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Father Thomas Kocherry, radical priest and poor people’s advocate, died in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala on May 3. As local fisher people and priests gathered to pay respect, they were joined by Kerala’s political leaders, trade union leaders, and members of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples. They shared memories of their work alongside Kocherry, gathered around his body, and sang through the night. Thirteen days later, the neoliberal Hindu nationalist Bharata Janata Party (BJP) swept the national elections. The victory of the BJP and its standard bearer Narendra Modi are eddies in the currents of a larger struggle.
Over more than three decades of leadership in that struggle, Thomas Kocherry articulated a vision of social and economic justice grounded in ecological principles. “Development cannot be measured solely by the quantity of production, but by its sustainability, by its capacity to protect the livelihood of all human beings. The life of the planet and the dependent health and welfare of humanity must not be sacrificed to the greed of the few.”
Thomas Kocherry was born on May 10, 1940, in Changanassery, then part of the royal state of Travancore. This area in what would become Kerala had been one of the centers of the anti-caste and literacy campaign that continues to mark Kerala’s politics. The first dividend of this long tradition was the victory of the Communist Party of India in the 1957 state elections. Kocherry came of age in the generation of national independence and communism.
In 1962, he declared his intention “to work among the poor,” and chose religion, not communism, as the main framework for this work. Kocherry began his vocation in 1971 as a parish priest at Poothura, a small fishing village near Thiruvananthapuram. For the rest of the decade, Kocherry took to his parish with gusto — he went to sea and ran nets alongside villagers, and helped organize health clinics and nurseries. Readers of Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s classic socialist realist novel Chemmeen will have a degree of familiarity with the social outlines and fissures in these coastal communities.
“My decision to spend my life defending the oppressed was further consolidated when I began to work in Poothura,” Kocherry recalled. “Middlemen led by one politically well-connected family were using muscle-power to keep fisher folk permanently on the edge of starvation even though they worked harder than any community that I knew. I decided to arm them with knowledge by teaching them to read and write.”
The villagers had developed technologies tailored to their socio-ecology – boats and nets to fish the waters without destroying the integrity of the ecosystem. Early into his time in Poothura, Kocherry could see that new ships – egged on by government policy — lingered on the horizon. An Indo-Norwegian project brought large-scale trawlers to scrape the sea bottom and rapidly deplete fish stocks. The trawlers that followed did not only go after fish. They also went after the small boats run by villagers, cutting nets and ramming the little boats. Demands for fish and fishmeal (for animal and pet feed in the Global North) moved the trawlers to much more aggressive practices. The future of beach-based fishing was under assault.
Trawlers resulted in technological polarization of the fisheries. The traditional fishing craft, the catamaran, on the other hand, is built out of wood, bound by rope. While its materials are relatively cheap, its construction and use require a high degree of technical skill and sophistication. 40% of fishing crafts in southern India continue to be of this type.
A 2010 Marine Fisheries Census recorded 3,288 marine fishing villages in India, a population of about four million people along a coastline of over 8,000km. The great majority of these villages lack roads, schools, primary healthcare facilities, or drinking water. In many of these communities, women handle the distribution and trade of the catch, and often walk five to ten km to sell their fish in market, and up to five km on foot to collect drinking water. Most of these villagers and villages have no legal title to their lands and waters. The coastline has been earmarked as a space for development by state governments, and fisher people face tourism, commercial harbors, industrial, chemical, and nuclear plants, and Special Economic Zones, all of which not only occupy their lands but also pollute their waters.
In the early 1980s, Thomas Kocherry helped organize the Kerala Swatantra Matsyathozhilali Federation (Kerala Independent Fishworkers Federation), a trade union of small-scale fishworkers in southern Kerala. Their first victory was the Marine Fishing Regulation Act, passed in Kerala in 1980, which prohibited trawlers from a 12-mile zone. Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, incidentally, was the last coastal state to adopt this act, in 2003. In 1981, Kocherry and fellow movement leader Joyachan Antony underwent an eleven-day fast for a ban on trawling during the monsoon, an important breeding season, as part of a larger movement that saw success by 1988.
In 1982, fishworkers formed the National Fishworkers’ Forum (NFF), choosing Kocherry as their president. In 1989, the NFF organized the “Kanyakumari March,” in which two core groups walked the eastern and western coasts of India. They stopped at fishing villages along the way and gathered information about struggles and grievances in these communities. The groups covered about three-fourths of India’s coastline and converged on May 1 at Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the subcontinent, where the waters of the Indian Ocean meet those of the Pacific Ocean.
