Up and down the Tamil Nadu coast, you see brand new colourful boats made of fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP). After the tsunami, all kinds of organizations have distributed them to fisherfolk here. There are corporates and church groups, a temple association and Oxfam and OHFOM, Save the Family and the Hope Foundation … boats galore, lying on beaches and beside houses and basically everywhere.
I wrote earlier about problems with such boats in one village, Sankolikuppam. There are others; many issues with boats and their distribution. So much so that they might just stand for what’s wrong with the way people approach relief and rehabilitation after disasters.
But for now, just one more problem.
In Pushpavanam, BITSunami (my alma mater alumni effort I also mentioned earlier) has brought in a boat builder and put up a shed for him. He is building boats right there, surrounded by the Pushpavanam fishermen who want them, to their specifications. He is contracted to build ten boats, and is doing so at a cautious rate of four a month. This is a studied contrast to the frenetic pace at the much bigger boat-building factory I visited in another town a couple of days earlier, where they are turning out 80 a month and expect to keep up that pace till October. That’s the kind of demand for boats.
But there are new boats all around me, here in Pushpavanam. (Some from that frenetic factory). In one of them – squatting in the tiny hatch on deck that leads to storage space below – is 26-year-old Sathikumar. He’s repairing his nearly brand new boat, which came to him from that same frenetic factory only days ago. He climbs out and invites me to stick my head upside-down into the hatch, and I can see the patch he is coating with a bright red resin. "The first time we took it out," he tells me, "the seawater came in through here. So I have to coat it with this resin."
Not just that leak. He tells me there are leaks in two or three other places on the hull of the boat. Not just that much either. He also says the boats from this particular factory are just not strong enough, because they have only eight strengthening ribs at intervals along the floor. "A boat like this, it needs 25!" But the factory won’t build them with more than eight. That’s the way they supply them.
Elsewhere, another young fisherman, Kumaravel, shows me evidence of similar leaks in his own new boat. He holds up a large jerry can and says he needs to carry three of these on his fishing expeditions, just to bail out the water. He tells me of his friend who took one of the boats out to sea a day or two ago, only to find it coming apart under him. Luckily, he was able to get to shore before it broke up completely. "These boats cost Rs 80,000 each to build," he says. "And then we have to repair them!"
What about the boats from the BITSunami contractor? "Those are good", says Sathikumar, nodding appreciatively. Why? Because they are being built right here, under the fishermen’s noses and as they want them. No leaks, and they have those ribs too. And because they are satisfactory vessels, word is spreading. BITSunami has already had requests from nearby villages to build them boats as well.
And what will happen to the boats – so many of them, in Pushpavanam – that have come from that factory and elsewhere? "We’ll give them back," says Kumaravel.
But who gives back the Rs 80,000?