58 Indian fishermen, who were stranded in Iran for over four months without work and wages amid the coronavirus pandemic, arrived in Delhi today. Their return was made possible by the generosity of International Maritime Federation's Chairman Sanjay Prashar, who paid for their tickets within days of getting an SOS call and "hard lobbying", according to Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor.
"The mental and physical exhaustion on their faces is evident. They now have to get on a connecting flight," the team that helped these fishermen - 18 from Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram and 40 from Tamil Nadu - reach home said.
The fishermen were brought to the Tehran airport in a bus on July 14. They landed in Delhi today around 3AM through Mahan Airways, which has been operating flights under the government's Vande Bharat Mission to repatriate Indians stranded abroad.
Earlier this year, the 18 fishermen from Kerala's coastal village of Vizhinjam left for Iran for the first time to work on fishing vessels for private employers.
"I had paid Rs 50,000 to my agent to get to Iran. Each of us from Kerala had paid that amount. I even mortgaged my wife's wedding necklace (tali) for this. I am returning with nothing. I had to borrow from friends to be able to eat even one meal a day. I now need to pay off this debt," Aruldas, 36, who could only manage to work for 10-12 days, told NDTV.
Melbai V, 50, could only manage to work for four days before being left jobless. "We were not even paid for the work that we had manage to do. We were told that our employer could not sell fish in Dubai because of the lockdown." he said.
Mr Melbai's two sons in Thiruvananthapuram are in the same boat as their father's. They too have not been able to catch or sell anything for months because of the temporary ban on fishing activities in the district to avoid large gatherings.
Congress's Mr Tharoor, who had worked closely with the Ministry of External Affairs for the return of about 600 Indians, mostly fishermen, from Iran in June, said bringing these men back was a huge challenge.
"I have been in touch with Foreign Minister S Jaishankar all through... The Embassy helped evacuate a first batch on an Indian Navy ship, but there was no room for this last group. We again worked with the External Affairs Ministry and the Embassy, lobbied hard for these fishermen to be put on a plane. Then came the question of the cost of their tickets, which Capt. Parashar met out of his own resources. Throughout this period, I have received dozens of messages, videos and voicenotes from the fishermen detailing their desperate situation. I am delighted they are home safe at last," Mr Tharoor told NDTV.
"The 40 fishermen from Tamil Nadu were living in two rooms; 20 each in each room. They would eat one or two meals in a day. It was a tough time for them and they had little hope of ever returning until the repatriation flight worked out," L Praveen Kumar, the General Secretary of Maritime People's Welfare Association told NDTV.
It was Mr Kumar who made an SOS call to Mr Prashar about the possibility of helping repatriating these stranded fishermen. "Within five working days, the arrangements were made and tickets sponsored," he said.
"The fishermen who arrived today... have been having a harrowing time. When I was a captain on big ships and would see our fishermen brothers on the sea, I would always be struck by their guts. I am happy that I could help them. After all, we all are Indians," Mr Prashar told NDTV.
Drawing attention to the challenging conditions in which Indian fishermen work to make ends meet, Mr Tharoor said, "I have been repeatedly calling on the government for a relief package for the fishing community. It is time the country wakes up to the huge problems these poor people face."