Life has turned into a rough ride for hundreds of oarsmen in Hogenakkal as they are rendered jobless by the COVID-19 lockdown.
“Closure of Hogenakkal falls for tourists and suspension of coracle rides has left us without any alternative source of income. My family’s savings have all dried up within a few weeks of lockdown. We are now surviving on just two square meals a day with the government rations,” said S Durairaj, a traditional coracle operator.
The gloomy economic situation has also driven him to take some tough decisions. “I enrolled my daughter in Class 1 in a private English medium school, but now, I am left penniless even to pay her school fees and have decided to move her to a government school,” he added. The livelihood of the coracle riders depends on tourists visiting the falls. “This year, we were able to venture into the waters to drive coracles for less than 50 days since January. The lockdown during the peak season of April, May and June has completely ruined our fortunes. Last year, we had job for just a few months due to heavy floods,” said K Rajendran, a coracle operator and member of CITU associated Coracle Riders Welfare Association.
The oarsmen, who have inherited the job from their ancestors, have been demanding compensation from the government to stay afloat. “We held a protest demanding Rs 5,000 as monthly compensation for each of the registered oarsmen. Officials of the revenue department have agreed to pay Rs 2,000 and have called for talks to finalise things on June 30,” said another oarsman.
If not operating coracles, the oarsmen have sought the administration to allow them to resume fishing in the backwaters of Hogenakkal during the pandemic. It is also a major revenue loss to the government as coracle operations fetch Rs 1.25 crore annually.
Besides the oarsmen, around 5,000 families from a dozen settlements in Hogenakkal, who make a living by selling wares, massage services, fish and women offer cooking services to tourists visiting the falls, have become jobless.