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Social and communal tensions along the Kerala coast

For centuries, Kerala’s fishing communities shared the ocean’s resources and maintained close social and economic ties despite cultural and religious differences. In recent years however, explains N P Chekkutty, international subsidies, the stringent conditions of global trade, and intense competition from international fishing conglomerates have seen a sharp decline in profits. The resultant impoverishment, anger and discontent have opened the doors to communalism and violence

The southwestern coast of India, consisting mainly of Kerala and south Konkan, is one of the richest in the country in terms of biodiversity, abundance of fish stocks, cultural diversity of fishing communities, and historical traditions. With a recorded history of fishing life and trade relations with far-flung countries like ancient Greece, Rome and the Arabs going back almost 2,000 years, life in this coastal belt has been comparatively friction-free and prosperous. There was abundant trade in spices and other valuables through major ports like Panthalayani and Kodungallur -- known as Fandalini and Muziris in Arab and Roman texts -- and the sea has been bountiful. The life of the coastal people was comfortable and peaceful, as they devised their own traditional methods of sorting out differences, methods that have remained in place for centuries.

But all this has changed. In the past four decades there have been violent clashes that have split the fishing community vertically, along communal lines. Such incidents have become regular in recent years, making it necessary to understand the socio-economic factors behind them.

Kerala is one of India’s nine maritime states, and it is also the largest fish-producing state in the country. It contributes more than 30% of India’s total marine fish production and over 36% of marine exports. Kerala enjoys a long and unbroken coastline that extends for 590 km; nine of its 14 districts have the Arabian Sea as their western border.

Kerala has an economic zone of 36,000 sq km of sea that is rich in diversity; over 100 varieties of fish are found here. According to a 1976 estimate, the fishery resource potential of the continental shelf of Kerala is around 8 lakh tonnes a year, of which 4 lakh tonnes is considered to be from the inshore sea area of 0-50 m depth. In 1991, the working group on resources, constituted by the Government of India, estimated Kerala’s marine potential at around 5.70 lakh tonnes per annum.

The abundance and diversity of fish resources in Kerala’s inshore sea is the result of unique geographical and oceanographic features. These shores lie 20 degrees north of the equator, with relatively warm and stable climatic conditions round the year. Besides, the Arabian Sea estuaries are nourished by 41 rivers originating in the Western Ghats; in fact, a river joins the sea at every 15 km, on an average, providing fresh water and the right mix of salt and nutrients for all forms of marine life to flourish. Sandy and muddy sub-strata, large coral reefs, rich benthic vegetation and protective coastal plants like mangroves are other important factors that aid biodiversity. The two monsoon cycles, occurring every year, enrich the sea with oxygen and fresh water.

According to recent figures, more than 1.5 million people depend on fisheries for their livelihood. Official figures state that there are around 150,000 active fishermen along the Kerala coast, working both in the traditional artisanal sector as well as in the mechanised sector.

Till 1989-90, fish catches were abundant, reaching almost 6.5 lakh tonnes. Then there was a steady drop. In 1991, catches dropped to 5.64 lakh tonnes, and the next year, 5.61 lakh tonnes. In the past one decade there has been a fall in marine catch, putting a lot of pressure on Kerala’s fishing population. This is one of the main reasons behind the growing social strife in coastal regions. As pressure on marine resources mounts, so too have social tensions in Kerala’s coastal villages.

Traditionally, fishing communities maintained their social and economic ties on the basis of  common property resources. They developed a number of social institutions that effectively oversaw disputes. These institutions, which continued to flourish for generations, have been under increasing pressure in recent times, mainly because of social and economic changes in the post-Independence years.

