A pair of motorised fishing boats moored, somewhere in South Karnataka. Photo: Supriya Vohra
- Fewer fishing days and reduced catch are together exacerbating the financial stress on India’s small-scale fishers.
- The lockdown India imposed in response to the COVID-19 epidemic, and the more constant threat of the climate crisis, didn’t help.
- In a three-part investigative series, Supriya Vohra takes a closer look at how the fortunes of India’s small-scale fishers have declined – and who is responsible.
Panaji: The number of days Debasis Shyamal, a fisherman from Digha in West Bengal, can take his boat to sea has declined over the last decade owing to cyclonic storms and other adverse weather conditions.
“At least 40-50 days of the year go just like that when we don’t get to fish and this is apart from the monsoon months, when fishing is banned,” Shyamal, the vice-president of a small-fishers’ collective, Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, said.
The western coastline, along the Arabian Sea, also has this problem. Kerala reported a 46% decline in the number of fishing days over a year to 2017 after cyclone Ockhi hit the west coast, a study by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute found.
“The number of weather warnings issued by the Indian Meteorological Department has also risen since the cyclone,” said A.J. Vijayan, former secretary of the National Fishworkers Forum. “So it’s not just the big cyclones but local fluctuations such as heavy rain, localised depressions in the sea as well that lead to weather warnings and, therefore, a fall in fishing days.”
This is not the only crisis to have hit India’s small fishers (who make up 67% of those in the trade), leaving them impoverished and indebted. The per capita income of 40% of workers in the fisheries sector is well below the poverty line, an October 2021 study published by the Institute of Social and Economic Change concluded.
To understand the reasons for this crisis, we investigated using Right to Information applications, state budget documents and interviews with fishers, union activists and researchers.
We found that the livelihood of small-scale fishers across India’s nine coastal states has been affected by multiple factors – decline in fishing days and catch, inaccessible central and state welfare schemes, and a policy that favours capital-intensive, production-driven, export-oriented growth.
In a three-part series, we analyse these findings in detail. In the first part, we focus on how fewer fishing days and reduced catch are together exacerbating the financial stress on India’s small-scale fishers.
In the coastal villages of Kutch, along western Gujarat, almost every fisher is caught in a debt trap that is hard to escape, Usmangani Sherasiya, of the Machimar Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan, a local fishers’ union, said.
In the monsoon months, when the government disallows fishing to keep mechanised boats away from breeding fish, fishers take advance payments from fish traders, whom they call “agents”. Then they spend the rest of the fishing year paying off that debt.
“It is bonded labour,” said Sherasiya.
This story is not unique to Kutch.
Naveen Namboothri, director at the non-profit Dakshin Foundation, a marine conservation and research non-profit in Bengaluru, said fishing in India is very different from how it is practised as an occupation in the west.
In contrast to industrialised, single-species, centrally and scientifically managed fisheries of developed countries, those of India are scattered. There is often one fishing village every 3-4 km, and the trade is run mostly as a subsistence-based artisanal business, Namboothri said.
There was a greater international demand for prawns and fishers in the 1960s, with more mechanised boats and trawl nets sweeping the ocean bed for catch, according to one study by researcher and activist John Kurien. So the Indian government encouraged private investment in the sector, brought in big merchants and marginalised traditional fishers.
Trawlers and small fishers were soon competing for prawns in the same fishing zone, especially during the monsoons, when prawns spawn, according to Kurien.
Traditional fishers soon formed a union and demanded a ban on trawling during the monsoons. Their protests lasted 18 years. Finally, in June 1989, Kerala banned trawling during the monsoons; other coastal states soon followed.
“The monsoon fishing ban is one of the best examples of conflict resolution mechanisms in fisheries in our country,” said Namboothri. “In a sector that is predominantly state-driven, with every state having its own set of regulations, this uniform ban is a significant achievement.”
The monsoon fishing ban happens every year and lasts for 61 days – from April 15 to June 14 on the east coast and from June 1 to July 31 on the west (first and last dates included). In this time, the Centre uniformly bans fishing in the country’s exclusive economic zone1. States impose the ban within territorial waters 2.
The Centre exempts non-motorised boats from the ban.
