by Bharath

In this feature story, we attempt to highlight the challenges faced by the lifeguards in Kerala since the initiation of their service in 1986. Through the voices of the lifeguards, we inspect the numerous protests, strikes and movements for fair labour reforms.

Ibrahim is sitting on a chair in front of the shops next to the mosque in Kovalam. Even as he chats with me, his gaze is fixed firmly on the beach in front of him. And rightfully so. Two teenage boys have wandered onto the beach through the gap in the sea wall. The sea has been rough lately and visitors aren’t allowed to do that, which the boys probably know but don’t care for anyway. The whistle dangling from Ibrahim’s neck has reflexively moved to his lips. The shrill sound pierces the air as he waves at the boys motioning them to get off the beach. They know they ought to obey that, yet they act like Ibrahim’s invisible. Santhosh, one of the other two guards in the shift, has already started walking towards them briskly. Soon, he’s standing next to the boys, coaxing and pleading with them, until they get back on the road behind the wall. Ibrahim heaves a huge sigh of relief.

Just another day at work for a lifeguard. 

Ibrahim has been a lifeguard at Thiruvananthapuram since 2007

Broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, Ibrahim (43) is the right kind of person you wish would come swimming to save you if you met with an accident in the sea. Coming from the fishing community in Vizhinjam, he has been a lifeguard in coastal Thiruvananthapuram since 2007. On his off days, Ibrahim pursues his traditional occupation of fishing, which he has become increasingly reliant on as a primary livelihood in the recent past. This is just one of the multiple indicators that throws light on the perpetual struggles of those in the Kerala lifeguard service, which falls under the Tourism Department of the state. 

Ibrahim has been part of the numerous protests, strikes and pleas over the years conducted by the lifeguards demanding fair labour reforms in the form of pension, insurance(s) and so on. The lifeguards have given up the possibility of an official appointment and the job security it offers; something they were once hopeful about. Despite the rising cost of living, they find themselves stripped of daily allowances – travel, food, risk, etc., – that they used to receive before. Understaffing has drained them physically and emotionally in the last few years. They have approached everyone who could help them – from the officials in the tourism department to the ward councillors, MLAs and even ministers.

For these men, who wear their hearts on their sleeve, the years of neglect, mismanagement and ill-treatment have started to take a toll on them like never before. 

Class of ‘86

Tim Heinemann: a name that was once synonymous with lifeguard service in Kerala. I soon became accustomed to the lifeguards in Thiruvananthapuram referring to ‘Tim, the foreigner’ every now and then, who was instrumental to their genesis nearly four decades ago. 

Babu, one of the 16 lifeguards from that first-ever batch, and who had a close acquaintance with Heinemann, recalls the origin story. 

Tourism was steadily rising in the 1980s in Kovalam, with the crowd almost wholly consisting of foreigners. The tourists forayed into the water with a combination of overconfidence and underestimation of the sea, resulting in hundreds of accidents and frequent deaths along the Vizhinjam – Kovalam coast every year. While the government recognised the economic viability of tourism in Kovalam, there was little done to ensure the safety of the tourists. Babu, who hails from Venganoor, remembers that there was even a feature series in Mathrubhumi at the time, on the “unnatural deaths in Kerala”, which addressed the deaths at Kovalam too. 

Babu, one of the first lifeguards in Kerala, is no longer in service

Heinemann, an American by birth but Indian by way of life, ran a successful cloth business in Kovalam at the time. Determined to find a solution to the predicament, he approached the tourism department with a proposition – build Kovalam’s own lifeguard service. Nearly a thousand people from the fishing communities in and around Kovalam attended the recruitment drive that followed, attracted not just by the importance of the profession, but also by the hefty salary it promised. Heinemann was clear about one thing – in a matter of life and death, only the most skilled can fight the wild and unpredictable ocean and survive. Multiple stages of rigorous tests eliminated most of the candidates with only 16 people remaining at the end of it. 

Babu points to the choppy waters to one side of us and muses: “The Kovalam sea was much wilder in those days. I was only 19 at the time and finished as one of the top five during our training.” 

Thus, in late 1986, the first batch of lifeguard service in Kerala was established, at Kovalam, Thiruvananthapuram – dedicated young fishermen, drawing a commendable salary of nearly Rs. 750/- per month.

Babu had just delivered the Chippi (Mussels) he had collected to a restaurant, when he sat down with me for a conversation at Kovalam. Babu is no longer in service, having quit/let go under tumultuous circumstances a couple of years ago. Nonetheless, he’s inarguably one of the authority voices on the evolution of the lifeguard service since its birth. He has received several accolades over the years from both the state and central governments, the proudest of which came when he rescued 11 people during a single incident in 1989. Babu says that to understand the ironic circumstances causing the professional limbo the lifeguards have been caught in forever, one needs to look at the stages of the profession across the decades. 

