During Monsoon Fishing Ban, India’s Small-Scale Fishers Flounder at the Deep End

Fishermen anchored their boats at Versova beach in Mumbai ahead of Cyclone Tauktae, in the Arabian Sea, Mumbai, May 15, 2021. Photo: PTI
The Wire
,
Panaji, West Bengal, India

During Monsoon Fishing Ban, India’s Small-Scale Fishers Flounder at the Deep End

B. Kotesu, a small-scale fisher in Ganjam district, Odisha, is so stricken by poverty that he is unable to apply for a welfare scheme that could potentially help him tide over the monsoon fishing ban.

“I can’t afford the relief, as I can’t afford the savings,” he said. “We live on a day-to-day basis.”

In 1992, in the time of India’s eighth Five-Year Plan, India introduced a set of welfare schemes under the ‘Centrally Sponsored National Welfare Scheme for Fishermen’, with a view to supporting small-scale fishers. One of them is a savings-cum-relief plan that kicks in during the monsoon fishing ban, and helps beneficiaries with some money to make up for the forced unemployment.

The second is a group insurance against accidents, and covers accidental injuries and death.

Since May 2020, the funds for these schemes have been managed by the National Fisheries Development Board (NFDB), under the so-called ‘Blue Revolution’ scheme.

Patchy release of funds

The savings-cum-relief scheme was borne out of a need to help small-scale fishers during the annual fishing ban.

India’s eastern coastal states impose their seasonal annual fishing ban from April 15 to June 14 – and the western coastal states from June 1 to July 31. This is to help the fish breed and increase their population before fishing resumes.

“Even though it was initially a trawling ban, small-scale fishers didn’t venture into the sea. They were careful [about] the breeding season,” Pradip Chatterjee, convener of the National Platform for Small-Scale Fishworkers, said. “Since small scale fishers don’t have any other means of livelihood, they needed this monetary support.”

The scheme is funded by three sources, who contribute equally: the Centre, the state and the beneficiary themselves. In 1992, the quantum offered to every small-scale fisher was Rs 1,080 a year, with the Centre, state and fisher each contributing Rs 360. Today, the amount is Rs 4,500.

However, the scheme’s implementation has been iffy.

Responses from the Central fisheries ministry to applications via the Right to Information (RTI) Act show that the money is released in uneven fashion.

For example, Maharashtra received Rs 30 lakh for 2,000 fishers in 2016, but nothing the year before or the ones after until 2020. Similarly, Karnataka received funds from the Centre in 2015, 2017 and 2019 – but nothing in 2016 and 2018. Yet its state-level budget report for 2019 says that the Karnataka government has been contributing its share of the welfare fund – and the scheme is non-functional because the Centre hasn’t been doing its bit.

Officials of Karnataka’s state department as well as fishers in south Karnataka told this correspondent that they hadn’t received any relief money since 2017. So it is unclear whether the state received funds from the Centre and didn’t pass them along – or if the Centre didn’t pay at all.

Manjula Shri Shenoy, assistant director at the department of fisheries in Mangalore, Karnataka, told this author in 2020, “The state has the money ready, but it all needs to be given together. We are waiting for the Central government to release the money.”

At that time, Shobendra Sasihithlu, president of the Sasihithlu Fishing Cooperative Society near Mangalore, had said, “We put in our share, but we have not received our own money back.”

The ministry records don’t mention Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat or West Bengal. In fact, of India’s nine coastal states, the ministry’s records don’t say anything about contributions to the savings-cum-relief scheme to these three states from 2015 to 2020.

A Centre-state divide

“Fisheries has historically been a state subject,” Siddharth Chakravarty, a fisheries researcher and council member of the National Platform for Small-Scale Fishworkers, explained. “The Central government can provide the structure, schemes and suggestions, but it is the state government that decides what it wants to implement and manage.”

Other experts said that both the Centre and state governments have roles to play in the marine fisheries sector. Indeed, governing the fisheries sector requires cooperative federalism – as a lot of the management is focused on coasts, and the states’ role thus becomes important.

The Centre in turn must navigate international governance laws and trade agreements in which nation states participate.

Experts also said that the problem is that the Centre is drawing more powers unto itself, to the exclusion of the states. “A central set of laws is a problem because it takes away the autonomy and diversity that needs to exist and the pluralist ways in which laws and access mechanisms work at a local level,” Chakravarty said.

