Troubled waters
Hard times for India's fisherfolk
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August 2002 - More than two crore traditional fish-workers, living in 400 coastal blocks spread over ten coastal states in the country, are on an agitation to demand implementation of their 42-point charter of demands. These are agreements that have already been reached between different governments and the National Fish-workers’ Forum, as well as cabinet decisions or recommendations of different commissions and high-powered committees. Among these, the prominent demands are the implementation of 21 recommendations of Murari Committee, which were approved by the central cabinet on 27 September 1996.

Among the major recommendations of the Murari Committee were:
  • ensuring an adequate supply of fuel at subsidised rates to fisherfolk
  • the formulation of marine fishing regulations in the entire Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ),
  • an end to joint ventures with foreign entities, and banning foreign fishing vessels from Indian waters
  • the establishment of a fisheries ministry at the centre.
  • the withdrawal of Aquaculture Authority Bill;
  • implementation of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification and ensuring “traditional and customary right of the fishing community” in the coastal zone;
  • an end to legislative attempts to dilute CRZ notification through amendments and an end to attempts to displace fisher people from coastal zone and islands like Jambu and Khirisai of Orissa;
  • cancelling all the fishing licences to foreign vessels issued by the commerce ministry and enacting legislation to give the right to own and manage water bodies; fish resources and fishing implements to the fishing communities that depend on them for livelihood.

According to Harekrushna Debnath, chairperson of NFF and general secretary of World Forum of Fisher People (WFFP), the “do or die” agitation has already begun. Beginning on 1 May, a mass rally was led along the coastline of the country, in two jeep caravans. The rally culminated in Thiruvananthapuram on 14 May 2002, and covered all the 10 coastal states, followed by street corner meetings, public meetings and state level seminars. Debnath further stated that, like land reforms, there should be aquatic reforms in the country to give fishworkers the right to own and manage water bodies, sea, river, lakes, lagoons and dams, apart from owning and managing fishing implements, boats, nets and the distribution of fish. In addition, there should be a proper fisheries management policy to include the fishing community for the conservation of resources and marine ecology and to tackle increasing corporatisation.

The struggle for a Marine Fishing Regulation Act (MFRA) and its implementation has been a long-standing one. Though the Mazumdar Committee recommended that parliament should enact the MFRA in 1978, this has not been done even to this day. Instead, the Marine Fishing Regulation Model Bill was sent to the states to enact the same. The response from the coastal states has not served the intended purpose. The Murari Committee recommended that the Marine Fishing Regulation should be regulated by legislation enacted by the parliament.

On 27 December 1997, the union cabinet decided to accept 21 recommendations of the Murari Committee, but the central government has not shown any interest in implementing them. Subsequently, many agitations took place demanding diesel and kerosene at a subsidised rates, the implementation of the supreme court judgement on aquaculture, the cancellation of all the licenses given to joint venture fishing vessels, and and action on a number of written agreements signed between the ministries concerned and the NFF which the government had failed to implement. Fishing communities blame the government's inaction on all these fronts for their increasing poverty.

With liberalisation gaining momentum, the commerce ministry has withdrawn trade barriers. Due to the open general import of trawlers (fishing vessels), 27 vessels have been bought by Indian companies. Besides, 69 fishing vessels have been permitted to venture in Indian seas – 39 through joint ventures and the rest as leased vessels. The government is thus again giving permission to foreign shipping vessels, despite violent protests by Indian fishing organisations and opposition parties. The commerce minister claims that this is done as per WTO rules. When the question was raised before the trade minister of the European Union during the WTO meet in Doha, he publicly denied any such WTO regulations. The commerce ministry's actions also run counter to the recommendations of the ministry of agriculture.

Significantly, while the first decision of the National Coastal Zone Management Authority was to remove all the impediments to the construction of houses by the fishing communities, this has not been done to date! "What is the use of such an authority?" asks K Alleya, secretary of an association of traditional marine fishermen. According to him the livelihoods of those in coastal arears is controlled by the ministry of environment and forest, which is trying to dilute the CRZ notification by removing all prohibitions one by one. "The tourism lobby is creating havoc throughout the coast. It has to be stopped. Traditional and habitual rights over the coast for fishing communities should be established. Hence, the privatising of the coast for different reasons should be stopped along with the removal of sand for commercial purposes. The environmental protection act of 1986 was meant to protect the environment. It was for this purpose that the CRZ notification was issued in 1991 to protect the coast, the sea and the fishing communities that depend on them".

The ministry of environment and forests has declared 60 species of fish as endangered under the Wildlife Protection Act. Traditional fisherfolk lack the technology to catch fish leaving out these species. Once they are caught they have to be thrown out, in order to escape arrest by the police. Thus, catching of the banned species continues at considerable loss. Coastal communities argue, also, that species that are landed in large quantities, and which have not shown any declining trend so far cannot be considered endangered or threatened!

A good quantity of seashells are also obtained during fishing. When they reach the beaches of Tamil Nadu, the living matter in them is dead. A ban which effectively disallows the collection and use of such material that reaches the shore makes no sense. "It is absurd that the central government takes recourse to the Wildlife Protection Act instead of having a marine fishing regulation in coastal economic zones", argues Kusa Behera, a human rights student of Berhampur University. According to him, “Let the Wildlife Protection Act be used to protect the forest, and marine fishing regulation in the EEZ protect life in the waters of the sea.” Behera further added that over-exploitation by highly effective mechanised fleets (foreign trawlers and super vessels) cause serious depletion of catch per unit for the traditional marine fisherman.

Similarly, the risks involved in the sea for fisherfolk are increasing due to cyclones and other natural calamities. Millions of them have been rendered homeless and have lost their boats and nets, following the super-cyclone that struck the Orissa coast in October 1999. "But they have yet not received cyclone compensation", said Narayana Haldar of Mahakalapada village of Orissa’s cyclone-affected Kendrapara district. With no alternative employment, thousands of them are living in conditions of semi-starvation and thereby facing an uncertain future. "There is a need for a sea-safety mechanism and a long-term action plan to restore their livelihood", argue experts.

With the union government unyielding in its stand, the NFF is all set to involve millions of fisherfolk in their ongoing resistance movement countrywide. More troubled waters lie ahead.

Sudarshan Chhotoray
August 2002

Sudarshan Chhotoray is a freelance journalist based in Bhubaneswar, Orissa. This article is reproduced with permission from Humanscape, under our Space Share program.

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