Divu Dandi was 21 when she married Dinesh Bhambaniya in 2005 and moved to his village, Delwada, in Una district, Gujarat. Their daughter Nisha was born the following year. Dinesh worked on a trawler, often staying at sea for up to seven days at a time.
On October 17, 2015, Dinesh went on a multi-day fishing trip. Five days later, the boat returned but he was not on it. “It was Dussehra night. One of his mates came over and told me he had gone to the bathroom at night, and must have slipped and fallen into the water,” Divu said over the phone.
When she went to the village headman for support, he asked her to wait. “It has been six years now. He hasn’t come back. He is dead. I can’t prove that he is dead, so I can’t even apply for the widow pension scheme.”
Divu works at a fish-packing factory in Veraval, earning Rs 250 a day. Her daughter would have completed class X today, but she dropped out of school over the summer vacations this year.
“She is very good at her studies, but I need to have her work with me at the factory,” Divu said. “We are very poor. They are saying we will get insurance after seven years. What choice do I have? We need to earn a living.”
The Indian government introduced a ‘Group Insurance Against Accidents’ in May 1982, to provide “a sense of security to fisherfolk”.
Shortly after the scheme was launched, fishers registered themselves with state governments, and would receive insurance payments for accidental deaths (Rs 2 lakh) and injuries (Rs 1 lakh) without having to pay any premium themselves. The Centre paid half the premium and the state government the other half.
The scheme was executed by the National Federation of Fishers Cooperatives, or FISHCOPFED. The scheme is now managed by the National Fisheries Development Board. The insurance amount has also gone up to Rs 5 lakh for deaths and Rs 2.5 lakh for injuries.
But most fishers’ union activists have complained that the process of applying for insurance is lengthy and complicated, and requires long forms to be filled out in English.
When a fisher dies at sea, a family member must produce the victim’s biometric card or fisher ID, a death certificate, a police report detailing the nature of death and a post-mortem report (if available) – claim the insurance money.
These documents must be filed with the state fisheries department. A regional head then checks and hands them over to a nodal agency that’s a go-between between the government and the insurance company. The agency also performs its own checks.
There are several ways in which seafaring can be deadly: an injury on the boat, seasickness and rough weather, an underlying injury aggravated on the boat or – most of all – cyclones.
“During the 2005 tsunami in the Bay of Bengal, 4,500 people died on the east coast,” FISHCOPFED president Ramdas Sande told The Wire Science. On average, according to him, they receive reports of 100-200 deaths every year – with “more deaths on the east coast than on the west coast”.
Historically, the Bay of Bengal has been a hotbed for cyclones. About 80% of all tropical cyclones of the north Indian Ocean have formed here. But in the last two decades, thanks to climate change, more and more cyclonic storms are also being reported from the Arabian Sea.
Just as with the savings-cum-relief scheme, most coastal states have their own funds as part of a scheme called ‘Distress Relief Funds’. Here, the insurance compensation provided in cases of death varies from Rs 5 lakh to 10 lakh – in addition to the Centrally sponsored scheme.
A Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute paper published in 2017 analysed various fisheries’ insurance schemes. It found that Kerala and Tamil Nadu had well-developed fisheries welfare boards that provided good insurance schemes for fishers – while Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra lagged behind.
Separately, according to the budget of Gujarat state, it spent Rs 11 lakh in 2019 on group insurance against accidents. In Porbandar, Usmangani Sherasiya, of the Machimar Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan, a fishers’ union in Kutch, said the scheme could function through cooperative societies – but “all cooperative societies are currently defunct, so no one has gotten anything from this scheme.”
For widows like Divu, the resulting stress and uncertainty means no support and an additional burden.
“Many deaths happen every year on boats here in Gujarat,” Arvind Bhai Bhimji, a fisher-activist at the Centre for Social Justice who works with the Dariya Na Dayaro Legal Service Centre in Amreli, said.
“We filed a [public interest litigation petition] in 2012 demanding 10 road ambulances and seven speedboat ambulances,” he said over the phone. The group won the case in 2017, and ambulance services are currently functioning, he added.
In Andhra Pradesh’s Srikakulam, information obtained through Right to Information (RTI) Act requests revealed that of the 27 claims made in 2019, only 10 were accepted, and the state released Rs 50 lakh. In Guntur, of the eight claims between 2016 and 2021, two were settled, two rejected and four are still being processed.
