Will high-tech foreign fishing vessels be allowed to continue to fish in India? Fishing trade unions suspect that an official proposal to prevent foreign vessels from plundering the fish in the country’s deep-sea region is being scuttled by vested interests in the government and business.

They allege that efforts are underway to scuttle the key recommendation in the National Policy of Marine Fisheries to scrap the Letter of Permit (LoP) regime in fishing. The LoP, which permits ‘Indian-owned foreign vessels’ to fish in Indian waters, has been accused of facilitating over-exploitation of fishery resources in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The LoP regime, in place since 2002, has also been accused of aiding corruption, and money laundering by businessmen and politicians.

The government-appointed seven-member committee headed by S Ayyappan, former Director-General of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research, last week presented the second draft of the fisheries policy. The committee has called for putting an end to the LoP regime. “After 14 years of operating the LoP scheme, it is clear that the scheme has not had the expected impact in the development of deep sea fishing sector,” the draft policy notes. “Hence the LoP scheme would be rescinded forthwith.” This is expected to bring in drastic changes in the current deep-sea fishing policy.

However, the committee is said to be facing pressure to alter the recommendation. Sources told BusinessLine that the committee was advised to either drop the recommendation or modify it so that the current LoP regime could continue in another name.

The second draft of the policy was to have been put on the website of the Agriculture Ministry on June 3. This has not been done so far. Asked about this, Ayyappan told BusinessLine : “We are still working on it.” He refused to elaborate. However, unconfirmed reports said that Ayyappan had threatened to resign if the recommendation to scrap the LoP regime was not accepted by the government.

Charles George, President, Kerala Matsya Thozilali Aikya Vedi (united forum of Kerala fish workers), said the entire fishing community would be up in arms if the proposal to scrap the crucial LoP recommendation was dropped. George told BusinessLine that fishing trade unions had fought for nearly 25 years to get a policy to keep foreign fishing vessels out of Indian waters.

Murari panel preferred Significantly, the draft policy wants the Centre to put in place ‘a new development scheme in line with the Murari Committee.’ The P Murari Committee report of 1997, which was accepted by the then Deve Gowda Government, had recommended cancellation of deep-sea fishing licences given to foreign vessels as they depleted the fishery resources. However, while charter licences have gone, the LoP scheme, which allowed Indian-owned foreign vessels, was born in 2002.

It is alleged that many of these vessels are owned by politicians in benami names and that the foreign companies that supplied the vessels are actually money-laundering entities of Indian businessmen.

Many of these vessels allegedly faked their registration papers and used shell companies. They exported their catch by transhipping mid-sea, thus denying the benefits of the catch to Indian fishermen as well as the government.