A Fishing Village’s Last Gasp, As Climate Change, Industry & Pollution Sound A Death Knell

02 Nov 2022 11 min read  Share

Almost all the fishermen in a village on the coast of Andhra Pradesh, battered by cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, have left for other port cities. As climate change, industrial pollution in violation of existing laws, and overfishing by trawlers have devastated the livelihood of the mostly hand to mouth fishermen, they feel little is being done to address the existential threat to their way of life. Families live with fear and anxiety, as fishermen venture ever farther into unknown waters.

Ramarao and his peers on the D Matsalesam Beach, Srikakulam, AP/ PHOTOGRAPHS BY VIDHEESHA KUNTAMALLA

Srikakulam (Andhra Pradesh): Eight months after his son passed away in February, Ganagalla Ramarao, a 57-year-old fisherman living near the Bay of Bengal close to Andhra Pradesh’s border with Odisha, could speak of little else. 

Ramarao doesn’t know how his 30-year-old son, Selva Ganagalla, died 1,600 km to the west in Gujarat’s Jamnagar district, where he went to earn a livelihood as a fisherman after he could no longer do so in his own village D Matsalesam. 

All Ramarao knows is that his son went fishing in the Arabian sea and never returned.

“Now I have no one to light my pyre when I die,” he said. “The loss of my son remains with me forever.”

Selva Ganagalla was not alone. 

Contending with more intense cyclones, soaring temperatures, and 103% excess rainfall, the village on the northern coast of Andhra Pradesh, 500 km east of the capital Amaravati and 18 km away from the nearest town of Srikakulam, has almost emptied. 

“The unpredictability of the weather on the coast makes it life-threatening for us to get into the sea,” said Ramarao. “After a heavy rain pour, it takes ten days for the sea waves to settle down and only then can we see whether we can go back into the sea.” 

The Times of India, which reported on D Matsalesam village in November 2021, noted that nearly 90% of the fishermen have left and ghost hamlets dot the coast, with the number of migrated fishermen standing at 10,000 (the unofficial number is higher). 

To the list of long-standing problems of overfishing by trawlers, pollution from the surrounding industries and the lack of fishing infrastructure, global warming is worsening the depletion of fish. 

The current wave of migration started in the 1980s, the the Times of India reported, when fishermen from Srikakulam established settlements in Odisha, Gujarat,  Kerala port cities and the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Experts told Article 14 that the lack of fishing infrastructure for fishermen had prompted migration for years, but it was now happening under duress, as the intensity of cyclonic storms appeared to be increasing, borne out by some studies

 As cyclones—Laila (2010), Nilam (2012), Helen, LeherPhailin (2013), Hadhud(2014), Titli (2018), Amphan (2020),  Gulab (2021), Jawad (2021), and Asani (2022)—battered the coastal village, already being devastated by overfishing and pollution from surrounding fisheries and fertiliser, cement and pharmaceutical factories, in violation of pollution-control laws, there is little the Andhra Pradesh government has been able to do to stop the exodus. 

Fishermen have long demanded action against polluting industries, and compensation for falling catch because of weather conditions and an annual 60-day ban on fishing by motorboats to allow breeding. The YSRCP announced Rs 10,000 as relief to each fisherman's family during the ban. 

Over the past 20 years, Andhra Pradesh has been governed by the Congress Party under Y S Rajasekhara Reddy,  the Telugu Desam Party under Chandra Babu Naidu, and the Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) under Jagan Mohan Reddy. 

“The fallout of market instability and lack of schemes to empower fishermen are becoming worse due to insatiable weather conditions,” said Guru Murthy, a social activist from Srikakulam who has been advocating for fishermen for over a decade, adding that it makes little difference if the TDP or the YSRCP is in power.

“Every year, they promise compensation to fishermen families who lose their lives on the job, but there is hardly anyone who has received anything from the government in Srikakulam yet,” he said. 

Local government officials viewed the crisis differently. 

“Fishermen never take government cyclone warnings seriously; as a result, they lose their boats,” said Santosh Kumar, the assistant director of the Department of Fisheries, Srikakulam. “We have been providing compensation up to Rs 1 lakh to those who have lost their equipment over the last two years, under the YSR Matsyakara scheme.” 