“The lifeguards’ role in reducing the accidents at Kovalam was apparent soon enough, in the first year itself. Literally no accidental deaths were happening at the beach. The tourism department too seemed enthusiastic about creating official job posts for the lifeguards. Then, just like that, the tourism director had changed, the ministry had changed, and unsurprisingly…nothing changed for us.”  

In retrospect, it was the best chance, and the only one they ever had, Babu sighs. 

Cecil near his home in Cheriyathura

Cecil Pereira, who retired from the lifeguard service as a supervisor in 2022, reinforces the point. After a career spanning 34 long and tedious years, he hung up his boots at the customary age of 60 years without any retirement benefits. Cecil was also part of the same ’86 batch, aged 26 at the time. Once a determined and optimistic participant in the many movements aimed at bettering their work conditions, Cecil had more or less lost hope by the end of his career. 

Life… As a Lifeguard

“Unlike what movies tend to portray, we don’t rest on the chairs, under the shade of a beach umbrella, just blowing a whistle now and then.”

Things turned from bad to worse for the lifeguards at Thiruvananthapuram, especially since the COVID-19 Pandemic. 2022 witnessed several retirements amongst the lifeguards, none of whom have been replaced even after a whole year. Besides the increased workload on them, this raises serious safety concerns for the tourist population. Kovalam, one of the most sought-after beach destinations in the country itself, has mainly three individual beaches – the Lighthouse beach, the Hawah beach and the Samudra beach. The three regions, which had a combined lifeguard strength of over 20 in a shift before, have been managing with only 10 people for over a year now. There are more lifeguards set to retire within the coming year. 

“A lifeguard’s knowledge is that of the ocean; of water. Tourism can thrive here because we’re present to save the lives of people at the beaches. But those in the administrative positions look down upon our skills and understanding,” Ibrahim points out how the general condescension towards coastal communities in Kerala society has influenced their ordeal.

The lifeguards certainly recognise and admire the role of coastguards and the Indian Coast Guard Service, in ensuring the safety of the fishing communities through timely interventions and rescue operations. But, they also allude to the significance of their own job, which is priceless in its own regard. Yet, the disparity in the treatment of the two groups, by both the system and the society, is vast, they feel.

Babu reckons that socio-economic biases, like caste discrimination, towards the fishing communities from those in administrative positions have also played a role in their plight. “Our lack of education in the earlier days had been shrewdly used to their advantage,” he adds.

Bitter experiences from the visitors aren’t uncommon either for the lifeguards. The ones at Thiruvananthapuram all have personal stories of tourists – even local folks – being hostile towards them. It’s hard to keep people out of the water, even when the water looks visibly dangerous, and reprimanding them can sometimes do more harm than good, they say. Instances of young men manhandling the lifeguards under intoxication have happened more than a few times. 

It can get quite exasperating for them, says Ibrahim. “When we see a little child straying into the water, we know how dangerous it can turn into. Yet, the parents don’t always see the risks” . 

Warning signs placed at Azhimala beach, Thiruvananthapuram

The lifeguards were at the forefront of the rescue missions during the Tsunami in 2004, the flood disaster in 2018 and several other instances that shook the state. But near-death experiences during the job are inevitable for them too. “Even the most gifted of fishermen are at risk when the sea is at its roughest,” Cecil muses. He remembers one such incident when he almost drowned while rescuing someone. It still sends a shiver down his spine. His left foot bears the permanent mark of an injury he suffered many years ago while saving a tourist at Kovalam. 

Not only did Cecil have to bear the medical expenses himself, he was also unpaid for the period it took him to recover. One of the more callous policies towards them, the lifeguards say, since the beginning. 

A number of factors directly impact their physical health on a day-to-day basis. The lack of infrastructure and facilities certainly don’t do any favours to that. It’s a popular misconception that this is a ‘stand and instruct’ job, a complaint most of the lifeguards have.

Hawa beach, Kovalam bustling with people even on a working day

Different Regions, Same Plight

Poovar, Azhimala, Kovalam, Muthalapozhi, Shankhumukham, Veli and Varkala are the beaches along the Thiruvananthapuram coast in Kerala where lifeguards are deployed. Their number constitutes a major share of the lifeguards across Kerala due to the high tourist population, mainly in Kovalam and Varkala. The Kanyakumari – Thiruvananthapuram coast is also infamous for the unpredictability of the ocean along the coast. The construction of the Vizhinjam port has, according to the coastal populations in these regions, also affected the shoreline adversely. Since the Okhi cyclone in 2018, there has been a noticeable change in the nature of the sea too. Their lived experiences of battling the waves make them capable of handling this job, the lifeguards in the region say. Even a better swimmer, or diver, than them may panic at the unpredictable challenges the sea throws at them.

