Selvarani Mari is a fisher and seaweed collector who lives on Pamban Island of Tamil Nadu, on the southernmost tip of India.
Every day she helps her husband cast the fishing nets, maintains rafts for cultivating seaweed, and dives into the ocean to gather sargassum. But she always makes time to listen to the radio.
Mari, 33, and her friends and family all unfailingly tune into Kadal Osai on 90.4FM, India’s first local radio station for a fishing community. With guests including from older people from the villages sharing their fishing wisdom or chatting about the climate crisis, the station has become an integral part of local life, featuring gossip, jokes, old songs and news on fish prices and sea conditions. Gayathri Usman, head of Kadal Osai, fell in love with the station when she visited the area, and stayed on to run it.
“While a majority of the 12-member crew is from the same community, I am the odd one out,” she says.
“Our shows are popular because they are entertaining, useful, and, more importantly, in a local dialect of Tamil that the fishing community understands and finds comfort in,” she says.
Started by businessman Armstrong Fernando, himself from a fishing family, Kadal Osai (“the sound of the ocean” in Tamil) began in August 2016 with just a few hours of transmission daily, before going full-time in 2019. Alongside updates on weather, marine affairs and fish prices, advice on safe and sustainable fishing and the preservation of coral reefs, the station also conducts on and off-air workshops on the climate crisis and biodiversity.
On the fringes of India’s mainland, across the water from Sri Lanka, Pamban and the surrounding 20 islands and coral reefs are part of the richly biodiverse Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve, and home to 47 hamlets of the indigenous Marakeyars, engaged in fishing for centuries.
“Due to poor signal reception, the fishing community cannot solely depend on the All India Radio [India’s national broadcaster], especially while at sea. In such a scenario, it is Kadal Osai – with a coverage area of 5-10km – that they tune into,” says Usman.
In the past few years, the climate crisis has had a drastic effect on marine life and local livelihoods.
Senthil Rajan is a microbiologist at a seaweed cultivation site in Pamban.
“It has become increasingly difficult to predict and interpret water levels in the ocean, cyclone formations, and potential fishing zones. The erratic weather patterns have led to an unprecedented rise in sea levels as well as the height of the waves, thus affecting many seaweed cultivating sites,” says Rajan. “In such a scenario, tapping into the traditional knowledge of the fishing community, remains a rich source of learning.”
Understanding this need to share knowledge with the next generation, Kadal Osai invites experienced fishers to talk with experts about the effects of over-exploitation on marine resources, and the importance of integrating traditional and modern fishing methods.
“Using umbrella terms such as climate change and global warming with this coastal community may not drive home the point effectively. So, we juxtapose the knowledge passed down the generations with the right mix of anecdotes and scientific techniques and keep the dialogue going on climate change,” says Usman.
Radio is one of the most powerful methods of communication in India, with enormous reach among its 1.38bn population. Even prime minister Narendra Modi has a monthly programme.
Unicef collaborated with 215 community radio stations in India, such as Kadal Osai, to create awareness around ending child marriage, something which has been on the decline in India, by 2030.
“We started the ‘Kutty Chutty Express’ to inform children on the ill-effects of child marriages through skits, quizzes and roadshows, as well as conducting workshops,” says Usman. The station also publicises the number for Childline India Foundation, which operates the country’s first 24-hour hotline for children in distress.
During the pandemic, Kadal Osai has become a bridge between the authorities and the coastal communities. It created awareness of the importance of sanitising and social distancing, and also distributed free masks.
“In the initial months, we tried to break a myth among islanders – who believed that they were safe from Covid-19, being surrounded by the salty sea water. Now, since the lockdown has been relaxed, we highlight that ostracising affected people isn’t the solution,” says Usman, as she signs off to go live on 90.4FM, and continue her mission to entertain and inform her faithful community of listeners.