India's Fisher People Find a Leader Who's Unmoved by Money

NEW DELHI—Among India's fisher people, Redemptorist Father Thomas Kocherry, 57, is something of a legend. For three decades, he has worked to improve the lives of the eight million people along the Indian coast whose livelihood comes from the sea.

Last month, the priest became the first Indian to receive the U.N.'s Earth Day International Environment Award. A U.N. statement accompanying the award said Father Kocherry's “relentless fight for marine conservation will go a long way in protecting the environment and [furthering] other earth issues across the world.”

In November, he was unanimously chosen by delegates of 32 fishing countries as coordinator of the World Forum of Fish workers and Fish harvesters (WFF), an organization with 100 million members.

But the real news from the New Delhi meeting wasn't his new title. Headlines came when he rejected the $150,000 award of the Pew Foundation of Massachusetts, calling the prize, sponsored by the Sun Oil Company, “blood money.”

“The Sun Oil Company is one of the worst polluters of the sea. I would be betraying the fisher people if I received this,” said Father Kocherry.

During a two—month stay in the United States (to attend the Redemptorist General Chapter), Father Kocherry had realized the PEW Foundation, set up by oil baron Joseph Pew Jr., has been guilty of disregarding government regulations related to the environment.

“The heirs of yesterday's polluters are the allies of today's environmentalism,” the priest said. With money gained from illegal operations, these foundations turn “environmentalists into compromisers rather than principled battlers.”

The Pew Foundation says it wants marine conservation. But Father Kocherry and other critics contend it has done great damage to the environment in Asian countries.

“For us, what is important is not the award or money,” the priest said, “but the forces that destroy marine resources and put fisher people's lives in danger.”

After his ordination in 1971, Father Kocherry became vicar of the coastal Punthura parish in the southern Thiruvananthapuram diocese in Kerala, India. The priest collectively owned a fishing net with 15 other fishermen and set to sea almost daily with them. Gradually he started to organize the illiterate fisher people at a time when mechanized boats were taking away more than half their catch.

The Kerala government was forced to set up a committee to look into fisher people's grievances following protests sparked by the Redemptorist. The fisher peoples’ forum, launched in 1978 by Father Kocherry, spread to several fishing pockets along the nearly 4,000—mile coastal belt of India. In 1983, the National Fish—workers Forum (NFF) was formed under his stewardship.

The widespread unrest and court cases to ban high—tech deep—sea vessels from traditional fishermen's areas carried on into the 80s. Undeterred by the protests, the government gave licenses to 200 foreign industrial trawlers in 1991. But the factory trawlers often encroached on the 100—mile from—the—coast nautical limit. Their infringements resulted in vigorous protests led by Father Kocherry.

By the mid 1990s the priest and his associates were involved in countrywide strikes that led to a parliamentary debate on India's fisheries policy. Father Kocherry went on an indefinite hunger strike and ended it only after the government agreed to reconvene the review committee that had been set up to study the problem.

In February 1996, a 41—member review committee on which Father Kocherry was the lone representative of traditional fisher people, recommended the cancellation of licenses of foreign trawlers due to their impact on traditional fisher people and their aggravation of marine resources.

In August 1996, after the government continued failing to enforce the ban on the commercial high—tech fishers, Father Kocherry resumed his hunger strike. The federal minister for food processing later flew to Mumbai to assure Father Kocherry that the ban would be enforced. His struggle finally bore fruit earlier this year when the government decided not to renew the licenses of bull trawlers in Indian waters.

It's not patriotism that has driven Father Kocherry's campaigns. The priest pointed out that hauls of fish and marine resources have declined with the presence of 25,000 factory trawlers worldwide.

They don't mind destroying marine resources in blind pursuit of profit,”

“The trawlers are environmentally destructive. It is not sustainable fishing at all. They don't mind destroying marine resources in blind pursuit of profit,” the priest said.

Father Kocherry's work has raised awareness of fishery issues, including by the U.N. secretary general who, in his “Ocean Development” report to the organization, cited the priest's success “in scaling down the number of joint venture fishing vessels in collaboration with the national government.”

Father Kocherry's pioneering work in organizing the fisher people has led the government to concede to several of their demands. In teaching them, however, he earned a reputation as a rebel in the eyes of several bishops. They especially took exception to his association with leftist trade unions. Nuns and priests who associated themselves with Father Kocherry's NFF were blacklisted by some bishops.

Today, Father Kocherry is no longer suspect in Church circles. The Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) labor commission now stands firmly behind the priest who also enjoys the support of national trade unions in the campaign for fisher people's rights. The Indian Church's change of heart toward Father Kocherry was evident late last year when it “belatedly” recognized the “rebel” priest's “yeoman service to fisher people” and his winning of the Pew Fellowship. The bishops even gave him a reception at the CBCI secretariat.

The priest is accustomed to “both opposition and support” in his work.

“The bishop who appointed me was always with me. When the new bishop came, he also urged me to stay on but later, he asked my congregation to take me back (in 1982) from the parish I had worked since 1971. They said my work is highly political and the Church already had a lot of problems with the government,” recalled Father Kocherry.

The Redemptorist says he has never been a “leftist” as some branded him. “I am not supporting any political party. We stand for marginalized people and in our struggle, take support from one and all. Trade unions of all [political] hues are supporting us.”

Said Bishop Leon Tharmaraj, the CBCI labor commission chairman: “Earlier, the Church failed to understand [NFF]. We did not listen to them. But, now the Church has realized the good work they have done. They were not creating problems but trying to solve some of the problems with which the Church is really concerned now.”

Bishop Tharmaraj, whose Kotar diocese in the southern Tamil Nadu state where most of the 400,000 Catholics are fisher people, said the Church, through such work as Father Kocherry's is attending to the “spiritual needs and the human needs of the people.”

Anto Akkara writes from New Delhi.