The duty locations keep rotating, which means that for most of the lifeguards, the daily commute can be quite taxing. There are those who travel over 80 km to report for duty at Varkala, says Muhusil, a lifeguard for the last 22 years. While there has never been travel allowance provided to them, they used to have food allowance before, which was taken away when the previous government was replaced.

Varkala, a place where tourism boomed in this century, has been as inconvenienced as Kovalam in recent times. Lifeguard services were extended to the region many years ago, when the number of accidental deaths were on a rise as a side-effect of rising tourism. Muhusil reinforces this point. “Post the pandemic we have seen an incredible rise in the tourist population here, from within the country itself. People come with hearsay of fun stories from their friends, and hit the waves without having any idea of what they are going into.”

Nearly 7 km of Varkala’s shoreline is filled with tourist resorts and hotels, with lifeguards strategically placed at certain key beach points. Muhusil questions the logic of having only 12 people at present to guard such a wide area. “We have repetitively raised the concern that we need more lifeguards here. Only a week ago a boy died by drowning.”

Jafi, a lifeguard based in Thrissur – Ernakulam, is one of those who entered the lifeguard service in 2007 after the GENERAL/SWIMMER category was introduced. The lifeguards in these regions are plagued by the same issues as in Thiruvananthapuram, he says. Jafi himself has a commute of over 70 km one-way presently to report to work, with no travel allowance.  Their staff strength has come down by 4-5 in recent times. While there had been one retiree, the others had quit the service out of frustration – a growing trend in the last decade or so. Fort Kochi, Cherai, Marine drive, at Ernakulam and Snehatheeram and Chavakkad at Thrissur, receive a regular flow of tourists.

Premjith, hailing from Cheruvannur in Kozhikode district, is another one from the batch of 2007, a period that saw mass recruitment in the lifeguard service. Several beaches that were previously unguarded across the state, had lifeguards deployed during this time.

Varkala beach

Keeping his eye on the crowd. At Kozhikode main beach. P.C. || Premjith

Commercial beach tourism towards North Kerala may be relatively less extensive as in Thiruvananthapuram or Ernakulam, but it’s still popular and on the rise at a fast pace. Yet, barring a couple main spots – like the Kozhikode main beach – the Malabar region is precariously understaffed, Premjith says. While the staff shortage problem is an integral issue in Thiruvananthapuram too, here it takes on a different form. The lifeguards are left to coordinate between themselves when the need for an emergency leave arises. He recalls numerous instances over the years when he had to take a rain check on family functions and events.

Premjith is assigned to Beypore beach where there is only one lifeguard during a shift currently. “Saving a drowning person is a two-person job. If I see someone drowning and jump in to save them, ideally there should be another guard to support me and save my back from ashore. I have to depend on the local folks there as of now if such a case arises.”

If they do save a drowning person, Premjith says, then they will be hailed heroes. People would raise their hats to the lifeguard(s); they may even get some local media coverage. But they will be made the scapegoat if they fail to prevent the mishap, he adds. 

Beypore beach. P.C. || Premjith

Losing their Own

In the last five years alone, there have been five deaths among the lifeguards in this coastal region. Ravi is the most recent of them, who passed away from heart failure less than two months ago. Having been a close acquaintance of his, Ibrahim feels that Ravi’s death was a let-down of this system which left him jobless one fine day, without the safety net of a pension or even a one-time retirement benefit. The others who have passed away are Johnson Gabriel, Ashokan, Prabhakaran and Sivaraj. This number is alarming, considering the rarity of the occurrence in the decades before that. 

Johnson Gabriel’s death four years ago catapulted the lifeguards’ ongoing fights for justice. Johnson was on duty at Shankhumukham when he dove into the sea to rescue a woman attempting to die by suicide. He managed to save her albeit perishing in the process. Johnson’s case was vehemently fought for by the lifeguards and the fishing communities at the time and the government relented eventually, compensating his family. 

Johnson’s accident had more to it than meets the eye, the lifeguards in Thiruvananthapuram allege. The reports at the time mentioned only that Johnson drowned while carrying out the rescue. But Ibrahim and the others firmly believe it was an accident that could’ve been avoided. The cyclone Okhi had just wreaked havoc on the beach and surroundings a few months ago. The local population had been insistently pointing out the need to restore the infrastructure, owing to the risks it posed. Johnson had hit his head against a concrete rod jutting out from the water, which his colleagues feel ultimately caused him to drown.