In the early 1990s, the NFF, with Kocherry as President, coordinated a series of militant protests, which included marches, fasts, and blocking of fishing ports around the country. Fisher people protested the Indian government’s proposal to open the national fish fleet to 2,600 large foreign-owned trawlers. This was an opening salvo in the liberalization of the Indian economy, and it was met by the disciplined opposition of millions of poor fisher people across India. The protests forced the government to withdraw the proposed policy, marking an early and powerful victory against neoliberalism.
In 1995, Kocherry again fasted for the inclusion of fisher people on the Murari Committee, established to review Indian policy on joint ventures between Indian and foreign fishing firms. The next year, the Congress-led government ignored a Parliamentary committee report that suggested rescinding all foreign trawler licenses, and Kocherry again led a fast until the government reversed its policy.
In 1997, Kocherry was elected to coordinate the World Forum of Fisher Peoples, a group of thirty-six world-wide organizations of artisanal fisher peoples. All these important positions put Kocherry in the spotlight. The Pew Foundation of Sunoco (the oil company) wanted to give Kocherry an award for marine conservation. He declined. There is no irony in an oil company wanting to brand itself as ecological. “A polluter giving an award for marine conservation,” Kocherry said, “is a contradiction.”
The fisher peoples’ struggle crosses national borders, following their experiences at sea. In 2000, the Indian navy arrested 180 Sri Lankan Tamil fishworkers on a pretext of security against terrorism. Kocherry spearheaded an effort in India to secure their release from jail, while actively supporting the fishworkers’ wives, whose organizing efforts led to the founding of the Sri Vimukthi Fisher Women Organization. Muhammad Ali Shah, of the Pakistani Fisherfolk Forum, wrote after Kocherry’s death, “We have lost our leader, a source of inspiration and support, as Kocherry always united the fishermen of Pakistan and India to fight for their common issues.”
After the wave.
The NFF helped form the National Coastal Protection Campaign, against a 2005 recommendation by the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, to pivot from regulation to management of coastal resources. Beach-based fishing communities were at risk of being displaced in post-tsunami redevelopment. In the words of the late Harekrishna Debnath, another leader of the movement, this would result in “an open general license for privatization and vandalism of the coastal zone in the name of investment and development.”
In his last months, Kocherry was actively involved in agitation against the Kudankalam Nuclear Power Plant at a coastal site in Tamil Nadu, in an area that was hit by the tsunami. Construction of this plant, India’s largest, began in 2002, and has met consistent and organized opposition. In 2011, local villagers commenced a daily protest, with the support of anti-nuclear activists from around the country. In 2012, police repression of this movement swept neighboring villages and resulted in the deaths of a young girl and a fisherman on the shore, within eyesight of the plant.
By this date, massive industrial fishing fleets have depleted the oceans of the world, feeding the development of aquaculture in coastal areas and converted rice paddy. The results include oceanic dead zones, highly polluted aquaculture sites, and seafood that appears cheap to consumers. In this era of collapsing global fish stocks, Kocherry articulated a simple program for renewal. “You simply cut from the top. The biggest, most destructive trawlers go first and you work your way down until you reach a sustainable fishery.”
In his last message, sent hours before his death, Kocherry reflected on the election that was then in progress. “Modi wants the growth of wealth. But he forgets, in the process, that the vast majority of the country does not have the basic needs of life. All people in India should have education, healthcare, food, water, employment and a house.”
India’s struggle for freedom is ferociously local, and it also international in scope, drawing links across the South Asian region, and across the world. In Seattle during the run-up to the WTO protests, Kocherry stated his guiding principle, “I want people who live close to the earth to be protected from those who have detached themselves from the earth.” Kocherry, whose voice carried palpable force when turned against his opponents, had a gentle and encouraging laugh for a child. He modeled a life of struggle that was simultaneously a life filled with joy.
India’s struggle for freedom is a living tradition, with memories of ancestors breathing life into commitments to coming generations. This struggle continues, and Narendra Modi and his government are powerless to stop it, or to contain the force of its impact upon a world of suffering and inequality.
Manu Vimalassery is a co-editor of The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power (NYU Press). He is editing a history of the National Fishworkers’ Forum.