A 2020 socio-economic state survey report states that the compensation amount has been increased to Rs 10 lakh, and that 20 fishers were compensated in the whole state in 2020.
But D. Pal, of the National Platform for Small-Scale Fishworkers, said of Andhra Pradesh: “It is a mess here in our state.”
“In the last 11 years, there have been 4,000 cases of deaths that applied but only a few people got the insurance claimed”; the remaining “were neither rejected nor closed, but simply eliminated from the list on flimsy grounds by different departments,” Pal added. “I myself have run from pillar to post for many of these.”
In Andhra Pradesh alone, according to him, several people die every year due to high tide, rough weather and heart attacks at sea. “The bodies go missing, many don’t have fisher ID cards, many are not able to prove death at sea – so many ridiculous reasons” are provided for denying compensation.
Other states aren’t much different. In Raigad district in Maharashtra, RTI requests revealed that three people had signed up for claims for deceased members in their families in the last two years, but that no funds have come through thus far.
In West Bengal, Debashish Shyamal, a fisher and member of the National Platform for Small-Scale Fishworkers, said the state government stopped the accident insurance scheme for fish workers in 2017 – even as small-scale fish vendors’ deaths continue to be a common occurrence.
“At least 3-4 fish vendors die every year in Purba Medinipur [district],” he told this correspondent. According to him, the fish harbour is generally 20 km from the auction centre, and the vendors’ villages are about 40 km away. So they wake up at 2 am every day, rush to the harbour on their bikes, getting there by around 3:30 am, pick up the fish and then rush to the auction centre by 5 am.
“In between this rushing, accidents happen,” Shyamal said. “Deaths and disabilities of fish workers due to accidents are also common during tiger attacks in the Sundarbans. Without insurance cover, the poor and distressed families of the dead or disabled fish-workers are imperilled.”
Both Tamil Nadu and Kerala provide Rs 10 lakh to the deceased’s family, according to RTI requests and state budget documents. The Tamil Nadu fisheries welfare board also contributes to funeral expenses and supports those disabled on the job.
However, that there is more support from the state doesn’t mean it should also be availed more.
Saravanan Kasi, a fisher and activist with the Chennai-based Coastal Resource Centre, said that there are no official figures but that the number of deaths and accidents has gone up in the last year.
In Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district, in a village called Thengapattinam, the state built a harbour last year. “Something about the way it was constructed has changed the sandbars and the ocean currents,” Kasi said. “A lot of boats strike the rocks in that area now. At one point last year, in a month, there were two deaths in that village on consecutive days.”
Kerala’s Vizhinjam harbour was once “one of the safest places to land”, according to A.J. Vijayan, former secretary of the National Fishworkers Forum and a researcher and activist in Thiruvananthapuram. But fatal accidents are now common here. In May this year, three fishers died when their boats capsized and they were unable to swim back to safety.
“The families of fishers are getting increasingly worried about going into the sea,” Vijayan said. “It is getting riskier and riskier.”
Notwithstanding the Central and state support mechanisms, what can boat-owners do to minimise accidents?
“Indian Coast Guard rules say all fishing vessels must have life jackets and life buoys, and several state marine fishing regulation Acts say that all mechanised boats of [shorter than] 24 metres are required to have automatic identification system transponders,” Ganesh Nakhawa, a fisher in Karanja, Maharashtra, said.
These transponders are designed to provide position, identification and some other data about a vessel at sea, and are particularly useful in rough weather. While some states have mandates to subsidise these devices, Nakhawa said many don’t. “One transponder costs anything between 50,000 and 80,000 rupees. Many vessels wouldn’t bother keeping one.”
Private ventures such as Sky.lo and Numer8 are attempting to change this. Numer8, through its app OFish, allows fishers to monitor fishing conditions and the weather at sea in real-time. Sky.lo develops AIS technology and works with fishers to communicate the importance of these devices.
But the reality for Divu is a long, painful wait – for at least another year – until she receives her insurance money.
“What is the point of blaming anyone?” she told me when I asked if she felt the wait was unjust. “It is my luck that is bad. The poor are meant to suffer. This poverty will kill us.”
This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in The Wire Science on 13 November 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: The view from a purse seiner going out from Mangalore harbour, south Karnataka / Credit: Supriya Vohra.