Shankhumukham beach (near the airport) at present

Dark Clouds, Silver Linings and Revolution

The lifeguards in Thiruvananthapuram appreciate the support they receive from the local police personnel, whom they say have always complemented their efforts and have been sympathetic towards their cause. A member of the coastal police I talked to, confirmed the struggles within the lifeguard service and the state’s indifference towards them, while wishing to remain anonymous. 

“My rebellion has run out of steam after all these years,” Premjith tells me, lamenting the disconnect in unionisation amongst the lifeguards in the last couple of decades. Several of the other lifeguards share this sentiment too.

Robert Panippilla and Johnson Jament, both of whom are researcher-activists based in Thiruvananthapuram, suggest that this is a problem that can be attributed broadly to issues faced by the fishing communities in Kerala, the latest and most urgent one being the Vizhinjam port issue and the protests related to that. There are a number of social, cultural and political factors influencing the same, with the diverse and unique cultural identity of each coastal community, from South to North – Thiruvananthapuram to Kasargod – playing a part in it as well.

Vizhinjam fishing harbour

A month after Johnson’s tragic demise, Ibrahim and the other lifeguards attended a protest at Thiruvananthapuram which also raised the other rights they had been fighting for since long. A senior union leader had also come to address the meeting. “When I got a chance to speak, I questioned the unions and their representatives’ lackadaisical approach. This got me blacklisted with the union ever since,” Ibrahim says dryly. 

It’s hard to place one’s finger on the exact position in the long bureaucratic and political chain affecting the lifeguards and the perpetual fight for their rights. Many of the lifeguards acknowledge and appreciate the sincere effort that union representatives like KP Sahadevan have put in for their cause over the years. Yet, most of them feel that both INTUC (Indian National Trade Union Congress) and CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions), which represent each of their two associations, haven’t been as proactive in fighting for their cause as they have in other sectors. The call for job security and fair employment benefits started as far as the 90s, Babu and Cecil recall. Ibrahim reckons he has been a part of almost 10 different strikes over these years. In 2016, the lifeguards held “Jala Shayanam” – protesting literally in the water!

A joint secretary of CITU, Premjith has been proactively involved in the lifeguards’ labour movements since joining. According to him, rather than a permanent job post, ESIS (Employee State Insurance Scheme) and a pension scheme are more pressing needs for the lifeguards. The risks associated with their job should naturally justify these benefits.

“Regardless of what union you’re a part of, it’s imperative to support each other when fighting for a common cause.” Many of their basic labour demands over the years lost steam after the initial protests due to this reason, he feels.  

While several other lifeguards feel that the reason for their plight is mainly the tourism department’s indifference, Premjith opines that it’s more of a tangled mess than that. While they’re still technically employed under the Kerala Tourism Department, the calls for permanent posting, ESI, pension, etc., couldn’t be solely taken by the department. Several times in the past, the tourism directors they met had responded positively to their cause. Memorandums get forwarded hoping for a change for the better, only to get rejected at some stage, by some other department, he says with exasperation. This insouciance could be because the implementation of benefits in one particular sector – the lifeguards in this case – might cause the other sectors to demand equivalent labour reforms for them too. 

It appears that in an “All or None” scenario, the government would rather go with NONE. 

A Whirlpool of Technicalities

The lifeguard service in Kerala has always been technically part of the tourism department, but they were brought under the state’s “Daily Wages Service” – specifically under CATEGORY II – some time ago.

While this move ensured certain policies like minimum wages per day/month, overtime wages, etc., it also negated the chances of any employment benefits that come with a permanent or contractual post. Some of the lifeguards more politically involved in the strikes and protests feel that this move was indirectly aimed at normalising or “bringing down” the wages in the list. For the lifeguards, this meant that certain benefits they had before under the tourism department – like risk, travel & food allowances – could be stripped of citing official reasons. 

A land long known for its social and labour movements, Kerala also is considered to have the best work environment for migrant labourers, referred to as “guest workers”, numbering over 7 lakhs at present. Jafi wonders aloud the irony of a system, where the government makes it mandatory for an employer to have insurance for a migrant worker, but not for them. “Some years ago, we had even called off a strike as the authorities promised to implement group insurance for us. Another time, we were pacified with the promise of a one-time pension.” He recalls bleakly that none of these promises were met ultimately.

