35-year old, Kori Jaganathulu, who was a migrant fish worker died on board a fishing boat 2 days ago in Uttan Pali, Mira Bhayandar, Maharashtra. He was suffering from kidney problems and succumbed to his ailment. He is one of the few migrant workers who have lost their lives due to the lockdown.
Kori had come to Mumbai 3 months before the lockdown began and was managing to access hospitals for his dialysis. His health kept deteriorating and he wanted to go back home to be with his family. Some of his colleagues arranged for an ambulance to take him back home but were sent back from the Maharashtra-Karnataka border because of the lockdown. As the lockdown intensified, Kori found it impossible to access medical care and died. In a conversation with Madhuri Mondal from Dakshin Foundation, an NGO allied with the National FishWorker’s Forum, an umbrella organization of various fish worker’s unions, she said, “This is not the first time that we are hearing about people who have not been getting access to their medicine. Another group in Mangalore informed us that there are other fish workers who are facing kidney problems.” This issue was resolved after the authorities were contacted.
In a video shared by the fisherman, Kori’s body is kept on a bed and the fishermen are standing around the body. They said, ” Yesterday one of our colleagues died due to kidney ailments. Due to the lockdown, he couldn’t avail of medicines on time. If the lockdown continues like this, there would be more problems. So, we want Union leaders, State, and Central governments to take notice of the situation. There are around 200 people here.
We request everyone to send us back to our hometowns by bus or train.” Another fisherman added, ” Now, this person has died. Maybe his death will make the state and central government take notice.” So far none of the officials have reached out to the group even after Kori’s death.
Since the lockdown began, the fishermen have been living on the boats. They are part of the mechanized marine fishing fleet, which provides 80% of India’s annual fish catch. This is largely crewed by migrant workers who come from central and east India to west India. There is no official census on the number of workers in this sector thus it is hard to estimate just how many workers are stranded under the lockdown. Dakshin Foundation has estimated a minimum of 950 fish workers who are stranded across different harbors in Maharashtra.
Kori’s death has led to fish workers demanding that they be sent home immediately. This is not the first death that has taken place. Two deaths were previously reported from Gujarat. 45-year old T Jagannathan, a native of Kalingapatnam town in Srikakulam, had a heart attack and died. He had not eaten in days because he was scared of contracting the virus. In another case, 22-year old K Raju died due to a panic/heart attack hearing the news that there has been 1 COVID-19 case in a village nearby. Fishworkers are also facing the harsh reality of no wages, which means they can not send any money back home. With the monsoon fishing ban coming up and their wages from this period drying up, they face a grim reality.
Fishermen have also shared that there is not enough food, water, and sanitation facilities. “We are facing a lot of difficulties; there is no drinking water. We are given a can of drinking water and told to adjust for 2 to 3 days, and we are 5 to 6 people in a boat and we are told to adjust with that,” said Dhananjayarao, another fisherman who was stranded in Gujarat.
Each boat has about 5-10 people living on one boat and this has also made social distancing very difficult, which could cause further problems. The fish workers in Gujarat have had some respite as many of them were transported, by buses, to their home states
For the fishermen in Maharashtra, food and water are not of concern, all they want is to go home. Duryodhan, a fisherman on Kori’s boat said, “We are facing a lot of problems here, please just send us home. Even if you keep us in quarantine there, it is okay.”
As a result of the various problems, many fish workers have been facing mental health issues. Madhuri Mondal said, “Due to the panic around COVID-19 and the news about deaths, many fishermen are becoming anxious and are facing mental health issues. They just badly want to go home and meet their families.”
Organizations and the fish workers union have been in talks with authorities to make arrangements of buses or trains to send migrant workers back to their hometowns. In Karnataka, the cost of sending the migrant workers back may not be covered by the state. Vineetha Venugopal, from Dakshin Foundation, said “Currently there is a lack of clarity on who will be paying for the buses. The onus of paying for the transport may fall on the fish workers who are already in a financially vulnerable place.” The need of the hour is for the government to step up and bear the expenses of sending the migrant workers back home. Vineetha added, “Considering the fact that they have been living in highly deplorable conditions and are hearing about the deaths of their colleagues many of them have massive anxiety. It is imperative that both, the center and state government pay for the transportation along with arranging it.”