries. Then there are also thousands of such workers who sail the seas as fishermen, tirelessly working in regional waters to haul catches that end up on our dinner table. Indian fishermen alone total a workforce comprising more than 50,000 in the Gulf waters. These workers are often marginalised as their plight is sometimes not well-publicised. Their sufferings rarely emerge in the press, as they navigate the high seas. But one South Indian national has been working tirelessly to change all that.
P. Justin Antony was in college when he spotted a report in one of the local papers in his home state on the misfortune of one of his countrymen and the seeming neglect by the authorities to rectify the man’s status. As he puts it: “Since then, there has been a fire in me to give them a helping hand. That desire made me form this voluntary organisation, TN Fidet (Tamil Nadu Fishermen Development Trust), in 2012. It is a matter of pride that within one year of forming TN Fidet, we got recognition from the United Nations in August 2013 for the efforts undertaken for the fishermen.”
Today, Antony’s hands are full as a new ominous threat has begun to manifest itself. Incidents of gunfire by sea pirates against hapless fishermen are on the rise. There have been reports of deaths as well. To cite a few examples, an Indian fisherman was shot dead by unknown intruders while he was fishing in Bahrain in May 2014. Another Indian fisherman was killed by gunfire while fishing in Saudi Arabia this year. Recently, while fishing off the coast of Qatar, another Indian fisherman was killed when he was met with a volley of bullets fired by pirates. He was the only son supporting his elderly parents and two young sisters back home.
Fishermen of various nationalities often get picked up by the authorities of neighbouring countries as their fishing vessels drift into the territorial waters of other countries. They are summarily rounded up and detained. With minimal education and hardly any means to defend themselves, it is NGOs like TN Fidet that play a crucial role in assisting these hapless fishermen. The organisation follows up on cases and coordinates with the respective diplomatic missions and local authorities to expedite their release.
Seven Indian fishermen were arrested by the Qatari forces in July. They had gone fishing from Bahrain, a couple of days earlier, and were detained by the Qatari forces on charges of trespassing. They were produced before the court in Qatar. Four of them were released in August, while the rest were set free a week later.
Last December, when three Indian fishing boats and 26 fishermen were detained by Bangladeshi forces, Anthony’s outfit sent representatives to Dacca, appointing an advocate, and finally got the boats and fishermen released. Antony’s organisation has also been credited with working out the release of Indian fishermen detained in Bangladesh, Iran, Seychelles, Diego Garcia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
One has to keep in mind that these fishermen are not out on pleasure trips. They work in their sponsors’ vessels to bring in the fish to the market.
Seeking more help, TN Fidet had sent a memorandum to the United Nations to set up a special force to eradicate sea pirates. “Such a force shall be asked to patrol the international waters and coasts of countries, so that they can apprehend the sea pirates and punish them. In the long run, the menace of sea pirates shall be put to an end,” TN Fidet said. It received an encouraging response from the UN representative who declared that the UN was “working to support fishermen in critical [situations] and encourage all [concerned] to consider further protection for the sector”.
TN Fidet is also conducting awareness programmes for fisherwomen, highlighting the importance of education for the girl child. Apart from conducting a Children’s Parliament, Antony also arranges awareness programmes on higher education such as law and competitive exams such as the ones conducted by the Union Public Service Commission in India, through which, successful candidates can enter the Indian Administrative Service cadre.
Recently, the Collector of Kanyakumari district, Sajjan Singh Chavan, honoured Antony with India’s Republic Day Award, 2015, in a special function held at the district headquarters. The archbishop of Trivandrum Diocese in India, Rev. Dr Soosa Pakiam also honoured Antony for his help in securing the release of several fishermen from the Indian state of Kerala.
Antony had worked for many years in the Gulf and had made enough money to live an easy and comfortable life back in India. It is not honours and rewards that spur him on, but the fire within from his college days. The salvation of fishermen from his community, who face peril on Gulf seas, and the welfare of their families is his mission.