Labour-India: Fisherwomen Question Tourism's 'Magic'

07 April 2008

By M Martin
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, Kerala, Oct 1 (IPS) - Beatles star Sir Paul McCartney described his 2002 Kerala tour in one word – 'magical'. For thousands who throng the state's green villages, picturesque backwaters and beaches, the experience is no less than a 'Magical Mystery Tour’. But local fisherwomen say it means new and harsh realities for them.

A group of fisherwomen chose a rather surreal way to mark the World Tourism day on Sep. 27. They gagged themselves, wore headbands sporting slogans and sat in protest in front of the state secretariat. "Tourism in the state is increasingly challenging our livelihoods, environment and culture," said Magline Peter, a leader of the Coastal Women's Front that led the protest.

The women's front and their associates, the Kerala Independent Fishworkers Federation, which has a history of successful trade unionism since the late 1970s, see the protest as part of their long-term campaign to save the coasts. They recently protested a government-appointed review of coastal environmental norms that would eventually allow more resorts and industries to come up along the coast.

The trade unionists had earlier burnt copies of the M.S. Swaminathan Committee report on coasts prepared by a review team, led by the scientist credited with being among the architects of India’s ‘Green Revolution’ for food sufficiency in the 1960s.

Swaminathan's committee ran afoul of green groups for being liberal with exemptions in its review but the government has gone ahead and asked the World Bank for investments anyway.

A recent campaign film 'Resisting Coastal Invasion' directed by the award-winning documentary maker K.P. Sasi graphically showed how upcoming resorts take away prime coasts across the state and expose villages to the wrath of the waves.

For instance, a long pan of Sasi’s camera shows a barbed wire fence stretching across an entire neighbourhood in the Mararikkulam beach of Alappuzha district blocking fisherfolk from going out to sea.

Unionists say such intrusions, in effect, harm traditional fishing, apart from degrading a fragile environment. "When we land our craft after fishing, we need access to the safest spot," said Andrews Ambroze, a veteran fisherman and secretary of the federation. "And we need to see clearly from land what goes on in the sea."

Magline is more specific about how women use these thin strips of sand for fish drying, marketing, extended household activities and socialisation spilling over from the crowded beach houses and huts.

"As such there is no space to build houses here, and there are stringent regulations on housing on the coast,’’ said Magline. "On top of that resorts take away our space to dry fish and mingle in our privacy; and the places men use to mend and dry nets, park boats and relax," Magline said. "Then the backwater tourism often brings people right into to our backyards, where women work, wash and bathe."

Magline and colleagues questioned the U.N. World Tourism Organisation theme for this year: "Tourism opens doors for Women," calling it an exaggerated claim.

"The opportunities offered to local women are very limited, mostly in low-income jobs," Magline said. "In Kovalam beach (near Thiruvananthapuram) women on casual labour earn as little as Rupees 1,000 (25 US dollars) a month." An average labourer in the state earns more than twice that.

The women's front also raised concern about instances of sex work noticed in some popular tourism areas such as Kovalam and Kochi. "In some places, we have noticed sex work under the garb of Ayurvedic massage parlours," said Saroop Roy, Kerala coordinator of ‘EQUATIONS’, an NGO working in equitable and eco-friendly tourism options.

"Such a trend goes against the grain of Kerala's culture," said Magline. "I don't want to see our girls giving company to elderly men for money, as I saw with tears in my eyes when I visited some other places in Asia."

Kerala's award winning tourism department has yet to address the specific concerns of the fisherfolk, but at least on record, they are committed to preserve local cultures from the onslaught of commercial tourism. At a recent meet, Kerala’s tourism secretary V. Venu said tourism initiatives will be sensitive to local culture and respect local traditions

State tourism minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said time has come to link the local community with tourism so that benefits reached the community. "We want to make the villages surrounding tourism hubs self-sufficient through the revenue from the sector," he said. 'Responsible Tourism' is the new rock-and-roll in the Kerala Tourism road shows, marked by traditional dance drama forms like Theyyam and Kathakali, hosted by women clad in customary off-white, gilt-bordered saris.

"The industry should make maximum use of local resources and tourists should be encouraged towards more local spending," said Venu.

Experts like Roy note that such sensitivities developed after lobbying by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and more lobbying is needed to address the fisherwomen's concerns.

In general, Kerala’s left-wing provincial government led by the firebrand Marxist V. S. Achuthanandan has been proactive on the tourism front. But the recent clearing of illegal constructions using earthmovers and bulldozers covering illegal coastal construction, offended even coalition partners.

For Kerala, one of the 50 ‘must-see’ destinations listed by the National Geographic, tourism is a lifeline. The revenue from tourism grew from Rs. 20,000 million (502 million dollars), in 2000, to Rs. 91,760 million (2.3 billion dollars), last year. An estimated 500,000 foreign tourists and an even larger number of domestic tourists visit the state annually.

In the grey overlapping zones of business, political correctness and creativity there is already talk about promoting adventure fishing and exposure trips as an ecotourism measure. The fisherfolk are sceptical, though. "Politically correct terminologies may be misleading -- we have to first know what it is all about in fine print and on ground," Magline said.

"There is definitely a possibility of such measures improving local economies," said Gopinath Parayil, chief executive of Blue Yonder an eco-tourism venture. "Local participation and prosperity requires long, careful discussions and negotiations. Only a tiny fraction of tourism companies can do such things."

Parayil, who works in the rather underdeveloped Wayanad district and along the endangered Nila river, says such creative models do attract tourists as well as local participation.

When ecological sensitivities and respect for local cultures gain currency worldwide, it is time for Kerala, an almost fully literate green state, to take leadership in this field as well, observers note.