Harbour'ing the fisherfolk

The fisherfolk of Vizhinjham, Kerala
The fisherfolk of Vizhinjham, Kerala

The fisherfolk in Kerala have their own distinctive culture and share a special relationship with the sea and the environment. Although they are an important community in the system, they have remained neglected despite the higher socio-economic progress of the state as a whole. The fishing villages are characterised by high population, poverty and deprivation and lack access to basic services such as water and sanitation. A large number of houses are clustered together and occupy the coastal fringes of the state [1].

The fishing village of Vizhinjham in Thiruvanathapuram district is one of the more important fish landing centres among the 27 fishing villages in the area. Fishing takes place in Vizhinjham all round the year [2]. Currently,  plans are being made by the Government of India to convert Vizhinjham harbour into an international port because of its strategic location. The total project expenditure is estimated to be around  INR 6595 crores and is being planned over three phases. The proposed port is expected to be one of the largest ports in the World [Wikipedia].

However, environmental groups, activists, representatives from the fishing communities as well as scientists have warned of the severe negative environmental damage that the port will cause to the region, besides having a negative impact on the livelihoods of a large number of traditional fisherfolk who live in the villages close to the site [ Down To Earth]. Recent news indicates that the government has nevertheless decided to go ahead with the project and the masterplan for the port has now been released [The Hindu]. What impact will this have on the future of the region and the fishing community?  

The fishing harbour of Vizhinjham has a large number of fishing boats. This is also where the fish market is set up.


The fishermen in the south of Kerala use a traditional boat known as the Vallam, which is made by seaming together several planks of jungle jack by coir ropes. The inside of the boat is coated with pitch to make it waterproof. The Kettu Vallam is jointly owned by 6 to 12 fishermen.


The catamaram used by fishermen in the south of Kerala is a traditional boat made up of two or three logs of wood tied together with coir ropes. Small gaps are placed between the logs to allow the water to drain to reduce the impact of the waves. The smaller catamaram accomodates a crew size of 2, while the larger one can accomodate 3 to 4 people.


The marketing of fish starts almost immediately following the haul of fresh fish. The place is suddenly crowded with a number of traders and fish merchants who bargain with the fishermen.


The fresh fish are taken to the Vizhinjham harbour to the common fish market. Many of the fish are sorted here and packed in iced boxes to be sold in the cities.


The fishing villages are characterised by a large number of overcrowded settlements. The houses made up of hutments or semi-permanent structures constructed with mud and thatched roofs or tiles belong to the fishermen from lower income levels. One can also see some dotted concrete houses that belong to the richer fish merchants that occupy the outer margins of the fishing village.

 Overcrowded living conditions, lack of access to water and electricity, unhygienic surroundings with lack of garbage disposal facilities exposes the fisherfolk to a range of health risks.


The fisherfolk's houses have very few amenities such as utensils, earthern pots or aluminium vessels that are used for cooking food on the adappa or mud chulhas. Majority of the households use wood as fuel, which fills the surroundings with smoke due to lack of adequate ventilation.


A large proportion of households in the village lack toilet facilities. The problem is further aggravated by lack of water. Even when some of the government houses have toilets, they are not used due to lack of water and poor maintenance


Water shortage becomes more acute during the summer. People have to rely on tanker water and women have to wait for many hours for the tankers to arrive. Besides the time lost in the wait, buying water from tankers also puts a lot of financial burden on the households who survive on very meager resources.


What will be the future of the fisherfolk in the area? Will their culture, tradition, livelihoods and skills survive this onslought of so called development? Will this development improve their lives?



1. Asia Development Bank (2003) Regional technical Poverty And Environment Nexus Study. Thiruvananthapuram, Centre for Earth Sciences

2. Vimalakumari, T. K (1991) Chapter 2: profile of the village and community. In: Infant mortlity among the fishermen. New Delhi, Discovery Publishing House. p 19-26.