India’s small and marginal fishers have demanded complete exemption from any WTO commitment for reducing subsidies on essentials such as fuel, nets, fishing boats and other fishing gear, for fishing up to 200 nautical miles (nm), as they say that it could drive them into further poverty.

“Almost 70 per cent fishers in India are already living in poverty. For us fishing is livelihood. We use indigenous method for fishing which is largely not commercial. We need to be fully exempt from any reduction commitment,” said Olencio Simoes, General Secretary, National Fishworkers’ Forum at a press briefing on WTO MC13 by Indian fishers groups.

The NFF, in a letter addressed to Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal and Fisheries Minister Parshottam Khodabhai Rupala on Tuesday, emphasised that the government should champion the cause of its small scale fishers, at the 13th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi on February 26-29, by securing a special and differential treatment (S&DT) exemption that extends beyond the current proposed limit of 12 nm.

“Given the inherently semi-formal nature of their work and the limitation of advanced navigation equipment, small fishers operate beyond these proposed limits up to 24-200 nautical miles,” the letter stated.

While India has already made a case for extending exemption to small-scale fishers up to 200 nautical miles, the latest draft text of the agreement circulated at the WTO on Monday has proposed a distance of either 12 nm or 200 nm, indicating that the final distance is open for more negotiations.

At a disadvantage

What is of greater concern though is an “unwarranted condition” being proposed in the text to deny these S&DT benefits to those developing countries who may engage in distant water fishing significantly (more than 2 per cent of the total marine catch) in the future, points out Mukesh Bhatnagar former negotiator for India at the WTO for fisheries.

“India must get rid of these conditionalities to avail the S&DT as these will put shackles on aspirations to go to high seas,” Bhatnagar said.

The condition also puts at risk the small-scale fishers who have nothing to do with distant water fishing. “Currently distant water fishing in most developing countries will likely be under the 2 per cent proposed limit, though the data is not really clear as yet. But if they do cross that limit in the future, they will lose access to S&D,” according to a Third World Network note.

“Please don’t play these calculation games on us (small scale fishers). Exempt us from WTO commitments. We don’t want to get into statistical data,” said Jones T Spartegus from the Coastal Action Network. He said it was unfortunate that small scale fishers, whose livelihoods are being decided at the WTO, had no space in the negotiations.

In India, the livelihood of 9 million people, mostly resource poor, depends on fishing.

Fishers are the poorest of poor and more than 90 per cent fishers are borrowing from bankers under government schemes, said RV Kumaravelu, from Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu. 

“If WTO forces the government to cut subsidies, it will lead to a dangerous situation for the fishing community and their livelihood. Most people belong to traditional fishing and are poor,” he said.