In addition, some states use the Centre’s schemes and others don’t. West Bengal, for example, has not availed of the savings-cum-relief plan since 2015, according to information obtained through an RTI query by Debasis Shyamal, a fisher and vice-president of the Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, a union for small scale-fishers in the coastal districts of West Bengal. He is also a national council member of National Platform for Small-Scale Fishworkers.

“The savings-cum-relief scheme was (and still is) non-existent in our state,” Shyamal said over the phone. “We had to start a campaign to begin the scheme in our state.”

In 2000, West Bengal’s fishers went on a nine-day hunger strike demanding the commencement of the savings-cum-relief scheme. The government relented – only for the scheme to crumble by 2010.

“From 2000 till 2012, we were 10,000 beneficiaries availing of the scheme,” Shyamal said. “After that, they introduced the criteria of giving the scheme to ‘below poverty line’ fishers, which was unfair, because even those who do not [meet] the BPL criteria need to avail of the scheme to sustain themselves. We protested, but the scheme officially shut down.”

Today, there are several general schemes that offer to support fishers’ livelihoods in West Bengal – but nothing specifically for marine or inland fishers.

“This isn’t a good sign,” according to Shyamal. “They are marginalising the marine fishers more and more. The state fisheries budget is skewed towards schemes that incentivise fisheries entrepreneurs and aquaculture. This is the time [at which] we need the most support.”

While West Bengal imposed and then rescinded the Centre’s scheme, Andhra Pradesh floated its own.

“Andhra Pradesh, where fisheries contribute 9% of the state’s GSDP, gets a lot of money from local fisheries businesses – mostly shrimp farming,” according to Chakravarty. So “the state ends up allocating more money into fisheries, even marine fisheries.”

RTI data from Andhra Pradesh revealed that the state had discontinued the Centre’s savings-cum-relief scheme in 2015 and continued its own monsoon ban relief scheme, which gives Rs 4,000 a year to affected fishers.

In 2020, it introduced a scheme called ‘Y.S.R Matsyakara Bharosa’ and increased the amount to Rs 10,000 a year.

“But this money never reaches everyone,” according to Lakshmi Kowada, president of the Traditional Fish Workers Union in Visakhapatnam. “If there are ten people on a boat, four may not be able to avail of the scheme. Distribution is patchy.”

There are several reasons for this being the case. The funds are distributed through politically affiliated groups, which could lead to corruption and bias and miscommunication between departments, and questions over eligibility.

Chakravarty explained that a lot of fishers and fish-workers also don’t have biometric cards or Aadhaar cards, or aren’t members of fishing cooperative societies. “The government thinks it has covered everyone but people … fall through the cracks.”

Identifying the beneficiary

The scheme also caters to fisher families, and not individual fishers. To wit, of the nearly 9 lakh fishers (men and women), the scheme provided for 1,09,231 fisher families in 2020.

“If in a family there are two brothers, both fishers with their own nuclear families set-up, and sharing one ration card, then they will be considered one family and provided with the relief amount accordingly,” said Father John Churchill, general secretary of the South Asian Federation of Fishermen in Kanyakumari.

Instead, he said, the money should be given to individual fishers.

In addition, “fish-workers don’t have a separate identity,” according to Jones Thomas Spartegus, a researcher in Thoothukudi. “There is no such thing as a fish-worker in any identity card. You will find fishermen, boat owners and fish vendors, but who is a fish worker? They all fall through the cracks.”

I know people living in coastal districts such as Ramanathapuram who are part of fisher cooperative societies and avail of the relief schemes despite not being fishermen and not even eating fish – and I know of hardworking fish-workers who are not recognised.”

Fish-workers are an integral part of the mechanised fisheries sector. They migrate from India’s eastern and interior states of India to work in boat yards, net-repair shops and ice-plant factories that supply ice to preserve fish.

They are also employed as crew members on large boats, such as trawlers and purse seiners. Their jobs include labour-intensive work at or outside the harbour, such as loading and unloading fish, hauling nets, ferrying fish stock from trucks to auction sites and crushing ice.

Most of all, they are often invisibilised and ostracised.

According to NFDB guidelines, to be eligible for the savings-cum-relief scheme, one needs to be a full-time, active fisher; a member of a functional fisher cooperative society; below the poverty line; and between 18 to 60 years of age. States impose their own criteria on top of these – for example, applicants must have a ration card, a fisher ID card or a biometric card, and so forth.

