T Peter, General Secretary of the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF), passed away on 8 October 2020 from COVID-19 related complications in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. He was 62 years old.
For over three decades, Peter worked as a full time activist and union organiser. He especially worked for the empowerment of India’s fishing communities and played a critical role in advancing their struggles from the margins into the political mainstream.
Peter joined the Kerala Independent Fishworkers Federation (KSMTF) in the early 1980s as a young militant organiser in the fight against trawlers which were destroying both the fragile coastal ecosystems and traditional livelihoods of fisherfolk who lived harmoniously in those habitats. His soulful association with groups as a cultural activist before being a political activist brought him closer to the community everywhere he went. Peter quickly rose through the union ranks, first to district-level leader and then to state president. After passing on the state leadership mantle to the next generation, Peter spent his last years playing a creative and active role at the national and international levels.
Taking on the responsibility of the General Secretary of National Fishworkers Forum, Peter had his task cut out in organizing fish workers unions across coastal states and in taking head on the large projects given their destructive implications for traditional and small-scale fish workers who already were suffering the adverse impacts of Globalization and market driven development model. As an executive member of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), Peter was instrumental in raising fisher concerns at multiple levels. He was central to the organising of the 7th General Assembly of WFFP in New Delhi in November 2017 drawing participation from across the world.
Peter was a firm believer in solidarity amongst various social, workers and environmental movements and constantly worked to forge alliances across a number of people’s platforms in India. He played an active role in the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and worked closely with groups such as the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), Bhumi Adhikar Andolan, New Trade Union Initiative ( NTUI), Coalition for Environment Justice in India (CEJI) and Forum for Trade Justice. His political astuteness, built over decades of experience of struggle and working with great leaders like Fr. Thomas Kochery, Harekrishna Debnath, Matanhy Saldanha and Ram Bhau Patil, among others, gave him a clear vision of what was demanded to protect rights of fisher folk of India, and also of the kind of action needed to protect India’s coastal areas for posterity. He saw these struggles to save India’s coasts and its peoples as an integral part of organising against corporate led neoliberal development and for economic, social and environmental justice. This ensured that the NFF and KSMTF were active participants in many joint struggles against special economic zones, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), free trade agreements (FTAs), industrial corridors, nuclear parks and port expansion.
Peter was a well-known and respected media commentator and was also chief editor of ALAKAL, a fortnightly magazine published by KSMTF since 1985. Despite running at a financial loss, he ensured that the magazine was published on time to convey the message of the fishworkers to government officials, political leaders, media and the general public.
Ever so eager to learn new things, Peter pushed for these qualities to be developed in his coworkers and the younger friends. His infectious energy and enthusiasm always attracted the younger generation. The COVID-19 pandemic did not deter his ability to organise. He quickly mastered online mechanisms and ensured that various district level leaders of KSMTF and NFF were in touch through video calls, participating in meetings at the regional, national and international levels and ensured that news about struggles and policy changes were regularly posted on social media, and thus reached the wide public.
Peter played a pivotal role in ensuring fish workers and their boats were made available for rescue and relief operations every time there was a natural calamity, such as the devastating 2018 floods in Kerala. His commitment to the issues of the fishworkers saw him develop close relations with leaders of the constituency, irrespective of their political party affiliations. Even in his last days, Peter was back on the streets mobilising KSMTF cadres to oppose the pro-corporate draft of the 2020 National Fisheries Policy and the West Coast Shipping Corridor being pushed unilaterally by India’s Central Government.
Despite all these responsibilities and roles, Peter was a very accessible and simple person, but who would unhesitantly walk into any Ministry to push the public cause, just as he would walk into any fisher home to extend solidarity or lead a protest or a rally asserting traditional fisher rights. His trademark all weather light blue half-sleeve shirt and white mundu (dhoti) with a cotton cloth bag on the shoulder, is how we will always remember Peter …… Peteretan as we all fondly called him from his younger days.
Peter’s sudden passing is an irreparable loss to people’s movements in India and globally. His infectious energy and enthusiasm, which inspired millions across India, and elsewhere, will be deeply missed. His life’s mission – to work with commitment and for solidarity action for justice and equality for all – will have to continue in our actions now.
Peteretan will always be with us to inspire us in our struggles for a better world.
National Alliance of People Movements (NAPM)
Delhi Solidarity Group
Coastal Action Network
Pakistan India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD)
Third World Network
Environment Support Group
Coalition for Environmental Justice in India
Programme for Social Action (PSA)
Centre for Financial Accountability (CFA)
Focus on the Global South
Forum for Trade Justice