Dhanushkodi: The world says tourism, fishermen say livelihood
Popularly described as a ghost town in the media, Dhanushkodi is quite the opposite. There are over 500 fishing families living there with no electricity, toilets or hospitals.
“I told you already, no entry past 5 p.m,” said the police. With just four minutes to spare, I had to pull out the big guns:
argue, plead and repeat. After what felt like a decade, he sighed hugely and said, “But please be back soon.” As he moved the barricade, I saw my colleague smile from the corner of my eye. We were finally going to Arichal Munai in Dhanushkodi.
Arichal Munai is where the Indian Ocean meets the Bay of Bengal. Located in Dhanushkodi, this spot attracts thousands of tourists, many of whom are pilgrims visiting from Rameswaram. Tourism at Dhanushkodi predominantly revolves around leftover ruins of ancient buildings along its shores, Rama Setu bridge and the popular tagline: “To your left, there is a beach, to your right there is a beach. What an amazing feeling!”
Upon reaching Arichal Munai, we realised that in winters most of the land is underwater due to high tides. More importantly, with each passing year, there is a steady increase in coastal erosion along the Arichal Munai beach.
I pulled out my camera at Dhanushkodi beach viewpoint when I overheard two friends arguing. “You’re wrong! Sri Lanka’s this way. Look carefully, I can see it.” said one to the other as he pointed to the open water. I realised that most people are aware of the town’s tragic past but are oblivious to its present. “What do these tourists know about Dhanushkodi? What do they know about us fishermen?” said Parvathy.
It all fell apart in 1964
Dhanushkodi was a thriving city, and was, in fact, the capital of Pamban island. It was an important transit point between India and Sri Lanka, popularly known as the Indo-Ceylon connection. This connection built in 1914 was broken when a cyclone struck the Pamban island in 1964.
The cyclone originated as an area of low pressure in the Andaman Sea on December 15, 1964. Over the next couple of days, this intensified into an area of deep depression and began moving westward. Despite killing at least a thousand people in Ceylon, it didn’t stop. It hit Pamban island with wind speeds up to 240kmph on the night of 22 December that changed the fate of the entire city. “I was 33 years old then. The devastation was catastrophic,” recalled Chelladurai, who is now 88 years old.
A six-coach passenger train popularly called ‘school train’ -- as many children would climb on board -- was on its way to reach Dhanushkodi. “The guard on duty was too afraid to step outside as it was raining heavily from 8 p.m that night. He failed to close the gate and the train halted there,” said Chelladurai. “My neighbour screamed my mother’s name. I woke up to see water gushing into my home,” said Rani, a resident of Dhanushkodi. Taking a deep breath, she added, “I still remember the taste of the seawater.”
As water from the Bay of Bengal entered Dhanushkodi, people found shelter in the town’s public buildings. But the train with nearly 200 passengers was carried by the winds to the other side where the Indian ocean lies. “No one was aware of the train’s whereabouts as communications went dead,” said Chelladurai. Around 6 a.m. the following morning, the water receded to the same sea due to opposing winds from the Indian Ocean. “By 7 a.m., we saw dead bodies from the train washed ashore,” recalled Rani.
“People walked through five-foot-high waters to reach Rameswaram. To our shock, even Rameswaram was destroyed,” said Pichai, a resident of Dhanushkodi. Many survivors took shelter at Ramanathaswamy temple. “From the sky, food packets would fall from aeroplanes. That’s how we were fed for the first couple of days,” said Parvathy who was just five years old then. There are no government records of the total number of casualties. It is estimated to be somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000.
No place to call home
Some people were living in camps for nearly a year, awaiting the government’s help. “Even if we stayed at camps, fishermen would go to Dhanushkodi seas for fishing activities,” said Chelladurai proudly. Upon multiple requests, particularly by fisherfolk who wished to stay closer to the sea, each family affected by the cyclone was given a house built on half-a-ground of land by the then collector Mr Nataraj. “Since he was very kind to us, we named the place after him,” he added.
Natarajapuram is located between Rameswaram and modern day’s ‘old Dhanushkodi’. For most families, the city became a memory. While most people moved on with their lives in Natarajapuram and found jobs in Rameswaram, the fishermen stayed back at Dhanushkodi.
Driving towards Arichal Munai -- about 7km before the Dhanushkodi viewpoint -- on the left side is an off-road with red soil leading to the old harbour. This area is called MRC Nagar where a small group of fishermen live in huts without electricity or toilets. Their flooring? Just lots of sand. “During festivals like Diwali or Pongal, we would go to Natarajapuram. Other times, we are here by the sea because our business is here,” said Murugalakshmi, a resident of Dhanushkodi.
While some fishermen sell their fish to salesmen, others have set up restaurants here that attract tourists. According to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), setting up shops or any form of structures along the entire stretch of Dhanushkodi beach is illegal. Since old Dhanushkodi falls under Rameswaram Municipality, the officials decided to remove all structures on the basis of encroachment. But, they failed to follow due process.
On 15th September 2017, without any prior notice, the officials began demolishing shops using JCBs. On seeing the footage, one can hear the screams of the people as they watched their livelihood being taken down. “To everybody watching look at the cruelty of the Rameswaram municipality. They’re even tearing down a central government post office,” said the young man filming the video.
The people of Dhanushkodi, lead by Chelladurai -- who is the head of an association working for the welfare of Dhanushkodi fishermen -- filed a writ petition in the high court seeking patta lands for the families affected by the cyclone. Hundreds of families were not provided houses by the Tamil Nadu government and those that were given houses at Natarajapuram don’t have any ownership over it. The houses are as temporary as the huts the fishermen have built on the shores.
