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Fighting for the right to worship

13:30 Mar 5 2012 Arthunkal, Kerala

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In Arthungal, 30 km north of Alappuzha in Kerala, South India, the Kerala Independent Fishermen's Federation has been one of the most active local groups in the fight against tourism's expansion. Recently, they fought to help people regain access to a local church, which had been cut off by a new resort coming up – and won. But not all is well yet – and unlikely to be.

Alappuzha, with its coconut-fringed lakes, canals and backwaters and its long sandy beaches, has become a dream holiday destination. Visitors cruise the backwaters on houseboats and enjoy the laid-back lifestyle. While many local people benefited from the tourism boom, the negative impacts – including violations of human rights – are strongly felt.
At the Kerala Independent Fishermen's Federation's blue office in Arthungal (blue is the colour for the fishing communities in Kerala), Jackson Pollayil, Secretary, explains how the Federation had been instrumental in stopping or modifying several tourism projects over the past few years. “First, we organised protests against several proposed tourism plans that would have gone against the Coastal Regulation Zone [A country-wide regulation aimed at preserving fragile coastal land by preventing non-essential construction close to the shore.] In 2010, we peacefully campaigned to take down a sea wall that had been built against all regulations. Dozens of women stood in front of the wall until the police and the press came; the event made so much noise that the destruction of the wall was ordered.” Amazing pictures underline his words: Fishermen's wives, daughters or mothers lining up, hand in hand, standing proud in front of a wall that barred them from the beach. [See the pitures and video on the right side of this page.]

A current and on-going fight is against a new tourism resort which claims 1 square kilometer of the beautiful Arthungal beach. The resort is due to open in 2012, catering to elite travellers. When construction began in 2009, barbed wire was immediately erected around the resort's perimeter, cutting off access to part of the beach, some side roads, and most importantly the local church. The church – a small chapel really – is one of Arthungal's oldest buildings and has welcomed worshippers for over 100 years. Now access was no longer possible.
When local residents found out that they could not reach their church, they took the matter to the Fishermen Federation. "Our local Panchayat [traditional assembly] had already authorised the construction. To them, tourism is more important than fishing, accessing our wells or going to church. They only see the tourism taxes and they think that we can go elsewhere. So it was no use turning to them for help", explains Serath, a local community leader. It is worth noting here that the right to worship is listed under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. India, as a member of the United Nations and signatory to the Covenant, has an obligation to ensure this right for all its citizens –including access to places of worship.

The reaction was quick: one morning, 200 fishermen assembled in front of the wall blocking the road to the chuch, and physically took it down. The resort responded by suing the protesters. The Federation collected small donations from the fishermen in order to carry out the legal fight. The case is still pending, but the Alleppey court did order the resort to ensure the maintenance of water wells which now fell under its property, and to keep open access to the church.
“It's only a half-victory” cautions Jackson. “Almost a year later, nobody comes to verify whether the court's orders are followed. Our wells are not maintained.” He points to a couple of water pumps, one uselessly lying on the floor, the other dripping uncontrollably. “While they kept opened the road to the church, they closed three other paths to private homes. Now the owners have to cross their neighbours' garden to access their door.”

The case of Arthungal is not unique. There are a lot of communities with similar issues. Fishermen, resort owners, intensive agriculture industries or even power plants are all competing for access to the beach. They all seek to claim precious acres of sea shore, but some wield more lobbying power than others. In a country where corruption is high, fishing communities tend to lose.
In essence, the government is making a choice: to turn its back on traditional fishing and instead to open up new markets. The killing is soft: first, reducing the fishermen's comfort and access to their boats. Then imposing new lifestyles and customs by welcoming tourists' bikinis, techno music and martini cocktails. Lastly, dealing with the few who will raise their voice. It's a political and an economic choice. But the social consequences are devastating.

Attached photos:
- Fishermen's wives and mothers standing up for their right to access the beach, 2009
- The chapel
- New construction cutting off access to side roads
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