Two big changes are the advent of mechanised fishing and the pressures of economic liberalisation and globalisation. Traditional skills ruled fishing operations till the late-1960s. These artisans had developed their own skills based on rural technology. Historians say that this traditional knowledge system goes back to early historical times in south India, indicated in the rich Sangam literary texts that belong to the period between the 3rd century BC and the 3rd century AD. According to scholars, the southern region -- known generally as Tamilakam, which included almost the entire region south of the Deccan -- was divided into five geographical segments. The people who inhabited the coasts, known as Neithal, were described as Meenavar or Paravar in Sangam literature. The Sangam texts refer to a variety of fishing operations and also mention fish like ayala (salmon) and sraku (shark), still popular in the region. They speak of marakkalam, a wooden vessel that floats on the water. Those who operated the marakkalams later came to be known as Marakkars, a seafaring community in the south.

Traditional Hindu fisherfolk are divided into 12 sub-castes on the southwestern coast, prominent among them being the Mokayas, Mukkuvas, Valers, Nulayars, Arayas and Mokaveeras. For administrative purposes, the groups were clubbed as one -- the Dheevaras -- through a 1961 government order giving them other backward classes (OBC) status because of their social and educational backwardness. These communities were ruled and controlled by the sthanis (seniors) or kadakkoties (sea-courts) of the respective area, which obtained theetturams, or decrees, from the local rulers; they had de facto control over the social and economic life of the people. These systems were in force till the end of the colonial administration that had accepted the kadakkoties, or sea-courts, as a legitimate quasi-judicial authority in matters relating to seafaring activities.

Though these communities keep their separate identities and have separate deities, in recent years there has been visible communal consolidation among them as a result of the spread of communal and identity politics along the coastal belt. Sociologists point out that in many places the mother goddess, Kurumba Bhagavathy, has been replaced by new deities like Vettekkorumakan, indicating a shift from a matrilinear to a patrilinear society.

The present demographic patterns among fishing communities in the south of India have remained unchanged for years: Muslims and Christians have been part of coastal society since the advent of these religions in the region. The demographic strength of both these communities is almost equal, with 27% of the population being backward caste Hindus, 30% Muslims, and 37% Catholic Christians, mainly Latin Catholics who are confined to southern parts of Kerala. Many Hindu temples owned by the Mokayas had established customs like special avakasams or rights for Muslim families. For example, a Mokaya temple in Vatakara observed a tradition in which Muslim families in the vicinity made ceremonial offerings of betel leaves and areca nuts at the annual festival.

Now, all that is history.  A communal agenda is taking hold. All social occasions are now observed separately, with society and the public sphere consciously stratified and divided. Why this change towards social mobilisation along communal lines?

The economics of impoverishment

As huge mechanised trawlers began to dominate the coastline from the mid-’60s, traditional fishermen, whose small vessels were unable to compete with the trawlers, were pushed to the sidelines. The seeds of discontent among the coastal people were sown by this shift in technology, with no proper assessment of the impact of these policies on the poor. A new class of entrepreneur -- the moneylender-cum-boat-owner -- took economic control of the beaches, and tensions began to mount. There were clashes everywhere between the new class of mechanised boat workers and the traditional fish workers. Later, as the miseries of this impoverished class of people became more acute, the area became fertile ground for the spread of communal and divisive ideologies, with communal organisations playing on people’s fears.

The economic relationship of various people employed in fishing activities, from boat-owner to worker to vendor, had been based on a system of sharing; all sections were entitled to a definite share in the proceeds, and everyone had a specific role in decision-making. For example, in a 12-man boat that is usually owned jointly by two or three people -- most of them working as part of the crew -- workers had the right to a one-third share in the proceeds.

The 1960s, however, saw the advent of an Indo-Norwegian project that emphasised capital-intensive fishing technology. The project, implemented on the southwestern and southeastern coasts, was a three-party agreement signed by the United Nations, Norway, and the Government of India. It was first implemented along the Travancore-Kochi coast during 1959-63, followed by the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu coasts in 1963-73.

The project was based on a model quite successful in Scandinavian fishing countries like Norway and Sweden. It promoted a western-style industrial fishery development strategy that focused on exports, and led to over-exploitation and speedy depletion of marine resources.

