Any story about seaweed farming in India begins and ends in Mandapam, Tamil Nadu.

The narrative is invariably the same: the immense potential offered by long coastline and biodiversity and how 900 fisherfolk families in southern coastal Tamil Nadu have been earning at least ₹8,000 a month from this vocation. The needle has been stuck at this point for three decades—due to inadequate attention, according to experts.

And now, the government has allocated ₹637 crore for the cultivation of these nutrition-rich marine plants, as part of the ₹20,050-crore Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana—to be spent over the next five years, mainly as subsidy support.

Dr Rajeev Ranjan, Secretary at the Ministry of Fisheries, is confident of a jump-start. The new Ministry (formed in February 2019) is very serious about it because the potential is huge, with the world production valued around $12 billion, “our share is measly, not even worth mentioning.” According to some estimates, the world produces about 33 million tons of seaweed, half of it coming from China and most of the rest from Indonesia and Philippines; India produces about 20,000 tons. In contrast, the country’s potential has been estimated at a million tons, a fourth of which in Tamil Nadu alone. Raised to that level, this vocation can give employment to 6-7 lakh people, says Secretary Ranjan.

A new beginning

Seaweeds, a common term for a huge range of marine plants. According to the Ministry of Fisheries, India has around 60 “commercially important” species, but only a few—Kappphycus, Sargasum, Gracilaria and Gelediella—are being exploited, on a small scale. Seaweeds are a source of a variety of extracts that are used in food, pharmaceuticals and plant nutrition industries. Florida-based Dr Al Sears, an anti-ageing specialist, says that seaweeds are “packed with two super anti-oxidants" -- Fucoidans, which fight cancer of the white blood cells (lymphoma) and Ecklonia cava, rich in polyphenols. Research at the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI), Bhavnagar, have shown that seaweed extracts to be good plant nutrients.

There is, therefore, scope for corporate involvement, in the shape of contract farming. A template exists —two decades ago, none less than PepsiCo took this up, which helped develop the Mandapam model. In 2008, one of its executives, Abhiram Seth, took over the business and called it ‘AquAgri’.

So, what is to be done now? Dr Yugraj Yadava, Director, Bay of Bengal Program (a organization set up under the auspices of FAO to develop fisheries in the countries around the bay), says that the first step should be a thorough survey of the entire coastline, to find out which species can be grown where, and where natural harvesting is better. A “knowledge-base” is a necessary condition to ginger up activity, Yadava says. While farming itself is simple—a series of bamboo rafts placed in shallow sea water and harvesting every 45 days—Yadava says it still requires some hand-holding. Seaweed farmers need to be told what best to grow, be given inputs and backward linkage with the markets.

Ranjan says the immediate task now is to get States quickly on-board, because without the states’ buy-in little work is possible. Tamil Nadu and Gujarat have shown keenness but the Secretary hopes that other States will also get into the act—after all, as CSMCRI puts it “seaweed cultivation does not require land, fresh water, fertilizers or pesticides and can be grown in areas of clear sea water and low tidal action.”

“We want to take the Mandapam experience and scale it up,” he says.