This story is part of the PARI series on climate change that won the Ramnath Goenka Award for 2019 in the Environment Reporting category.

“It’s past 11.40 this morning, so next comes an update on speed,” announces A. Yashwanth on the Kadal Osai radio station. “For the last one week, or even a month or so, kachaan kaathu [the south wind] was very strong. The speed was as high as 40 to 60 [kilometres per hour]. Today, as if to help fishermen, it is down to 15 [kmph].”

That’s great news for the fisherfolk of Pamban island in Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram district. “It means they can go to sea without any fear,” explains Yashwanth, himself a fisherman. He is also a radio jockey at Kadal Osai (The Sound of the Sea), a neighbourhood station for the community in this region.

As a prelude to a special broadcast on blood donation, Yashwanth reels off the weather report, ending with: “The temperature is at 32 degrees Celsius. So stay hydrated, do not go in the sun.”

It’s a necessary precaution, because Pamban now sees far more hotter days than it did in 1996, when Yashwanth was born. Then, the island could expect at least 162 days a year where temperatures hit or crossed that 32C mark. When his father Anthony Samy Vas – still a full-time fisherman – was born in 1973,  that was no more than 125 days annually. Today, those warmer days number at least 180 a year, according to a calculation from an interactive tool on climate and global warming posted online by the New York Times this July.

So Yashwanth and his colleagues are trying hard to understand not just the weather, but also larger issues of climate. His father, fellow fish workers, indeed the close to 83,000 people in Pamban and Rameswaram – the two main towns on the island – are looking to them to make sense of the changes.
PHOTO • A. Yashwanth
PHOTO • Kadal Osai

RJ Yashwanth with his father Anthony Samy, and with their boat (right): ‘We used to calculate the winds and weather as we set out. None of our calculations hold good today’

"I have been fishing from age 10,” says Anthony Samy. “The seas have definitely undergone a huge change [since then]. Earlier, we used to calculate the winds and the weather as we set out. None of our calculations hold good today. The changes are so drastic, they defy our knowledge. It is also much hotter than before. Previously, it was never so warm when going to the seas. Today, the heat is making it more difficult for us.”

Sometimes, the unquiet sea that Samy speaks of, becomes fatal. As it did on July 4 this year when Yashwanth – who goes fishing on his father’s boat whenever he can – came in after 9 p.m. with news of four men losing their way in the rough seas. Kadal Osai was closed at the hour – it broadcasts from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. – but an RJ (radio jockey) went on air, calling attention to the fishermen in distress. “We always have an RJ on the premises, even when officially shut,” says Gayathri Usman, the radio station’s chief. And other employees live nearby. “So we can always go on air in an emergency.” That day, Kadal Osai’s staff worked with unrelenting urgency to alert the police, coast guard, the public and other fisherfolk.

A couple of sleepless night later, only two men were rescued. “They were holding on to the damaged vallam [country boat]. The other two gave up midway, their hands were aching,” says Gayathri. They let go, asking their two comrades to convey their love to their families and explain that they just could not hold on any longer. Their bodies washed ashore on July 10.

“It is no longer like the old days,” frets 54-year-old A. K. Sesuraj or ‘Captain Raj’, who earned that title from the name of his boat. He asserts that “the sea was friendlier” when he began going out to it at the age of nine. “We knew what to expect in terms of catch and weather. Today, both are unpredictable.”

Watch video: ‘Captain Raj’ presents an Amba song

‘It is no longer like the old days’, frets A. K. Sesuraj or ‘Captain Raj’. He asserts that ‘the sea was friendlier…We knew what to expect in terms of catch and weather. Today, both are unpredictable’

Raj seems baffled by the changes, but Kadal Osai has a few, if partial, answers for him. The station had been running shows on the sea, weather patterns, and climate change since it was launched on August 15, 2016 by the NGO Nesakkarangal.

