Kerala plays a crucial role in India's marine sector. Of the 10 lakh (one million) active fishermen spread over nine coastal states, 2.5 lakh are in Kerala. About 6 lakh people eke out their living from allied activities like fish vending and processing. Kerala contributes 20 per cent of the country's fish production, and 24 per cent of the state's export comes from this sector. On average, the country earns foreign exchange to the tune of Rs.1,200 crores from Kerala's marine exports. The State's fisheries sector is a huge one, comprising of 28,000 country crafts, 27,000 mechanised crafts and 5,000 trawling boats. There are 12 active fishermen for every square kilometre of coastal seas in the state, compared to three at the national level. About 25 per cent of the active fishermen, 32 per cent of trawling efforts and over 90 per cent of ring seine fishing are concentrated in the state.

But in recent years the trade and economic policies of the central government, as well as the lack of positive intervention from the state government, have affected the sector adversely. Despite several studies confirming that trawling is depleting the marine resources of the state waters and causing serious perturbation at sea bottom, trawling still continues unrestricted except for 45-day bans during monsoons. The traditional fishermen who were forced to go in for mechanisation are virtually walking into debt traps. The operational costs of the traditional crafts with outboard engines that use kerosene and petrol as fuel come to about Rs.15,000. "How can we afford this?" asks A G Falgunan, a traditional fisherman who has been catching fish for last 20 years. "We don’t get enough subsidies for kerosene."

That's why he and many others like him turned to big country crafts with inboard engines, which use ring seine nets. The operational cost of these kappal vallams is comparatively less (around Rs.8000) as they use diesel as fuel. But they require huge investments varying between Rs.35 to 50 lakhs. Fishermen form small groups with 15-20 members to raise the money. "But we can raise only one or two lakhs," points out K K Shilli, another fisherman and one of the group leaders. The Matsyafed, a semi-government body working for the welfare of the fisher folk, lends up to Rs.8 lakhs. “And the rest we borrow from money lenders for high interest rates up to 50 per cent. How much ever we try, we are unable to repay the debt." And invariably most of the fishermen fall into debt traps. They cannot approach commercial banks, as they do not have solid collaterals to offer.

Pic: Traditional fishermen face a dwindling livelihood

But even if they have sufficient collaterals, banks cannot offer them loans. This is because these country crafts are not legal in the strict technical sense. They do not have licences from any government agencies, nor are they registered anywhere. Licences for crafts with a length of 20 m and above are to be issued by the port authorities. The safety of the crafts is one of the main criteria. These boats, not being constructed with scientific design and planning, have a tendency to tilt and are not considered safe. Again, licences will be issued only if the driver and syrang of the craft are qualified and possess individual licences. Traditional fishermen with such qualifications are rare to find.

Importing fish

The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed between India and Thailand in August 2003 has come as a fatal blow to the traditional fishing community in the country. 82 commodities/products are included in the agreement's Early Harvest Scheme. These items will be allowed to be imported free of duty from September 2006. The items include fish varieties like sardine, mackerel, anchovies, crab, etc. The influx of these fish varieties will hit the traditional fisherman very hard, as the artisan fishworkers in Kerala depend largely on oil sardine and mackerel.

The FTA will hit Kerala the worst. Last year trade unions in the fisheries sector in the state formulated a joint action council and organised demonstrations and agitations to protest the decision, but to no avail. And when the Indo-ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) FTA becomes effective from January 2007, the situation is bound to become worse as tariffless import of fish is envisaged in this FTA also.

"If the government allows duty-free import then the prices of local catches will fall drastically," points out T N Lavan, who represents the coastal region in Edavanakkad Gram Panchayat of Ernakulam district. This is exactly what happened in the farm sector too. "Now the farmers are committing suicide. Import of fish, whether raw or processed, will very badly affect the fisheries sector. The fishermen too will have the same fate of the farmers," says Falgunan.

A report by the A G Kalawar Committee appointed by the state government in 1985 had pointed out that the coastal waters of the state could afford to have only 1145 trawlers. But at present the state has 5000 trawlers. Number of traditional fishing crafts has also increased from 20,000 in 1961 to 55,000 in 2005.

 •  Livelihoods in the nets
 •  Big fish, little fish

The Doha round of the World Trade Organisation had removed fish and fish products from the list of agricultural products and reclassified them as 'Non Agricultural Market Access' (NAMA) products. The WTO has been insisting that whatever subsidies are being given to fisheries sector be removed or reduced drastically. Not just financial aid, but even public sector fish landing centres and fishing harbours are 'subsidies' in the eyes of WTO.

Who is responsible?

Leaders of trade unions and associations of different segments of the fishing sector feel that to address the present crises, an independent Union Ministry for Fisheries should be set up immediately. At present four Ministries are handling the fisheries sector — Agriculture Ministry for fishing, Commerce for fish export, Food Processing for fish processing, and Finance Ministry for funding. "This multiple control ends up in confusion and lack of coordination," says Lal Koyiparambil of Kerala Swathanthra Matsyathozhilali Federation. "What the Central Government needs to do immediately is to formulate a clear-cut national fisheries policy. Only an independent ministry can do this."

But the Central Government has not been inclined to grant this long-standing demand. Also, it is silent on the recommendations of the P Murari Committee that was appointed to look into the problems of the fisheries sector. The committee made 21 crucial recommendations in 1996, including a total ban on deep-sea fishing by foreign vessels. But last year the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government decided to give licenses to 725 Indian/Joint venture companies. The joint ventures are only a front for foreign companies; the only condition to be fulfilled by them is to produce proof of the Indian partner having 51 percent of the shares, a simple task for multinationals with Indian subsidiaries.

"The developed countries, after exhausting their marine resources through over exploitation, are now targeting the developing countries," says Charles George, president of the Kerala Matsya Thozhilali Iyakya Vedi (TUCI). "This has to be prevented at any cost." He further points out that other recommendations of the committee like giving ownership of and responsibility for conserving and maintaining water resources to the traditional fishermen, and providing them with fuel subsidies, have not been implemented.

Even though fisheries is a State subject, the State government is unable to set the course, given the trade agreements and policies of the Centre. Nor does it implement its own policies for the sector. The previous Congress-led United Democratic Front government in the state had formulated a state fisheries policy, which has remained only on paper. The policy states that strict measures will be taken to prevent over-fishing in the coastal waters. State policy is also clear that fish resources will be protected by reducing the size of the crafts and nets, and increasing the size of the net-mesh to allow juveniles to slip through. But except for the monsoon trawling ban, little else has been done. Even though there are over 600 inboard engine crafts without licences in the state, no steps have been taken to get them registered after scientifically redesigning the crafts.

The new CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front government in the state, which came to power three months ago in April, has allocated Rs.3,000 crores in the budget for the fisheries sector. But with crucial issues unresolved, mere allocations for welfare measures may not save the sector from a disastrous future. (Quest Features & Footage)