Although Rameswaram is one of the most important Hindu pilgrimage centres in India, it is backward and under-developed. The reasons are geographical, environmental and political.
The island's location is remote, far from the decision-making centres in the State (Tamil Nadu) and the country. It is sandy, arid and infertile, with no established agriculture or industry. In 1964 it was struck by a cyclone which destroyed a major town and port (never rebuilt) and many villages. But the island's development has been most disrupted by the political troubles in nearby Sri Lanka. Until the mid 1980s Rameswaram port was India's main passenger and cargo link with Sri Lanka, but since then all sea traffic has been suspended, and the island's economy has stagnated. The main remaining source of livelihood is fishing.
But the fishermen too are compromised by the Sri Lankan troubles. They share the narrow channel separating the two countries not only with Sri Lankan fishermen, but also with ships of the Indian and Sri Lankan navies, fleeing refugees and sometimes combatants in the dispute. Inevitably they are often in great danger: in the last 14 years around 100 Rameswaram fishermen have been killed and more than 300 seriously injured by firing. At the same time fish stocks have been depleted by over fishing, and many fishermen, especially the poorest who work in simple unmotorized craft, are struggling to feed their families, let alone make a reasonable living.
There are insufficient training and employment opportunities to provide alternative livelihoods, and to meet the aspirations of young people and women to develop and advance. The islanders' health and education is compromised by their poverty. Serious illnesses and injuries sometimes go untreated, resulting in avoidable suffering and occasionally death.
Many health problems result from an inadequate and unbalanced diet; school attendance is undermined by families' needs for their children to work; schools lack resources to provide sufficient classroom space, educational materials and staff; many teachers are volunteers.
The islanders cannot attack all these problems unaided. There are some State government schemes which islanders are trying to utilize to their advantage. But the Pappa Fund, which operates as much as a facilitator and catalyst as a funder, is the only foreign aid agency working regularly on the island.