There isn’t a dearth of funds for the necessary equipment but the proper utilisation of and maintenance of the same leave a lot to be desired, many of the lifeguards point out to me. Premjith mentions how several of the corporate groups with beach tourism ventures in the Malabar region have shown interest in being involved in supporting the lifeguard services, to some extent. It isn’t a philanthropic gesture of course, and certainly aimed at ensuring the safety of their tourist clients, critical for their business too. Yet, the tourism department has been tepid on that idea. 

Kerala has long since forayed into opening up several public sectors for semi-privatisation, particularly on a contract basis. Yet, the government has had a cold stance about applying the same to lifeguard services, despite receiving offers in the past. 

“The RLSS (Royal Life Saving Society), based in Australia, had reached out to our department some years ago,” Ibrahim recalls. “They trained us and worked alongside us for close to six months in Kovalam. They introduced us to the latest and high-quality equipment during that time, from walkie-talkies to a speed boat. The whole system was so structured. But ultimately, our department chose to not go ahead with them.” 

A welcome move for the lifeguards was the introduction of “double-duty” shifts many years ago, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., with an alternate working day system. The previous schedule of 8-hour shifts every day was proving practically unfeasible for them as beach tourism in Kerala took rapid strides with each passing year. People came to the beach at all times, early in the morning to late in the evening. 

This solved some other problems too, Ibrahim says wryly. It enables the lifeguards to pursue alternative livelihoods – which is traditionally fishing for most of them. In an ideal scenario, it may not have been so necessary, but the rising inflation rates have deemed it so for them. 

“Besides, we get provided with only two pairs of this,” Ibrahim adds, tugging at his uniform, a yellow collared tee-shirt with the words “LIFE GUARD” printed in the middle. “They become so worn-out and musty-smelling due to overuse and constant washing. It could be worse, right?”

While it may come off as insignificant, what Ibrahim mentioned is symbolic of the indifferent attitude towards infrastructure in lifeguard service. The first-aid kits aren’t regularly replenished. The lifebuoy and the rescue surf boards provided to them hardly invoke any confidence, says Bhuvanachandran, another lifeguard from Thiruvananthapuram who’s nearing the twilight of his service. He raises a tattered surf board to reinforce the point, adding that such poorly maintained equipment puts their lives and those of the victims at risk. At the Udayasamudra beach, where Ibrahim and Bhuvanachandran have their duty on that day, they don’t even have a proper construction to rest and to keep their equipment and personal things.

“The nearest space for that purpose was at the lighthouse beach, a few kilometers away. We had to walk all the way to and from, to keep and retrieve some item. Eventually, we took it upon ourselves and set this up,” Ibrahim takes me to a battered shed next to the rocky shore, barely large enough to hold all their stuff.

The makeshift “shed” at Samudra beach, Kovalam

Smooth Sailing or Dark Waters – What’s Ahead?

When I meet Ibrahim next, he is deployed at Azhimala beach. Adjacent to a Siva temple, the beach has only a handful of visitors owing to the time, mid-noon on a working day. Despite the mellow monsoons, the sea looks ominous and the cliff has been cordoned off for the very reason. Ibrahim and Venu – the other lifeguard in the shift – keep darting glances at the temple visitors, an involuntary and subconscious action they have picked through the years. 

Venu, who has 3 years of service left before he retires, recently got promoted from supervisor to the Chief Coordinator of lifeguards – across the state. The designation change came following the “retirement” of the previous office-bearer.

L to R: Ibrahim and Venu. At Azhimala beach

There’s a lot of mockery with the system, the lifeguards allege, citing the discrepancy in the previous coordinator’s role and service itself. 

Ibrahim muses aloud, “At least now, we have someone from amongst us as our coordinator with the department. If someone who hasn’t experienced the life of a fisherman or a lifeguard even for a day, holds such a position, how do you expect them to relate to our struggles?” 

The lifeguards I talked to who were retired or in service with more than 15 years of experience, unanimously fret about one other thing. That, there’s a clear case of detachment and lack of motivation amongst the current, young generation of fishermen, in joining this service. And they don’t blame the youth either. What started as an incredible, well-intentioned idea 37 years ago, exists in a void now. 

On the day of my first meeting with Ibrahim at Samudra beach, at some point during our conversation, he stares at a lone figure, fishing equipment in hand, standing on the isolated beach. “See that man over there? He was one of the smarter ones. He left the job before it was too late to go work in the Gulf, instead of rotting here.” Ibrahim’s chuckling, but I can sense the anger and bitterness in his voice.

That man, Shahul Hameed, was also one of the top five amongst the candidates during the recruitment in 1986, I was told by Babu later.

Yet, these lifeguards continue doing this job because it has become their identity after so long. Perhaps they fight for a better future because of that identity. Or, maybe, they fight because they fear losing that identity that they hold close to the heart.  

By Bharath