By Stefan Teplan Chennai (Caritas Feature) -- When dalit Kundalan takes his own boat to sea, it will begin a social change in the coastal Tamil Nadu, where people of his group were not allowed to fish in the sea all these years.
Kundalan now works in Pulicat lake just north of Chennai, where a long-lasting conflict between two groups of fishermen existed. The tsunami waves and the rehabilitation by Caritas India that followed have helped reduce the tensions in the area. As Kundalan stows away his net and refuels the boat engine, he speaks of a “strange feeling” that he “could not get accustomed to yet.” “It is my own boat, the first boat I own,” the 35-year-old said.
“It will take some time getting used to to that,” ,” he says adding that the feeling overwhelmed him for more than two weeks, ever since the fibre boat was given to him. Until the tsunami waves devastated the coast Dec. 26, 2004, Kundalan worked as a “coolie”, a labourer for boat-owners, unable even to dream of owning a boat or thinking of any better life. Looking back, Kundalan says he has now reasons to believe that the December tsunamis brought him luck, although it was Asia's biggest disaster in recant history.
The waves of tsunami that brought ashore death and destruction also resulted in a wave of international solidarity that reached help and support for new life, hope and social change. Kundalan lives in the Lighthouse Colony, on the side of Pulicat lake, some 50 miles north of the city of Chennai, the capital metropolis of Tamil Nadu state. “One thing’s for sure,” Kundalan explains, “without the tremendous rehabilitation we would be finished. There would still be war between the fishermen in our area,” Kundalan hints at the conflict.
The conflict is at least 20 years old, in which people who fish in the sea did not allow those who fish in the backwater to go out to the sea and fish. That situation would change when Kundalan would venture into sea in this January with his boat donated by the Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore in collaboration with Caritas India. He waits for January for his own reasons. “I still do not dare go out to the sea before January. The sea is too rough in this season and I am not yet used to that high-quality fibre boat,” he said. He is among 200 people who were given boats by Caritas and the archdiocesan social service society. In the caste-divided Indian social strata, dalits like Kundalan are outcastes, on the lowest outside all the main castes. Few decades ago, they were considered untouchables. People like him were not considered having any social right, but in the course of their tsunami rehabilitation work, the Church agencies clarified that the affected should get help without discrimination. A Village Development Council was founded, in which spokesmen for all different groups within the villages were included for a participatory decision making, said Father Arul, director of Madras Social Service Society. “Every boat we distribute is a result of a democratic decision from the people in our area,” the priest said. However, some fishermen in the area are unhappy about the “revolutionary situation” of dalits going “to sea for fishing in their own boats,” he added. “It was hard in the beginning,” says Savanaran, a worker with the archdiocesan agency. “But most of them have learned to deal with the situation by now,” he added. The proof of what Savanaran claims could be seen. Three people who fish in the sea--19-year-old Asaithambi, 18-year-old Silormani and 37-year-old Dorman, happen to pass Kundalan, who is fishing in the backwater. They slow down next his boat and start chatting: “When are you finally going out to the sea? In January? Okay. Good luck,” said one of them. Savanaran shakes his head in disbelief. “You cannot imagine what revolution this is,” he tells. “Before the tsunami I couldn’t even have dreamt of dalit and non-dalit fishermen meeting and talking to each other in that way.”