Insufficient support

Tamil Nadu’s fisheries welfare board provides three relief schemes, including the Centre’s. They add up to a total compensation of around Rs 13,500 per year – the highest in the country.

But “the amount is not enough,” according to Father Churchill. “In Kanyakumari, fishers do not have any alternative source of income, and this amount for two months for a family of four or more does not work. We are demanding a minimum of Rs 10,000 a month” – which would bring the total up to at least Rs 20,000 a month.

In four coastal districts of Odisha – Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur, Puri and Ganjam – the fishing ban lasts for up to seven months. This is because there are two bans: one to protect the fish population and another to protect olive Ridley turtles.

These turtles are highly endangered and nest in the sandy beaches of these districts every November. Studies have shown many of them get caught in fishing nets. So the ban for them runs from November 1 to May 31, when the turtles – including those newly hatched – return to sea. According to sources, the ban is fully enforced in at least Kendrapara district, if not others, followed by the two-month monsoon fishing ban.

To make up for this loss, the Odisha government provides Rs 7,500 a year to all affected families plus 25 kg of rice a month.

“How is this kind of money going to make up for the lost fishing days?” asked K. Aleya, of the Odisha Traditional Fishworkers’ Union. “It is a livelihood loss, not a hobby loss.”

An October 2021 study by researchers at the Institute of Social and Economic Change analysed working conditions for the fisheries sector. They found that while wages for fish-workers are sufficient to support a single worker, they aren’t enough to support an average rural family. The per capita income in the fisheries sector is well below the poverty line for 40% of fishers.

‘There is no such relief scheme’

When fishers are not at sea, they repair their boats and nets, take up odd jobs, such as work at construction sites, move to other areas for work or attend to family affairs.

Kotesu, in Ganjam, works as a construction labourer and makes Rs 150-200 a day. “We have to struggle every day to find work, and expenses keep rising. Ninety percent of my village is living in debt,” he said.

Fishers in Maharashtra and Gujarat are in the same boat. Information obtained through RTI applications for Raigad district in Maharashtra from 2016 to 2021 and the 2021-2022 budget document of Gujarat show no money allocated for relief during the fishing ban.

“There is no such relief scheme functioning in Gujarat,” Usmangani Sherasiya, of the Machimar Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan, a fishers’ union based in Kutch, said. “During the fishing ban period, the fishers get busy with repair work, or with house affairs. They need money, so they borrow it from middlemen and then this adds to the pool of debt.”

Fishers are also forced to sell their goods cheaply when debt-collectors come calling. For example, if the market price of pomfret is Rs 350 per kg, a fisher who has taken a loan will be forced to sell it at the price fixed by the moneylender – which is often far lower than the market price.

This problem has worsened in the last five years – as cyclones have become more frequent and more intense, leading to fewer fishing days, damaged equipment or both.

Sherasiya said that the 1998 cyclone in Kutch destroyed a lot of boats, turning fishers to the seemingly more sturdy fibre boats. Some fishers then took loans to buy them. “They are still paying off that loan. Fish catch has declined, and so has the number of fishing days.”

Lower fish catch means fishers spend more time at sea looking for fish, spending more and more on fuel and other costs. “The price of fish has gone up but cash has gone down,” Sherasiya added, repeating that everyone in his region also “lived in debt”.

So fishers’ unions demand compensation based on need. “We demand Rs 15,000 for the first month of the ban, Rs 10,000 for the second month and Rs 5,000 a month for the [remaining] months,” Aleya said. “That is the only way to be truly compensated.”

“When you are calling for an official halt on working days, the compensation has to match the loss of income,” Chakravarty added. “A semi-skilled worker’s daily minimum wage would be about Rs 320 – then you multiply that with the number of non-fishing days and compensate … that amount.”

“Safeguarding the rights of traditional fishers has been historically introduced after much lobbying by fisheries-related civil society,” Jones, the researcher from Thoothukudi, said. “Yet our policies are more fisheries-centric than fisher-centric. Welfare schemes and cash transfers by themselves can’t be the answer to systematically addressing these issues.”

There needs to be better dialogue between the government and traditional fishers, and measures must be taken to protect their rights and empower them.”

The government has one welfare measure – a group insurance – for when a fisher dies at sea. The third and final part of this series examines how it has been implemented since 1982.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in The Wire Science on 19 November 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Fishermen anchored their boats at Versova beach in Mumbai ahead of Cyclone Tauktae, in the Arabian Sea, Mumbai, May 15, 2021 / Credit: PTI.

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