Kumar said that the government provided all fishing equipment to fishermen at a subsidised rate of up to 40% to men and up to 60% to the women and fishermen belonging to marginalised communities. He added a jetty promised in 2013 was also under construction. 

Member of the state legislative assembly (MLA) from Srikakulam and a member of the ruling party, Gorla Kiran Kumar, did not respond to Article 14’s request for comment.



In Violation of Laws 

Pal, the general secretary of the Domestic Traditional Fisherman’s Forum, Rajahmundry, who has been fighting for the fishermen for the past 20 years, blamed pollution. 

“The release of industrial pollutants like arsenic, mercury and plastic in the ocean is killing the fish at the embryo stage,” said Pal, who uses one name, 

In 2017, a health survey conducted by the government of Andhra Pradesh following complaints by the villagers of D Matsalesam about the polluted groundwater found 47 cases of chronic kidney ailment,  26 of thyroid, 40 of hepatitis and seven of cancer. 

Experts said the failure of the government to address the health and safety concerns of the coastal fishermen violated a slew of laws and constitutional provisions.

These include Article 21 of the Constitution (protection of life and personal liberty), the Environment Protection Act, 1986, enacted to protect and improve the human environment and the prevention of hazards to human beings, other living creatures, plants and property; the Water Act, 1974, to provide for the prevention and control of water pollution, and for the maintaining or restoring of wholesomeness of water in the country; and the Biological Diversity Act, 2001, for the  conservation of biological diversity,  sustainable use of its components and fair usage of its resources in order to prevent overuse or eventual destruction of biodiversity.

Fiercer Cyclones

A 2014 study published in a scientific journal called Geophysical Research Letters of the American Geophysical Union said the increase in sea surface temperatures and upper ocean heat made the Bay of Bengal, especially the eastern part from where cyclones originate, more conducive to the intensification of cyclones. 

“These changes are part of positive linear trends, suggesting that the intensity of post-monsoon BoB TCs may continue to increase in the future,” said the study. 

Over the past 45 years, the sea surface temperature of the Bay of Bengal had risen by 0.2 degrees celsius to 0.3 degrees celsius and is projected to increase further by 2.0 to 3.5°C by the end of this century, according to a 2021 paper by Rajalakshmi P R and Hema Achyuthan in the Journal of Climate Change

As a result, sea levels are expected to also rise 37 cm by 2050. 

“The Bay of Bengal is witnessing an increase in the intensity of cyclones in the last two decades,” wrote Achyuthan and Rajalakshmi. 

As intensity of post-monsoon cyclones increased over the coming years, P Krishnan, director of the Bay of Bengal Program Intergovernmental Organisation, said, the “number of fishing days and consequently the total fish catch landings” would be affected.

Leaving Home 

Those who remained at D Matsalesam were mostly women, children, and older fishermen who returned to their home village after retiring. 

Some, like 50-year-old Padi Thotayya, who left his two wives and two daughters a decade ago, and returned to D Matsalesam after retiring from fishing, said the lack of infrastructure was a worse problem than climate change. 

“The lack of mini jetties and no stable market here in Andhra Pradesh led me to move to Gujarat,” he said. 

By the time he returned, his son Padi Bala, father to two daughters, was forced to migrate to Gujarat earlier this year. 

“My husband and I were struggling to provide for our children, so he went to Surat eight months ago,” Padi Bala’s wife, Indu said. 

While fishermen were cut off from their families when they spent months at sea, family members of those who have left said that it was even more daunting to cope when a loved one was navigating unknown waters far from home. 

“It has been a month now since we’ve spoken,” said Indu, who speaks with her husband once every two or three months. “I don't know whether he will come back home alive.”

Further & Further Into The Sea 

When Article 14 met Ramarao and three of his fellow fishermen on 20 September 2022, they said it had been 20 days since they had gone fishing due to a cyclone warning by the Indian Meteorological Department. 

Even when they went out, the fishermen said they had to go further and further because industry pollution was killing fish closer to the shore. 