“Kadal Osai has a daily programme titled Samuthiram Pazhagu ( Know the Oceans ),” says Gayathri. “Its idea is conservation of the seas. We know the larger issues involved will affect the community long-term. Samuthiram Pazhagu is our effort to keep a dialogue on climate change going. We talk about practices detrimental to the health of the seas and how to avoid those [for example, over-fishing by trawlers, or how diesel and petrol are polluting the waters]. We have callers on the show narrating their own experiences. Sometimes, they speak of their mistakes – promising not to repeat them.”

“Since its launch, the Kadal Osai team has been in touch with us” says Christy Leema, communications manager at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Chennai, which supports the radio station. “They use our experts in their programmes. But since May, we have also worked with them on creating awareness about climate change. It’s easier to do this through Kadal Osai, since as a community radio they are already hugely popular in Pamban.”

The station has aired four episodes in May and June  specifically on climate change issues under the title ‘Kadal oru athisayam, athai kaapathu nam avasiyam ’ (The sea is a wonder, we must protect it). Experts from the Coastal System Research unit of MSSRF, led by its head, V. Selvam have featured in these episodes. “Such shows are extremely important because when we talk about climate change, we mostly do that at the top or expert level,” says Selvam. “It needs to be discussed at the ground level, among those actually experiencing its impact on a day-to-day basis.”
PHOTO • Kavitha Muralidharan
PHOTO • Kadal Osai

Left: Kadal Osai’s office on a Pamban street that sees a busy trade in fish. Right: D. Redimar is one of the station’s 11 employees who still goes to the seas

One episode on May 10 helped people in Pamban get a better understanding of a major change on their island. Till two decades ago, at least 100 families lived close to the 2,065-metre Pamban bridge that connects Rameswaram town to the Indian mainland. Rising sea levels forced them to leave and relocate. In the episode, Selvam explains to listeners how climate change accelerates such movements.

Neither the experts, fishermen, nor the station’s reporters attempt to oversimplify the issue and resist the temptation of finding single-event or uni-causal explanations for the changes. But they do point to the role of human activity in spurring the crisis. Kadal Osai seeks to lead a community in search of answers, on a voyage of discovery.

“Pamban is an island eco-system and consequently more vulnerable,” Selvam says. “But the presence of sand dunes protects the island from some forms of climate impact. Also, this island is somewhat protected from cyclones by the Sri Lankan coast,” he explains.

But the loss of sea wealth remains real, and caused by a combination of climatic and non-climatic factors, he adds. Reduced catch has much to do with over-fishing, mainly by trawlers. Shoal movements go awry with the warming of the seas.
PHOTO • Kadal Osai
PHOTO • Kavitha Muralidharan

Left: M. Saelas interviewing women who, like her, are from the fishing community of Pamban island . Right: Gayathri Usman, the radio station chief, has brought a clear direction to the community platform

“Varieties like ooral, sira, velakamban … have completely vanished,” explains B. Madhumita, a Kadal Osai RJ who is also from the fishing community, in an episode aired on May 24. “Some like paal sura, kalveti, komban sura continue to exist, but in greatly reduced numbers. Oddly, the mathi fish once found in abundance in Kerala, is rich in numbers on our side now.”

Another variety , mandaikalugu , that has disappeared here, was available in tons till about two decades ago, says Leena, an elderly woman (her full name is not available), in the same episode. She recalls how her generation consumed the eggs of that fish by opening its mouth and extracting them. That’s a concept younger women like M. Saelas, though from the community herself (and a full-time Kadal Osai anchor and producer, who holds as MCom degree), cannot quite comprehend.

“Till the 1980s, we used to get kattai, seela, komban sura and other such varieties, in tons,” says Leena. “Today we seek those fish on Discovery Channel. My grandparents [who used non-mechanised country boats] would say engine sounds chase the fish away. And that petrol or diesel poisoned the waters and altered the taste of the fish.” Those were also the times, she recalls, when women would catch fish by simply casting a net after wading into the seas, close to the shores. With fish not found near the shores anymore, women are going much less to the seas.

One episode of May 17 also discussed traditional fishing methods and more recent technologies – and how to combine both to preserve marine life. “The fishermen are encouraged to set up a cage near the shores and breed fish. The government is supporting this ‘cage culture’ since it addresses the issue of eroding sea wealth,” says Gayathri.