This soon resulted in the first series of physical clashes between the boat-workers and traditional fisherfolk, and organised violence became the norm in fishing villages. A senior activist with the Malsya Thozhilali Federation in Ernakulam recalls that the first clash was reported in the Mandapam-Tuticorin area of Tamil Nadu in the mid-’70s, when as many as 110 trawlers were set on fire and 16 fishermen killed. The violence spread to the Kerala beaches in the late-’70s, when protests were held against the impact of new economic policies being imposed on the fisheries sector. The protests were led by church leaders like Fr Paul Arakkal, who, in the 1980s, became one of the leading figures of the Kerala State Swathanthra Malsya Thozhilali Federation.

The shift in fishery policy was a conscious one: from the mid-’60s the government began emphasising the introduction of new technologies. State support and subsidies were chiefly made available for investment in mechanised boats and the latest fish processing technology, while support for traditional artisanal fisheries was practically withdrawn. The result was a massive increase in boat fleets operating with modern nets and gear. These fleets were so efficient they quickly monopolised most of the marine wealth, with no regard for species regeneration or environmental protection.

This policy had a number of long-term effects. First, over-exploitation led to a decline in marine wealth. This sharp and sudden drop was noticed as early as the 1970s. Up to the mid-’70s, there was an increase in fish landings; then a steady decline in prawn landings and fluctuations in overall fish catches. Artisanal fisherfolk experienced an almost 50% drop in productivity in the period 1969-70 to 1979-80. Their share in the total catch decreased sharply. In spite of the introduction of a trawling ban, in the mid-’80s, the over-fishing continued with new foreign trawlers entering Indian waters. By the end of 2000, the situation had become serious with a substantial drop in overall catch, indicating that fishing activities had far exceeded the maximum sustainable limit.

One new dimension is that boat-owners and artisanal fisherfolk -- traditional rivals -- have now joined forces to set up joint action councils to fight the entry of foreign operators into the fisheries sector and the import of fishery products envisaged as part of various international agreements. The latest and most important of these agreements is the Indo-ASEAN free trade agreement, signed in August 2009, which envisages the import of various fish items to India; this is expected to have an acute impact on local fisher people.

The second major impact of the new developments was irreparable ecological destruction. Species regeneration was seriously affected, showing a depletion of resources, right from the mid-’70s. The Kerala government decided to introduce a trawling ban during the monsoons -- the reproductive season -- in 1981, but it had to revoke the order within three days under pressure from the mechanised boat lobby. With agitations turning violent, a 45-day fishing ban on trawlers was later introduced; it comes into force on June 15 every year.

The third impact was the pauperisation of traditional fishing communities. Fishermen today are not considered important stakeholders; many have been reduced to wage labourers. The common ownership pattern which once was the mainstay of life along the coast, has been replaced by a new class that includes powerful boat-owners-cum-moneylenders, trade unions, community organisations, middlemen and traders, political parties, and communal organisations.

The transformation of the old social order based on common social ownership principles into a class-based exploitative economy in the short span of a few years has had a tremendous impact on the people. They were rendered jobless, their traditional craft made useless, and the sea, whose wealth was considered a common asset, was turned into raw material for private capitalist enterprise.

Dr K N Ganesh, who did a major study on the social and economic factors leading to communal tensions in Maradu, a coastal village in Kozhikode where a series of violent communal clashes took place, describes it as a state of total helplessness in the fishing villages, caused by intense competition, huge indebtedness and poverty and no effort on the part of the government or any other agency to help fisherfolk survive.

Many have left their homes looking for jobs in the Gulf, and an influx of their remittances soon added a new dimension to the existing social tensions. K V Devadas, who has observed the changing lives of fisher people in Madappally in north Malabar, asserts that while one section continued to live in abject poverty, a new class of new-rich came up among them. A visit to Maradu proves the point: the new houses built along the beach, mainly by Gulf returnees, are made of cement and concrete and have granite and marble flooring. Their neighbours, meanwhile, live in slum-like dwellings. The existence of abject poverty alongside a vulgar exhibition of wealth has been one of the major catalysts of communal tensions in many fishing villages, from Chombala in the north to Thaikal in central Kerala. It’s the same story in the south, although the players and their communities differ.

