Finding hope in diving courses

R Krishnakumar in Thiruvananthapuram Jan 7 2018, 00:16 IST
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Participants undergo scuba diving training in the first phase of the programme.

A week after 2018 dawned, fishing villages along the Thiruvananthapuram coast are still waking up to the year after an uncharacteristically bleak festival season. Cyclonic storm Ockhi which formed over the Arabian Sea on November 30 has left a trail of death and destruction in Kerala €" official sources put the number of people dead in the state at over 70 and the number of fishermen who are still untraced at 216; of them, 75 from other states.

The state government has announced a Rs 20-lakh compensation to families of the deceased and has sought a comprehensive relief package of Rs 7,340 crore from the Central Government. Financial aid is being released, from various sources, as part of efforts to rehabilitate the affected families and support the injured fishers in reviving their livelihoods.

Meanwhile, a group of people in Thiruvananthapuram is also looking at life beyond immediate relief and helping men from the fishing community hone their natural skills and preparing them for an alternative career.

Friends of Marine Life (FML), a Thiruvananthapuram-based voluntary organisation engaged in marine research, has conducted a training programme in scuba diving as part of a capacity-building initiative for the fisher community. In December, 10 people from the community, including two students of the Government Fisheries Vocational Higher Secondary School in Valiyathura, were trained as advanced open water (AOW) scuba divers under the programme, as per PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) specifications.

The focus of the initiative has been on extending the possibilities of alternative careers for youngsters in the community. It is also in line with FML's long-term vision to engage the community extensively in marine and coastal disaster management, biodiversity conservation and ecosystem studies. The training programme, according to its coordinators, could provide a start in enhancing disaster preparedness on the coast while exploring greater potential for jobs for its residents.

Robert Panipilla, FML chief coordinator, says the training programme was conceived as a model project which could be emulated by government agencies as they prepare a road-map for the community as it staggers back to life after Ockhi. "More and more members of the fisher community are moving away from the idea of having their children take up fishing, due to falling returns and the dangers involved. But since this is a traditional livelihood for the community, its members have this unique, natural advantage €" they have a great understanding of the ocean, the sea doesn't scare them. It's this advantage that could be used in marine research projects and post-disaster rescue operations," says Panipilla. He points out that studies on marine diversity could benefit immensely from roping in specialist divers.

In a memorandum submitted to the Director of Fisheries, the FML has outlined a recommendation for converting technical high schools that function under the Department of Fisheries to vocational higher secondary schools that train students in disaster management, marine ecosystem, swimming, snorkelling and free-diving.

Panipilla says in its advanced modules, the training would cover underwater rescue operations and EFR (emergency first response). On completion of their certification in January, these men will be ready to take up challenging jobs outside of their traditional vocations. "There is a need to employ more specialised professionals in marine disaster management. The training modules will also prepare them for well-paying jobs in refineries or shipyards," he says.

Bond Safari, a company that provides scuba diving and snorkelling services to tourists in Kovalam in Thiruvananthapuram, trained the participants of the FML programme. Jackson Peter, Managing Partner of Bond Safari, says the company offered services for the AOW level training at a subsidised rate of Rs 35,000 per person (the regular fee is Rs 43,000) as part of its corporate social responsibility programme. FML mobilised the funds from contributors. Panipilla says with interest increasing and resources in place, both the government agencies and corporates could play a key role in streamlining the courses.

Bond Safari, meanwhile, is also working on an independent programme to rehabilitate youngsters from Ockhi-affected families by offering members the complete entry-level PADI certification course. The company plans to offer the six-month course €" priced at Rs 1.25 lakh €" free for the beneficiaries. "This is a progressive course in which the participant moves from open water dives to advanced open water dives to EFR to rescue dives and qualifies as a PADI divemaster. The course marks the entry level of a professional diver," says Jackson.

Bond Safari is in the process of short-listing the candidates. Jackson says the company could also absorb divers on completion of the course. "Since this is a course with an international certification, it doubles up as a ticket out for these people; they can work anywhere in the world," he says.

While leading initiatives that offer new careers for the fisher community, promoters of these programmes acknowledge that the crucial step forward has to be taken by the policy-makers. They want the government, as it starts releasing relief to people affected by Ockhi, to address immediate safety concerns that cloud life on the coast and ensure future employability for fishers in all sectors connected to the sea.

The post-Ockhi rescue operations were also marked by protests by fishers who said their participation in the operations could have saved more lives since they understood the sea better. The FML has also recommended to the government reservation for qualified divers from the community in jobs in the Indian Coast Guard, Coastal Police and Marine Enforcement.

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