PHOTO • Kadal Osai

Resonating with the fishing community

Pamban fisherman Antony Inigo, 28, is keen to try it. “Earlier, we would not let dugongs (a marine mammal) back into the seas if we found them in our catch. But after a Kadal Osai programme, we learned how climate change and human action have brought them to near-extinction. We are ready to cut our expensive nets to return them to the sea. And the same with turtles.”

“If we have an expert speaking on how climate change affects fish, we have fishermen connecting to us saying how true they find it to be,” says Gayathri.

“We blamed the gods and nature for disappearing fish. Through our shows, we have realised it’s almost entirely our fault,” says Saelas. Like her, all Kadal Osai staffers are from the fishing community – except Gayathri.  She is a qualified sound engineer who joined them a year and a half ago, bringing a clear direction and purpose to the community platform.

Kadal Osai’s nondescript office is located on a Pamban street with a busy trade in fish most days. The name board in blue bears the tagline N amathu Munnetrathukkana Vaanoli (A Radio for our Development). Inside is the FM station with an up-to-date recording studio. They have segments for children, women, fishermen – and between programmes, play Amba songs – of fisherfolk going to sea. Of the station’s 11 employees, only Yashwanth and D. Redimer still go to the seas.

Yashwanth's family shifted to Pamban from Thoothukudi several years ago. “Fishing was not a lucrative option there,” he says. “My father found it hard to get a good catch.”  Rameswaram was relatively better, but “over the years, the catch has deteriorated here, too.” Kadal Osai made him realise the setbacks were not the “result of ‘black magic’ by others but perhaps the result of the ‘black magic’ that we wrought on this environment.”

He worries about the obsession with profit. “Some elders still believe they are poor because their ancestors didn’t do much in terms of the catch. They try to maximise profit, leading to over-exploitation of the seas. Some of us youngsters now understand the dangers in this, so we’re trying to undo that ‘black magic’.”

He worries about the obsession with profit. ‘Some elders still believe they are poor because their ancestors didn’t do much in terms of the catch…They try to maximise profit, leading to over-exploitation of the seas'

Watch video: RJ Yashwanth gives Pamban a weather report

Still, the traditional knowledge of the larger community remains a rich source of learning. “What experts often do,” says Madhumita, “is to validate that knowledge and remind us why we should put it to use. Our radio station respects and offers traditional knowledge an important platform. In turn, our community makes use of the expertise provided on our broadcasts.”

S. P. Rayappan, president of the Pamban Country Boats Fishermen’s Association Pamban, agrees. “We have always spoken about over-exploitation of marine life and its dangers. The awareness created among fisherfolk by Kadal Osai is more emphatic, our people now sometimes sacrifice imported nets to save a dugong or turtle.” And maybe one day, hope Saelas and Madhumita, their radio station will help bring back the mandaikalugu to the island’s waters.

Like most community radio stations, its broadcasts reach no further than 15 kilometres. But people in Pamban have embraced Kadal Osai – “and we get ten letters a day from listeners,” says Gayathri. “When we started, people wondered who we were and what ‘development’ we were talking about. Now they trust us.”

It’s only the climate they’re losing faith in.

Cover photo: Children at a UN World Oceans Day celebration on June 8 in Pamban, holding a board that says Kadal Osai. (Photo: Kadal Osai)

PARI’s nationwide reporting project on climate change is part of a UNDP-supported initiative to capture that phenomenon through the voices and lived experience of ordinary people.

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Reporter : Kavitha Muralidharan

Kavitha Muralidharan is a Chennai-based independent journalist and translator. She was earlier the editor of 'India Today' (Tamil) and prior to that headed the reporting section of 'The Hindu' (Tamil). She is a PARI volunteer.

Other stories by Kavitha Muralidharan

P. Sainath is Founder Editor, People's Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of 'Everybody Loves a Good Drought' and 'The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom'.

Other stories by P. Sainath