Climate Change

Why the deportation of an English anthropologist has south Kerala’s fishing communities worried

Filippo Osella was about to launch a precise early weather-warning system the fish workers badly need

By K A Shaji
Published: Monday 04 April 2022
Why the deportation of an English anthropologist has south Kerala's fishing communities worried Photo: KA Shaji

Extreme weather events have made fishing a dangerous occupation along Kerala’s southern coast — at least one local fisherman dies every week, according to the state disaster management authority. 

An early weather-warning system would go a long way in saving the lives and livelihoods of the area’s fishing communities. And that’s what English researcher Filippo Osella was on his way to launch, till he was stopped from entering the state in the early hours March 24, 2022. 

Osella was visiting to attend a two-day conference to discuss the final stages of the weather forecasting mechanism in local coastal dialects — a mix of Malayalam and Tamil, said a meterological scientist from Thiruvananthapuram. 

His deportation without citing any reason sparked a global debate but also brought his contributions to the safety of Kerala’s fishing community in the limelight.

The anthropologist with the University of Sussex arrived in Kerala 40 years ago for his doctoral research on the social mobility of the state’s Ezhava community. Since then, he has initiated several projects to uplift the life of the rural people dependent on fishing. 

The latest was a system of generating accurate, timely and localised coastal weather forecasts, on which he is working with a diverse team of researchers. The mechanism is now in the implementation stage, with an online application ready to be rolled out, according to one of the scientists involved with the project. “An internet radio will disseminate the daily weather forecast in an easily digestible format,” they said.

There are more than 180,000 active traditional fishers in Kerala, of whom 50,000 live in the Thiruvananthapuram district, according to state government estimates.

“Coastal families are dependent on the daily sale of fish. Available statistics suggest that 50 per cent of fishing households remain below the poverty line,” said Ajith Shamghumukham, a fish worker in Thiruvananthapuram.

On monsoon days with rough weather conditions, the workers go fishing as fish are more abundant and competition is less as trawlers are banned, according to experts. 

Climate change has made weather patterns on the southwest coast more unstable and unpredictable throughout entire year, according to researchers associated with Osella. This, combined with fluctuations in fish stocks and COVID-19 fishing bans, has significantly reduced the number of fishing days available to traditional fishers, thus contributing to a sharp decline in their revenues over the last two years, they added. 

“Extreme weather events and human factors that aggravate them necessitate precise weather forecasts,” said J Devika, social activist and academic. “Osella was the first to understand that pressing need.”

He was clear that weather bulletins must be coproductions involving both fishers and climate forecasters, according to those associated with Osella in his mission.

The anthropologist started focusing on extreme weather events, which has now engulfed the Arabian Sea, in 2017 when Cyclone Ockhi wreaked havoc in the region. 

Ocean researcher AJ Vijayan said:

As weather-related accidents are increasing drastically on the Western Coast in recent years, he attempted to ensure accurate, accessible and actionable forecasts for seafaring fishers. High ocean waves and sudden variations and uncertainties of weather have necessitated it. 

A multi-disciplinary research team comprising social scientists, physical geographers, atmospheric and marine scientists and media experts have worked with him on this project. Scientists and researchers from Cochin University of Science and Technology and the University of Sussex were part of the mission.

Agencies including the India Meteorological Department, the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services, the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi were also involved in the project funded partly by the UK government and approved by the Union government. 

They collected robust empirical evidence over the last 18 months on fishing practices along the Thiruvananthapuram coast and detailed data on weather patterns at sea. 

“The fishing community needs the works to be carried forward without being labelled as something against the government’s wishes," said Vijayan. 

The deportation of Osella and the harsh treatment meted out to him by officials are raising questions about the future of the research project. This has evolved as a ray of hope for the local fishing communities. 

Researchers and fish workers associated with Osella believed the doubts would soon be cleared, and he would be permitted to continue with the ongoing task.

"Osella stood for decentralised weather forecasting for Kerala’s traditional anglers, and he visualized it to promote safety at sea. He also advocated sustainable livelihoods and resilience to climate change in the case of fish workers," said Shamghumukham.

Kerala is Osella’s second home. His long commitment to the region goes much beyond the fish workers of the region.

Over the years, he had learned Malayalam and studied the state’s popular religious practices, temple festivals and deity worship. He had also written a book on masculinity in the state, researched on the consequences of Malayali migration to the Gulf countries, Muslim entrepreneurs in the state and the region's Islamic reform movements.

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