Memories of a Visionary and a Cooperative
Lessons from the Marianad Cooperative, Kerala
By: John Kurien
On June 2017, members of the fishing village of Marianad, Trivandrum District in Kerala State, celebrated the birth centenary of Rt. Rev. Dr. Peter Bernard Pereira. He was the first Indian bishop of the Latin Catholic Diocese of Trivandrum, who is better remembered as the pastoral shepherd of the fishworker communities of the district.
Having been in the world of development action and research for over four decades, I consider Bishop Pereira as one of the few Indians who always remained ahead of their time with regard to comprehending and practising the precepts of wholesome human development. He thought of economic development and raising people’s productivity at a time when mainstream society still thought distributing food and clothes and homes – the relief and welfare mode – would do. He preached the need for people’s participation when the world was still focused on top-down planned delivery of development assistance in the project mode. He raised social work and community action to the level of a professional task and commitment at a time when much of society thought this was the exclusive realm of the religious establishment.
In the late 1950s, Bishop Pereira experimented with many schemes which he thought would help lift his flock of fisherfolk, living along the coast of the Trivandrum District, out of their grinding poverty. He firmly believed that relief and charity were not the solutions. His premise was that to raise the standards of living, people needed to improve their own productive activities – in this case, fishing. He arranged for imported nylon nets to be distributed free of cost to the fishers. A barter exchange program was organised where dried fish from the coastal tract was taken to the hilly parts of his diocese and tapioca from there brought down to the coast in exchange. He built houses and gave them free to those identified as the poorest. None of these schemes really succeeded. The fishermen sold the nylon nets saying it produced heat in the water and scared the fish. The free houses were also not occupied by the poor but sold for gain to others. The fish-tapioca scheme proved too costly to sustain.
Bishop Pereira’s conclusion about this failure and the lessons he learnt from it have immense relevance even today. His main conclusion can be neatly summed up in a self-criticism he once shared,“I had not understood the pulse of my people!”
The lessons he drew from failure were three-fold and became the foundational basis of his later efforts to bring true development and change to his people. They can be summarised thus:
- First, do not give anything for free. People do not value such gestures; they become dependent and lose their dignity.
- Second, before taking any actions and formulating any schemes, try to fathom the real needs of the people, not their wants.
- Third, make sure that people participate fully in any action planned so that they take ownership of it.
Schemes failed but not his hope! Bishop Pereira set up the Trivandrum Social Service Society (TSSS) in 1961. TSSS was perhaps the first professional social service organisation of the Catholic Church in Kerala. Bishop Pereira’s position on social service after his recent experiences was that it was not the natural realm of priests and nuns but a professional activity which should be left to persons specifically trained for the job. Consequently, he appointed a sociologist, an economist and a retired government deputy-director of cooperative affairs at the helm of the TSSS.
In his efforts to comprehend the real pulse of his people, Bishop Pereira decided to ‘create a new community’ and study it carefully and implement activities among them using his three principles as the basis for action. To realise this dream, he bought 30 acres of land in a then remote coastal tract north of Trivandrum city, called, Allilathura (coast without people). On the land, away from the shore, were built 56 low-cost houses which included toilets and kitchens with smokeless choolas, under the aegis of a registered housing cooperative to which the ownership of the houses and land was transferred. Given his love for culture, music and sports – he was a great badminton player – Bishop Pereira ensured that common facilities such as a community centre and a football ground were included. He then requested his priests from the crowded fishing villages south of Trivandrum select families who were willing to move to Allilathura and start a new life there. The families that opted to take the offer were obviously ones that were the poorest of the poor and had nothing to lose by making this shift to what was then a ‘distant land’ known for the ghost stories, barren sea and stretches of unproductive sea-sand.
The new community was renamed ‘Marianad’ – the land of Mary. The TSSS appointed professional social organisers to live with the community and work with them. They abided by the three basic principles. Between the years 1961 and 1970, small but significant socio-economic activities had gradually commenced in the community. A crèche, a nursery school, a small health clinic, a group savings scheme, a club of young girls learning crafts, an art and sports club, a mahila samajam and finally a fishermen’s cooperative — all evolved organically. The basic aim behind the activities was to initiate an informal educational process to encourage change, build awareness and inspire self-confidence. Hence, much time was spent in trying to make the people understand what was going on in their midst, encourage their involvement and help them to shoulder responsibility. During this time, the men, who were highly skilled in fishing, and the women who had a good sense of market opportunities, slowly constituted their fishing and fish-selling activities.
The establishment of the fishermen’s cooperative in Marianad created a small revolution in that coastal area. The fishers became gradually aware of the exploitation by the money-lender who had been controlling their fishing since they arrived. They made a momentous decision to sell their fish, which was the produce of their hard labour, without the mediation of the money-lender. This upset the socio-economic and religious customs of the place. Middlemen were influential in the church and the Latin Catholic community and they considered this action by a group of fishermen who were not ‘original settlers’ a major heresy. The complaints reached the Bishop – ‘migrant fishers’ were being instigated by radical social organisers and that such initiatives would upset the stability of the society and peace on the coast.
It is significant to note that Bishop Pereira refused to take sides in this controversy. His stand was that the cooperative was the autonomous creation of fishers. Yes, the fishers did have the support of the social organisers in Marianad, but he would not interfere with the freedom and trust he reposed in the organisers as long as they did not violate any law of the land.
I joined the Marianad Cooperative in 1973 as their Marketing Executive. I was entrusted with the responsibilities of organising their fish marketing in a manner that the fishers got the maximum benefits from their collective action. Unlike the other organisers, I was not a member of the Catholic Church, but the Bishop treated me with fondness and regard which I still treasure. He visited Marianad often in his green Willys Jeep, sometimes driving it himself and wearing his white cassock, without any sartorial trappings of a bishop. The team of workers in Marianad also had a special freedom of access to his Bishop’s House chamber, which many of his priests probably envied. He was very keen to be updated on all the activities of the Cooperative and also keen that the message of its benefits should spread to the villages from which the Marianad fishers had originally come. That people should develop, through their own collective efforts, and thus attain their true wholesome humanity was the ideal which he decisively stood for in his priestly mission.
The strong resolve of the fishers to resist all opposition to their organisational efforts and their excellent cooperation led to the Marianad Malsya Ulpadaka Cooperative Society (Marianad MUCS) being recognised in the official Economic Review 1977 of the Government of Kerala as ‘an eye-opener to the fishermen cooperatives in Kerala. Dedicated leadership and the felt need of the fishermen for united action against the exploitation by the middlemen could be reckoned as the contributory factors for the dynamic outlook of Marianad.’
Last week, I visited the village of Marianad to join the community’s celebration of the 100th birth anniversary of their Bishop. I was aware that the Marianad MUCS had ceased to function after a new government supported network of cooperatives – Matsyafed – was set up in 1985. Matsyafed was modelled along the basic lines of the Marianad MUCS. I took a nostalgic walk to the old cooperative’s small office, enthusiastically accompanied by the village youngsters, some of who knew of me. The doors and windows were sealed shut, but through a crack in one window I aimed my cell-phone camera and snapped a memory of the chair, table and cupboards I had once used as an employee of the fishers at a handsome salary of one rupee per month.
John Kurien, formerly with the Marianad Cooperative and Retired Professor, Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, is a visiting professor at the Azim Premji University.