Fisherfolk in Kerala are still at sea over their livelihoods

Ritu Maria Johny | Updated on July 20, 2021

The sector is staring at an estimated loss of ₹1,371 crore, as per an assessment by the Kerala State Planning Board

James Kalathil*, a fisherman from Thuravoor, has pondered over leaving this profession many a time in the past few months. During the last lockdown, he was compelled to go to work by taking a secretive route to avoid the police checkpoints, which helped to bring in some money during an otherwise dry period.

He managed to go for ‘neetu pani’ - individuals or groups of two or three people venture into the sea on a ‘ponthu’ - amid the lockdown. Few others were not so ‘fortunate’ enough to go for such clandestine work, like Sebastian Maliekal, who has remained at home for the past one and a half months with no means to earn an income.

The fisher communities of Chellanam and Thuravoor gram panchayats of Ernakulam and Alappuzha districts, respectively, are an aggrieved lot. With just over 40 working days in the past year, compared to 200 days of work in a normal year, the fisheries sector is staring at an estimated loss of ₹1,371 crore, as per an assessment by the Kerala State Planning Board. The sector was plagued by multiple problems like cyclones and floods, which significantly brought down the number of days of work, even before the onset of the pandemic. While the fisher families were slowly limping back to make both ends meet, the second wave of Covid-19 struck.

It has been almost 25 years since Maliekal began his fishing work. He rues not having learnt any other skill, because of which he is still anchored to this field. “Free ration kits worth ₹300- ₹500 does not change the desperate circumstances of our lives. We are forced to borrow money or pawn valuables in order to survive each day.”

According to the Department of Fisheries website, under the Saving-Cum-Relief scheme (SRS), ₹600 is collected from fishermen and an amount of ₹1,800 is released to them during lean season every year, which is April to June in the marine sector and June to August in inland sector. But, as per latest update, fishermen now have to pay ₹1,500 in order to receive ₹4,500 in return, under SRS.

According to information received from the Chief Minister’s office in September 2020, as a response to the petition filed by former Union Minister K V Thomas, an amount of ₹31.16 crore was sanctioned from the State Disaster Relief Fund and ₹5 crore from the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund to support fishermen who lost their jobs during the Covid-19 lockdown. The families of fishermen engaged in fishing activities were to be given an amount of ₹2,000, while registered fishermen ₹1,000, in addition to SRS. According to a report by The New Indian Express, as many as 1,78,365 fishermen, included under the SRS, were sanctioned an amount of ₹3,000 amid the shutdown.

Kalathil, a member of Matsya Thozhilali Kshemanidhi Board or Kerala Fishermen’s Welfare Fund Board (KFWFB), which provides for the constitution of welfare of fishermen in the State, said although he had heard of these aids, he has not received either of the sanctioned amounts nor does he want to run behind it. Complaints to the fisheries office and collectorate have fallen on deaf ears.

The traditional fishers who mainly depend on the trawling period (June 9 to July 31 this year), to earn some big bucks, (people earn from 50k to ₹1 lakh or more over the 2 months. In comparison, Kalathil has got ₹5,000 since last week. By this time, he should have earned around 40k normally.

The fishing boats, which usually take around 20 fishermen, are carrying larger groups of 35 people or more now .Such large numbers are gathering this year because people from other professions like carpenters, daily labourers, etc who were also rendered jobless due to covid and lockdown, are taking up fishing to make ends meet. This, in turn, reduces the individual profit share from about ₹3,000 to ₹1,000. “We can't no to these people because we understand the struggle to somehow make ends meet,” says Kalathil.

Xavier Sajeev has taken up jobs as a painter and a fisherman. But his income has reduced by at least 50 per cent in comparison to previous years. “I got ₹2,000 and ₹1,000 as separate deposits from the government as financial aid amid the lockdown last year, but not this year. ₹200 each for 6 days of work lost due to Tauktae cyclone was also credited. But, there are many discrepancies in the distribution of these amounts to people,” he says.

On top of these Covid induced difficulties, the destructive trail left by cyclone Ockhi in November 2017 has aggravated the problems. “Any hint of a low pressure area developing is a reason for the government to stop us from going into the sea. It almost seems like we are bearing the brunt for the State’s mistake of dismissing the warnings issued prior to Ockhi,” said Sajeev. Traditional fishers feel that they can easily reach back to safety by gauging the wind and waves, since they don’t go as far as trawlers.

Dr. Saly N Thomas, Principal Scientist at Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT), said the government’s warnings cannot be completely ruled out as of late, the western coast is becoming vulnerable to inclement weather conditions due to climate changes. According to Dr. M. V. Baiju, senior scientist at CIFT, the small fishing boats with a speed of 10 km/h - 15 km/h cannot match the strong winds which blow at 40 km/h - 55 km/h. Most of the vessels here are not scientifically designed adhering to the specifications for stability. “The mandatory life saving equipment and communication systems are also rarely followed by the fisherfolk,” he added.

Sajeev, a fisherman at Chellanam harbour, feels that ₹200, under the financial assistance announced by the fisheries department for Tauktae cyclone affected fishermen, is an unfair compensation for a day’s loss of work, but it is better than nothing. On the other hand, Maliekal who works at the Kochi harbour, is unaware of the ₹200 compensation and did not know anyone who received it.

“Do you think ₹1,000 is enough for a family of four to survive for a month? The government should make provision to provide at least ₹3,000,” said Maliekal.

Emails to the Chief Minister’s officer and fisheries department elicited no response.

*Name changed on request

Published on July 20, 2021

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