To Fish or Flee: The Punargeham Relocation Project

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After consecutive floods and rising death tolls along the coasts, in 2021 the communist-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) of Kerala ruled in favor of the Punargeham (“regenerate”/”reborn”) project to relocate coastal fishing villages further inland. The project was launched to “protect” fishers from the impending risks of climate change, particularly rising sea levels, that have already begun to erode and level the coasts – the most densely populated spaces in Kerala. The fishers themselves resented the project, however. They responded with vehement protests against the state’s intervention in their livelihoods and claims over the sea and coast. To relocate, they argued, would be to give up life itself – their communities’ memory, traditions, and authority would be lost to the state, even as they recognized that not relocating might mean losing them to the sea. Between state and sea, most preferred the caprice of the sea.

For these fishers, the tension between land and sea, between fishing and fleeing, is one they live every day. At the same time, navigating these alternative ways of life does not seem to boil down merely to a matter of “choice”. Indeed, the Punargeham project is not the first time they were forced to confront the (im)possibilities of fisher life – consecutive years of deadly flooding along the coasts have made their acute vulnerability to the sea clear, both to them and the state. But the stakes of staying and continuing to fish, as opposed to uprooting their kin and trade to leave for the inlands, are evidently contested.

The fishers’ protests against the project eventually led to an impasse with the state. The project, the fishers maintained, did not account for the historicity of the fishers’ claims to both land and sea on the coasts – claims that they would be stripped of if they were to move to the more urban inland parts. What the coasts represented and meant to fisher and state were also fundamentally at odds with each other. Instead of building more sea walls and offering ecological aid to better protect the coasts from erosion, as the fishers have longed asked of the state, encouraging them to give up their land, trade, and way of life in the name of “protection” seemed like a vile form of intervention from a state whose communist leanings made the project seem like a betrayal to some.The carceral, ghettoizing logics of the Punargeham project – grounded in an ideology of “safety” on land – are hard to ignore here. For fisher communities that have long grappled with discriminatory rhetorics of “backwardness” from those inland (Subramanian 2009), finding relief in spaces whose urban modernisms rely on the systematic exclusion of fishers, is fraught. Yet, the state sees no problem with relocating fishers inland and having them rebuild their lives from the ground up in newly constructed Punargeham apartment complexes. Its communist ideals of progress and social uplift blinker the relationships that fishers have long fostered along and with the coasts, asking them to choose between sudden death by a familiar sea or a slower one by estranged land.

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Counter-Mapping Shipping: Digital Joy and Digital Labor in Oceanic Social Media


The Oceans Lab, an interdisciplinary research and advocacy initiative, explores maritime issues across oceanic spaces. With a focus on themes of race, labor, inequality, climate change, migration, and geopolitics, the Lab seeks to unravel the complexities of our oceans, making them comprehensible through innovative approaches. One such approach is the creation of this map that aims to help bridge gaps between how scholars describe oceanic spaces and the voices of those that inhabit them.

Inspired by global maritime shipping maps like, the Oceans Lab’s map is not just about tracing the trajectories of cargo ships; it is about weaving together interdisciplinary oceanic scholarship with the voices of those who inhabit the seas. It seeks to represent the various voices and ideas that converge to define the concept(s) of the ocean(s) from what may initially appear to be blank cartographic space. In the spirit of counter-mapping, we invite creators, scholars, and seafarers to use our submit button in order to actively participate in redefining how we perceive and understand oceanic spaces.

Counter-mapping, at its core, seeks to provide alternative perspectives and representations that challenge dominant power structures and dominant narratives (Peluso 1995). This ever-evolving map thus recognizes that the ocean is not just a backdrop for the global commerce represented on standard shipping maps, but a vibrant and dynamic space shaped by human experiences.

In addition to showcasing the multifaceted nature of oceanic life, the map brings to the fore the concept of digital labor and attention economies. In the digital age, content creation and the curation of online personas have become forms of labor, often underestimated and overlooked. Those at sea who engage in social media share not only their experiences participating in the shipping economy, but also contribute to the attention economy. In addition to including these digital contributions in scholarly conversations, the map hopes to open up questions about this digital labor, underscoring the importance of recognizing it within the broader context of oceanic scholarship.

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Send us your name, a short essay, a short story, a photo, a video, or a link to a social media post related to the sea or maritime issues (TikToks at sea are welcome, as are research essays!). We aim to fill our map with “stories from the sea” of all kinds.