Climate change impact
Tropical cyclones have been battering India’s coasts with increasing frequency. Heavy rains and localised depressions in the sea add to reasons why fishing days have become fewer. The pandemic-induced lockdown exacerbated the crisis in 2020, directly affecting the supply chain and the livelihood of fishers and fishery-workers.
In this time, the marine fisheries sector lost Rs 6,838 crore a month, according to a report by the Central Institute of Fishing Technology.
B. Kotesu (49) has been working as a fisher in Sonapur, in Odisha’s Ganjam district, for over 25 years. When Cyclone Phailin assailed Odisha in 2013, it destroyed his small, 13-horsepower boat and his nets.
Kotesu took a loan of Rs 5 lakh from a local moneylender and bought another boat in partnership with a friend. But the interest piled up faster than he could keep up, so three years ago, he sold his share of the boat, and has since been working on another friend’s nine-horsepower vessel.
On a good day, Kotesu’s catch can earn him up to Rs 1,500. “But then we get no catch for the next three-four days,” he explained. “The catch and fishing days have been going down over the years. The price of fish is up but it does not make up for the loss of catch. There is so much pressure on us [to supply fish]. How do we earn a living like this?”
The state of Odisha paid him a compensation of Rs 8,500 for Phailin’s damage, but it wasn’t nearly enough, he said over the phone.
‘We search aimlessly for fish’
Adding to the worries of fishers like Kotesu is a steady and steep decline in the catch itself. Climate change has led to a rise in the number of cyclones and coastal weather disruptions. Overfishing by large mechanised fleets – both Indian and foreign – has been responsible for the loss of a large amount of fish stock.
Studies and reports have also found that heavy infrastructure development and pollution from industrial plants along the coast have killed off marine life in the sea. States have their own marine regulations to control overfishing – like Tamil Nadu’s Marine Fishing Regulation Act 1983 and Karnataka’s Marine Fishing (Regulation) Act 1986. But the catch continues to plummet.
Shyamal, from Digha, said there is thus little incentive to go fishing. “Fish catch has been very low. We don’t get enough to justify the trips. Fishers ask each other about the conditions at sea and the potential catch, and then assess on a daily basis whether it is worth the expense of taking their boats to sea,” he said. “This did not happen earlier.”
A single fishing trip today can cost up to Rs 50,000, Kiran Koli, general secretary of the Maharashtra Machhimar Kruti Samiti, a fishers’ union in Madh Island, near Mumbai, said.
“The fish catch has gone down, we move around aimlessly looking for fish and waste a lot of diesel. The more the number of days at sea, the higher the costs,” according to Koli.
Apart from declining catch and rising fuel costs, fishers in Maharashtra have also complained that they haven’t received the fuel subsidy they are due. Fishers in India buy fuel at subsidised rates under a scheme implemented by state fishery departments. “We have not received our dues for the last three years, and fuel costs are rocketing,” Koli said.
In the aftermath of May 2021’s cyclone Tauktae – the fifth-strongest storm in the Arabian Sea since 1998 – 70 boats were completely damaged on Madh Island alone, according to Koli.
Each fisher received Rs 25,000 as compensation.
Each boat had cost Rs 25 lakh.
Then there is a financial support scheme meant to help fishers tide over the seasonal unemployment due to the monsoon ban. This is a savings-cum-relief plan that kicks in during the ban and to which the states, Centre and fishers contribute equally.
It’s a part of the Centre’s Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana, an umbrella mission for fishers floated in May 2020. The Indian government has allocated Rs 20,000 crore over five years to realise what it has called the ‘Blue Revolution’ – a rapid increase in fishing output.
The scheme has been criticised for focusing on economic and technological growth over the food security and livelihood needs of fishers.
Also, “policy trends show a preference for allocating budgets to deep-sea fishing, aquaculture and infrastructure over coverage of welfare schemes,” according to Adithya Pillai, a researcher at Dakshin Foundation. He also said 8% of the funds have been set aside for fisher welfare.
The plan includes a group insurance scheme for fishers and covers accidents and death.
The schemes are not inclusive enough of vulnerable fishers, collectives, researchers and activists across India’s coastline told The Wire Science. Our analysis revealed that their implementation is patchy and riddled with glitches of access, awareness and distribution.
The second part of this series will explore these issues in detail.
This article was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.
Supriya Vohra is an independent environmental journalist based in Goa.