In response, the government stated that old Dhanushkodi is ‘unfit for living’. “When the judge and the Tahsildar came down here to inspect, they realised that the term ‘unfit for living’ is just word of mouth. It was only verbally branded, there are no written records of it,” said Chelladurai.
As an add-on to their burden, the Forest Department has issued multiple eviction notices to those at Natarajapuram on grounds that the families are sitting on forest reserves. Once wealthy families, the fishermen of Dhanushkodi have nowhere to go.
Unfit for living
“Dhanushkodi still exists because of the middle school here,” said Murugalakshmi whose kids are studying in the town’s only school. If children need to study past the eight grade, they would have to travel to Rameswaram every day.
Healthcare doesn’t exist at Dhanushkodi. For the 500 families living by the sea, there is not even one public health unit. “If a man has chest pains, you can’t save his life,” said Rani. “Say, someone has a heart attack while they’re at sea, they have to come back to Dhanushkodi, catch a bus and go to Rameswaram. You think he’ll live? He won’t.” The nearest hospital with ambulances is at least 20 km away from the start of old Dhanushkodi. “Of my seven children, five were born on this soil before the ambulances reached us. The next day, I’d take a bus to Rameswaram with my newborn, get any injections or medication needed and return home. This isn’t unusual for us,” shrugged Rani.
There are no toilets. “We carry water in small buckets and find bushes far away if we need to use the loo,” said Murugalakshmi. All homes only have bathrooms. The municipality supplies water with lorries some days of the week. When supply is low, women dig up small wells and carry water for many kilometres to their homes.
Small solar panels are installed in some houses for the lack of electricity supply. These panels produce enough energy to charge mobile phones, turn on a small light bulb for about four hours and occasionally watch TV shows in the evening.
The blue horizon
Switching to another profession is a luxury for Dhanushkodi fishermen. Fisherfolk are under huge piles of debt that keeps increasing as the years go by. “We normally take an advance of one or two lakh rupees for a boat from Rameswaram salesmen. Because they’ve given us money, they buy fish from us at lower rates when compared to what they buy from Rameswaram fishermen,” complained Kumar, a fisherman from MRC Nagar. If a kilo of a certain fish is bought for Rs. 200 at Rameswaram, they buy the same from Dhanushkodi fishermen for about Rs. 180. “The weighing scale would say two kilos but before he leaves, he grabs another half a kilo and leaves without paying for it,” added Kumar.
On asking Chelladurai why fishermen continue to take debts, he laughed out loud and replied, “How else will he buy equipment and fishing devices? No one else believes in him or is willing to invest in him. The government doesn’t do anything.” Powerful salesmen from Rameswaram use this as an opportunity to exploit the weaker fishermen of Dhanushkodi wherein they are never relieved from the vicious cycle of taking loans. “If I get Rs. 30,000 from the government, the middleman takes Rs. 10,000, the agent takes another Rs. 5,000. Why go through all that for a mere Rs. 10,000 in hand. I’d rather take a loan and repay it over time,” said Kumar.
“Tell her about the Navy,” nudged a man knitting a fishing net next to Kumar. “The Sri Lankan Navy is always at sea. But you can never find ours. Once a year the Indian navy comes for a namesake visit and then leaves,” said Kumar.
Arichal Munai and Sri Lanka’s Talaimannar are less than 16 nautical miles apart. Dhanushkodi fishermen complained of being stopped by the Sri Lankan Navy barely two or three miles from the Indian shore. “They stop us and ask ‘Where have you come? This is our water. Get out!’,” said Kumar imitating the Tamil spoken by the Sri Lankan officers. “They beat us, take diesel, light, ropes, watches and our cellphones from the boats before sending us back empty-handed.” Murugalakshmi said, “I wake up early and look out to the blue horizon whenever my husband has gone fishing. God forbid the Sri Lankan navy captures him, he won’t come back.”
A sense of belonging
Despite lack of proper homes, utilities and efficient means for business, the people of Dhanushkodi are adamant to live here. On asking them “Why?” they all looked at the sea and only then proceeded to reply.
“Even if they make us leave, we won’t go! This place is ours,” said Parvathy. “Be it another cyclone or storm, we’ll stay here. Let the sea take us in if it has to,” said an emotional Muneeshwari.
“Most fishermen in Tamil Nadu move between the Bay of Bengal and the Indian ocean depending on seasonal winds. But Dhanushkodi fishermen have the Gulf of Mannar -- connected to the Indian Ocean -- on one side and on the other, they face the Palk Strait -- connected to the Bay of Bengal,” said Senthil Vel, State Secretary of the AITUC Fishermen Workers Union. Dhanushkodi fishermen can easily fish all 12 months of the year. With piling debts, they cannot afford to lose this business opportunity.
“When the government laid a national highway here, they proudly announced it was for the people of the town but soon asked the people to vacate. How did Dhanushkodi become an unfit land, all of a sudden?” asked Senthil Vel. “There are rumours going on about a project to build a bridge connecting Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar. And another to set up a military base camp near Arichal Munai. For these two reasons, we doubt that they are now pressuring the people to abandon their homes.”
Dhanushkodi fishermen fight the Sri Lankan Navy at sea, the salesmen who exploit them on the shores, and a government that refuses to provide them with a home. “There’s a school, post office, harbour, a national highway and over 500 people have been enlisted under electoral voting. All this is proof, these are records!” said a beaming Chelladurai. Meanwhile, the case is still pending in the high court.
Chelladurai said, “Which fisherman will be afraid if there is water flowing by his house? Every year the Tahsildar announces with his mic ‘Everyone leave Dhanushkodi, a storm is coming!’ Do you think any man listened? They stayed put.” He added, “A fisherman never leaves the shore. He will never abandon the sea.”
Watch the ground reported video here: