R Srinivasan

Trawling for a sustainable livelihood

R Srinivasan | Updated on April 17, 2019

Area of neglect Fishermen in the world’s second largest producer have a precarious existence

Fisheries – and fisherfolk – get little policy or political bandwidth, despite India being well-endowed in this sector

When was the last time you saw a story on the fisheries sector on the front page of your newspaper, or heard the word “fisheries” on prime time news television? Chances are, never.

For a country which is home to 10 per cent of the world’s total biodiversity of fish, one which happens to be the world’s second largest producer of fish, has over 1.5 crore people directly dependent on it for survival and gets more than 5 per cent of its GDP and over 10 per cent of its foreign exchange earnings by exporting fish and marine products, fishermen and fisheries get little to no attention from either policy makers or the political class.

Even the creation of the department of fisheries is a fairly recent affair. Earlier, it was an omnibus department comprising dairying and animal husbandry as well. The department is woefully underfunded and, in the absence of strong political oversight, faces little accountability.

House panel rap

In a report tabled in Parliament last year by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on inland fisheries and aquaculture (inland fishery accounts for about 65 per cent of India’s total fish production), the committee caustically observed that despite being funded for assessment and development of water bodies, the department had not reported any actual work carried out and did not even have an estimate for the number of water bodies where aquaculture activities could be carried out.

No wonder that fishermen are finding it difficult to get their voices heard amidst the election din. Even in Tamil Nadu, a key fisheries State which accounts for a seventh of India’s coastline, has over 600 marine fishing villages, and over 12 lakh people directly engaged in fishing, and where their votes could count in as many as 15 Lok Sabha seats in 13 coastal districts, fisherfolk complain that their voice is not heard.

Their list of woes range from the rising cost of diesel to poaching by foreign trawlers to lack of market access and a minimum support price for fish to lack of access to capital and absence of cold storage and processing infrastructure which impacts their earnings directly. Over and above that is periodic, catastrophic losses inflicted by cyclones, and routine harassment by authorities.

To top it all, fishermen on both coasts face the threat of detention by foreign powers — Sri Lanka in the Bay of Bengal and Pakistan in the Gulf of Kutch.

Coastal fishermen, who rely on small country craft and catamarans, on their part, say that mechanised trawlers and indiscriminate fishing, as well as pollution and climate change are destroying their livelihoods. As a recent report in this paper (Fishermen here, are drowning in a sea of grief, April 12) pointed out, coastal fishermen in Odisha do not even have title to the shacks they live in. After cyclone Phailin, they were promised cyclone proof houses and new boats. No houses have been built and only a fraction of those who lost their boats have got replacements.

To top it all, even the meagre subsidies that they get currently are under threat, with both the US and Australia putting pressure to do away with the ‘special and differentiated treatment that India currently enjoys as a developing economy and to cap its subsidies to fisherfolk on a specific and individual basis.

Meagre subsidies

At the moment, subsidies for the fisheries sector include a tax rebate on diesel (this varies), assistance during periods of fishing bans, assistance for procuring equipment and for the creation of marine infrastructure.

It may sound like a lot, but adds up to only around ₹750 crore a year – or ₹500 per capita for India’s 1.5 crore fisherfolk!

It is high time that we took a more focused approach to this sector which contributes a tenth of our total GDP. India is fantastically well endowed as far as fisheries is concerned. It has over 8,118 km of coastline, an exclusive marine economic zone of 2.2 million sq km, nearly 2 lakh km of rivers and canals and more that 5 million hectares of reservoirs and ponds.

A focused thrust on developing inland fisheries and protecting and developing our marine fisheries has the potential to have a transformative impact on coastal and rural economies and livelihoods.

India also needs to up its game to protect its ₹45,000 crore plus export market.

Phytosanitary, as well as tariff barriers are erected by a number of competing major economies with a significant fisheries sector. For instance, India’s shrimp exports have been hit hard by bans imposed by the EU and the US for alleged antibiotic presence.

Our policy response, both on the domestic and international fronts, though, has been leaden footed. The National Fisheries Development Board, set up in 2006 with the lofty objectives of providing “focussed attention towards fisheries and aquaculture; achieving sustainable management and conservation of natural aquatic resources and to provide modern mechanisms for effective fisheries management and optimum utilization” among others, has done little so far apart from a few schemes.

Maybe the current elections might bring some change. Both, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi have promised to create a separate ministry for fisheries (currently, it is a department under the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare). One could argue that a mere ministry does not mean that the target sector will actually benefit (just look at agriculture!) but at least it will be a start.

Published on April 17, 2019

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