Balancing tradition with tourism: The local fishing community in Fort Kochi – A photo essay

Three activities were essential to the pre-tourist economy of Fort Kochi in Kerala – fishing, coir, and spices. Of these three, only fishing survived the transition. The coir factories closed down, and spices are now sourced from Munnar and Idduki. Like farming, traditional fishing is a seasonal activity, and most commercial fishing shuts down for the monsoon season, which, in Kochi, is a good four months between June or July and September or October. During this period, fishing is a subsistence activity, with small catches, providing meals for the family, with very little to sell.

Mending the boats and nets after the day’s catch at a makeshift dry dock. Even in the monsoon, small catches are prized. (C) Kimberly Noronha, July 2019

While the rest of the island gave way to tourism (advertisements for home-stays can be seen on almost every home), it appeared that the fishermen’s colonies to the South-West of the island had been spared the onslaught of tourist activity – or so I thought.

What does a fisherman do in his spare time in the off-season? Contemplate the ocean…. (C) Kimberly Noronha, July 2019

What I found, instead, was a vibrant community that doubled as street vendors, among other jobs (including travelling salespersons, and office secretaries). There are, of course, many local street vendors that serve essential services of the local and residential community. These are mobile, peddling their wares and services while navigating the lanes of neighbourhood settlements. While their impact on the spatial form of the city is minimal, they are critical to the urban landscape.

These street vendors provide a daily litany of street calls for garbage collection, recycling services, and grocery delivery. When the informal meets the formal, suddenly, no one talks of [il]legality, but rather service provision and convenience. (C) Kimberly Noronha, July 2019

This see-saw between lean and profitable fishing days resulted in a waterfront urban landscape dotted with street vendors. These are the vendors that service the tourists – I categorise them in four ways. First, are the small vendors who line the beach promenade. Not all of them are local, but many are regular – they visit and sell on the island when they have products to market. The locals among them are more likely to sell food and drinks.

The locals and tourists engage in a strange dance of avoidance and engagement. Some locals come for the quiet of the sea-face, others for profit. They compete for space with the tourists, searching for the quieter spots, or vying for their attention to sell them goods. The crows, however, prefer the Indian tourists for their scraps of food. (C) Kimberly Noronha, July 2019

Second, are the more established ‘shops’ along the waterfront. They have permanent structures that double up as storage compartments. Some, as you see in the photograph below, on the Mattancherry waterfront, were lucky to have paved paths leading directly to the waterfront where tourists pay for boat rides. These vendors tend to be younger and may come from fishing communities, but do not actively practice fishing anymore.

Vendors opposite the Mattancherry Palace with designated space to sell and store their goods. (C) Kimberly Noronha, July 2018

Third, are the vendors in prime tourist areas, immediately opposite the Municipal Corporation office, the disembarkation point for the luxury cruises, and on-route to the mainland ferries. They sell clothes, food, local crafts – I saw a lot of wooden carved elephants, and necklaces. Many spoke multiple languages; one told me he was learning to count in Japanese because of the recent influx of Japanese tourists. Interviewing them was always a challenge because they were hard to pin down: “You know I went fishing with my father yesterday!” Unlike the others who can shut shop legally, or pick up and run with their goods in the event of a raid, this group are the most vulnerable. Their display racks and storage is on-site, and a loss of displayed and stored goods can mean a total loss of up to two months’ worth of stock purchase. Starting anew after a raid usually means downtime. As a result, most of these vendors work on multiple sites, and with multiple partners to mitigate their risks. There is a wide variety of age groups represented here – from the very young to the very old. The last time they faced an eviction was about 18 months ago, they tell me, but they are fighting the case in court. Their appeal to the authorities, they tell me, is simple: “Work with us, we love this city just as much as you do”. What is most notable about this group of vendors is how long they have been working here – depending on who you speak to the number is between 20 to 40 years.

How much space does a street vendor need? Perhaps instead of treating them as squatters, we treat them like the entrepreneurs they are?
(C) Kimberly Noronha, 2019

One thing that I noticed was the decided lack of women street vendors, unusual for an Indian city where there is always a significant number of women vending. When I visited the fishing colonies, I saw that most women were at home, mirroring traditional roles, while the men were out working. This is not static, however, and the younger generation seems determined to work outside the house. As with all change however, there will be resistance. As one (male) vendor told me: “Our women don’t sit on the footpath”!

In all my time in Fort Kochi, this was the first time I came across women street vendors. They’ve worked here for more than 20 years. Needless to say, their views of why women don’t vend widely differed from the man’s opinion. (C) Kimberly Noronha, July 2019.

The final group of vendors have made the ultimate transition; this group sells tradition as tourism. Lonely Planet’s top 10 things to do in Kochi, includes a trip to the Chinese fishing nets; these are actively promoted by Kerala Tourism as well. Located opposite the Municipal Corporation office, these fishing nets represent traditional locations and practices of fishing. Today, most of the Chinese fishing nets have been relocated to the Kumbalangi Integrated Tourism Village Project. A quick drive through showed me that during the monsoon, those nets are tied up and waiting for better weather. But the ones on Fort Kochi are part of the tourism industry. They are functional nets that don’t catch more than one or two fish per cycle (lowering and raising the nets) in the off season, which the birds happily snap up. For the fishermen who work these nets, there is tourist money to be made in explaining the history of the nets, letting tourists clamber onto the mechanism, and watch the lowering and raising of nets; it takes about 5 to 7 fishermen per net. As I record in my field notes, here work becomes performance, and performance, work.

Work becomes performance, and performance, work! (C) Kimberly Noronha, July 2019

There are noticeable tensions that Fort Kochi is struggling with. It has a population with a historical legacy of traditional occupations such as fishing. It has a vibrant tourism economy with a growing number of people looking for ‘authentic’ experiences. This, it has to balance, with the very natural desire of its residents for modern living. One of the principles of the Kochi Smart City Master Plan is “Social and community sustainability”, where a “distinctly urban residential community with attractive, naturally pristine views and access to extensive riverfront promenades has been planned”. What already exists for urban managers to capitalise on, is a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit of a community that has, over time, adapted in a way that allows them to practice their livelihood, while still catering to the tourism endeavour. The trick is for urban planning to incorporate this tradition and entrepreneurship into its plans for the future.

I leave you with the faces of some people who allowed me to photograph them, and post their pictures online. They were part of my daily route to the field, and through my conversations with them, they contributed to the questions I now hope to ask in my dissertation.

Note: I took all these photographs as part of my fieldwork between June and September 2019. The fieldwork was co-funded by the CASI 2019 Travel Funds Award and the Mellon Humanities, Urbanism and Design (H+U+D) Project, both at the University of Pennsylvania. More of my fieldwork photographs from Kochi (India) and Accra (Ghana) can be seen from:

All photographs © 2019 Kimberly M. Noronha

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About Kimberly Noronha