Due to rising sea temperatures, fish also tended to migrate toward higher latitudes and to deeper water. They needed new equipment, they said, to compete with the trawlers of private fishing companies. 

“We used to get a lot of fish about 8 to 10 km within the ocean,” said Ramarao. “But now, we have to go further into the sea, for which we would need motorised boats and a jetty but cannot afford to buy one.”

To combat overfishing,  the Andhra Pradesh government has banned mechanised and motorised boats fishing 230 km into the Bay of Bengal from April 15 to June 15, pushing the fishing cycle from June to September.

But fishermen said that increased cyclone warnings during this period had led to a reduction of about 10 to 15 fishing days. 

Ramarao, along with four fellow fishermen, would catch at least 500-700 kg of fish on a single trip into the sea, which they then distributed equally amongst themselves to sell in the market. 

They made Rs 700-1000  each, every day.  Now, Ramarao said their fish catch has declined to 200-300 kg and their daily wage has gone down to Rs 200-500 each. 

The price of fish is set by the middlemen, who buy fish in bulk from the fishermen working on contract with private companies that run the motorised boats and can deliver more fish. 

Too small in scale to sell to middlemen, Ramarao sells directly to customers and comes back with almost nothing on days of hard bargaining. 

“I sold my wife’s gold chain in order to survive,” he said.  

“We Have No Drinking Water”

Villagers said one factory—the Vaisakhi Bio Marine plant, which cultivates shrimp and is located in the middle of D Matsalesam village—is mostly responsible for polluting their village. 

In 2017, they complained to the collectorate alleging Vaisakhi Marine plant of releasing its waste directly into the sea through a canal passing through the village, contaminating the groundwater.

Years of the stagnant saline water in the shrimp ponds seeping into the soil have increased its salinity, they told Article 14.

Anil Kumar, the managing director of Vaisakhi Bio Marine, said they were authorised to function by the Coastal Aquaculture Authority, which regulates activities connected with coastal aquaculture, and they had been functioning well within government norms.

“I feel sad when people with no basis blame us for ocean pollution. We do not use any chemicals in cultivating our shrimp. If anything, we are doing a human service by cultivating shrimp and contributing to a rise in aquatic species, ” said Kumar. “ Ocean pollution is everywhere in the world; these are all biased claims by the villagers. There are many pharmaceutical industries around Visakhapatnam. You should blame them, not us.”

Of the 22 hand pumps in D Matsalesam, villagers said 19 have been marked with a red cross by the state government, indicating the water is not suitable to drink.

“We cannot even offer you water to drink if you come to our house,” said Rudramma, Ramarao’s wife.

“The water in the village is not safe to have a bath in,” she said. “We need to buy drinking water cans every day. We spend at least three hundred rupees on water every month. We don't even earn that in a day.”


Way of Life 

For Ramarao, the sea has always been a way of life. 

Reeling off the names of the men he goes fishing with every season— Padithotayya, Chintapalli Totayya, Kundu Lakshman Rao and Kowdipally Pappaya—Ramarao said they were at sea for months without a proper bath and sometimes they start running out of food and water. 

“Once we get into the sea, it might take a month to eight months to get back home,” he said. “There is no assurance we might come back alive. This is the only thing I know and the only way to feed my family.”

“Despite the immense losses we suffer, we console each other and have each other’s back as we are the last few left in the village,” said Ramarao, as he sat with his fishing mates. 

Married for 25 years, Rudramma and Ramarao have two daughters who have finished class 12, but with no money to educate them further, they have decided to marry them off. 

Looking at photos of her deceased son, Rudramma said, “If we had status and money like you city people, we would have educated our son, and he would have been alive today.”

On most days, Ramarao sits from noon until 10 at night on the market road of Srikakulam to sell fish.

On the days when Ramarao does not catch enough fish to feed his family, they are forced to eat ganji—thick water from overcooked rice—and go to sleep.

After losing his son, Ramarao said he has also lost the comfort of the sea.

 “The sea is everything to me,” he said. “Without it, I have nothing.”

(Vidheesha Kuntamalla is an independent journalist based in Hyderabad. She covers gender, politics and social justice.)