Walking and Working with the Excluded
Benny Chiramel, SJ (KER)
The fisher people of Thiruvananthapuram have been historically excluded as an outcaste with a host of attendant vulnerabilities like debased identity that makes them powerless to be part of rights-based social action; landlessness leading to poor, unsafe, and unhealthy living conditions; illiteracy denying access to the resources available to the mainstream society; deteriorating quality of education in public schools excluding them from higher education; over-dependence on fisheries owing to lack of access to alternative livelihoods; increasing alcoholism that gives rise to frequent incidents of domestic violence; ineffective public distribution system and tsunami-like disaster-prone living space.
Sneharam, a centre for social welfare and charitable activities, was started by the late zealous Jesuit missionary priest, Antony Manipadam SJ, a quarter of a century ago to deal with the deteriorating quality of public schools through a remedial education programme. The centre is situated near Anjengo Fort, in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala, India. It forms part of a long stretch of ecologically fragile coastal land sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the backwaters of Anchuthengu. Sneharam has played a significant role in putting education as an important item on the agenda of the life of the coastal people of the nearby villages.
The majority of the people in Anchuthengu are often 'trapped' in their occupation, marginalized and excluded for reasons beyond their control. The scenario of Sneharam's social action setting when I took charge of it as Director pointed to many local crises connected to the global crisis in fisheries vis-à-vis sustainable development. And 'it was horribly neglected' both by the secular and religious power centres. I thought I was risking my Ph.D. studies by taking up the responsibility of directing an institution with such a vulnerable background. But it made me realize that exclusion is an everyday reality of the people here and not all Jesuits experience the same intensity of it and not many are left to deal with it with such limited resources. Those who are favoured by the secular and religious powers keep their esteem high and fulfill their needs tapping the resources made available to them. Discrimination is not an external reality; it is operational even among the religious. Ultimately if I choose to be with the excluded, I am bound to experience exclusion and humiliation and forced to be aggressive when my legitimate needs of self-esteem are not met... It is a huge task to be calm and peaceful when it is clear to you that you are systematically excluded and blocked from finding resources for inclusion. The basic insight of my Ph. D. thesis that exclusion causes low self-esteem and aggression and the way out is ensuring inclusion in all aspects of collective and individual life seemed merely a plausible idea out there. But now it is a gripping reality of my personal life and the lives of the excluded people I am accompanying, especially by being part of a collaborative national project of Jesuits and other partners called 'Lok Manch' for the entitlements of the marginalized.
We are reminded by the surroundings and the frequent interactions with the suffering people here that we are not in control of everything and at any time climate change-related rage of the sea can wipe out the fragile strip already made vulnerable by the development-induced erosion caused by Vizhinjam Port, Muthalapozhi Mini-Fishing Harbour and other such allied works. We depend on many who struggle for their livelihood in order to find willing lay partners in our mission to ensure sustainability of marine resources, artisanal fishing and other allied livelihood practices.
My experience of working with two groups of fishers, a few researchers from Sussex University and some like-minded people in the coastal area of Thiruvananthapuram made me convinced of the significance of 'walking with the excluded', the key aspect and corner stone of our Universal Apostolic Preferences. Our research work was to assess the risks, risk-communication and risk culture of the artisanal fishers in Anchuthengu and Poonthura, two of the target areas of Lok Manch Thiruvanathapuram Unit of Kerala. It turned out to be a grassroots level collaborative research with a global partner for safe and sustainable fishing of artisanal fishers. As a follow-up, 'Forecasting with fishers to save lives at sea', a Policy Brief, was published by the University of Sussex under the leadership of Professor Filippo Osella and Dr Max Martin. Two of our community leaders were recruited as staff members, Mr Susa Melkias and Mrs Alex Mary, who collected data from five boats each from Anchuthengu and Poonthura for four months daily. Frequent interactions with our fishermen community leaders helped us finish the task in time. This study was a great learning experience in collaboration, for safe and sustainable fishing of artisanal fishers. 'Contemplation in action' requires us to be with the most excluded among the excluded and learn from them why they suffer, and engage in a collective search to deal with 'our suffering' and realize that it is no longer 'us' and 'they'. Being with the excluded in Anchuthengu area constantly reminds me of Saint Francis Xavier and the legacy of the Society of Jesus in the coastal villages of Kerala... Being in touch with it even in a remote way is a grace-filled experience.
'Working with the excluded' necessitates a vision of all encompassing inclusion, confronting excluding attitudes and structures as a contemplative, being ready for collaborative action with all, especially the youth, cherishing our Common Home, the whole world, both the land and the sea, with its infinite possibilities for sharing resources equitably and sustainably, celebrating life and celebrating suffering itself like in the Last Supper of Jesus.