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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