Over the last four decades, the southwestern coast has witnessed a series of violent clashes. They can be divided into two types: those between the traditional fisherfolk and the new class of speedboat fishermen (quite common in the 1970s and 1980s), and those of a communal nature -- between the Hindu fishing communities on one side and Muslims or Christians on the other. In the southern parts, it was between Christians and Muslims. This second type of confrontation became rampant mainly after the 1980s, although some flashpoints like Maradu have a history of occasional communal violence from the early-’60s.

At Naduvattom, near Maradu, incidents of a communal nature led to police firing in 1958; in Madappally, near Vatakara, clashes occurred among the fisherfolk over political disputes between the communists and the Congress Party, in the late-’60s; in Vatanappally, in Trissur, similar incidents were reported two decades ago. In Thaikal, near Cherthala in Alappuzha, clashes occurred between Hindu and Christian fishermen, resulting in five deaths in 2002; Vizhinjam and Poonthura in the south are well-known as sensitive areas with occasional outbursts between the different communities. Maradu witnessed two violent incidents that left over a dozen Hindus and Muslims dead. In Valiyathura, near Thiruvananthapuram, six people -- all Muslim fisher people -- were shot dead by police in 2009. Minor communal clashes are common throughout the region, resulting in loss of human life and property. According to police sources, there are dozens of sensitive pockets along the coast.

The seeds of a new social movement 

In the hills, especially in districts like Wayanad, the past few years have witnessed an unprecedented decline in agricultural activities and a spate of farmer suicides. Recent studies by independent scholars as well as the official machinery have concluded that the decline in farm profitability and consequent debt trap posed by the import of cheap agricultural products, rise in input costs, and dependence on global market forces are the root causes of the farmers’ misery. Most of the state’s major agricultural products like coconut, spices and rubber are prone to international market price fluctuations and are dependent on them. According to the Economic Review of Kerala, 2005, the recent Indo-Sri Lankan Free Trade Agreement, allowing free imports of pepper, and the South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA) among SAARC countries have had a negative impact on the agricultural sector, especially as regards rubber, palm oil, pepper and marine products. The ASEAN Trade Agreement, signed in August 2009, is also feared to have a negative impact on Kerala’s economy. 

While the serious situation in the farm sector received the full attention of policymakers (thanks to a spate of farmer suicides) and the media, fisher people, who face a similar situation in coastal villages, are largely ignored. While the farmers had their influential political and trade organisations that kept their grievances on the national agenda, the fisherfolk had no such organised lobby and were trapped in the clutches of obscurantist and communal outfits, as seen in the coastal villages of Kerala in the past few decades. Instead of fighting a common enemy, the fisher people fought among themselves, leaving the wealth of the sea to be plundered by local middlemen and the global marine industry.

However, coastal social relations are now undergoing a transformation mainly due to the impact of globalisation policies. The age-old enmity between traditional fisherfolk and mechanised boat crews, which has been a major source of conflict in coastal regions since the late-’60s, is giving way to new contradictions. Mechanised boat crews and traditional artisans are now coming together to fight the new forces entering the fray.

The changes in economic and social relations within the fisheries sector were evident from the early days of globalisation, as the mechanised boat lobby and traditional fisherfolk began holding joint agitations to protect their rights. Take, for instance, the trawling ban. It was first enforced in Kerala and other southern states in 1988 when studies proved the depletion of fish resources owing to trawling by mechanised boats. Although there was stiff resistance from the mechanised boat segment in the initial days, in the past decade, a ban varying from 30 to 62 days has been imposed on them. Traditional fisherfolk in their small vessels are allowed to venture out to sea. State government figures show that the trawling ban did augment fish stocks. At the peak of heavy trawling through the years, from 1977 to 1986, annual average fish landings in Kerala declined to around 3.49 lakh tonnes. The ban was imposed in 1988; the figures for the period 1988 to 1997 show that fish landings increased to 4.58 lakh tonnes, and from 1998 to 2005 to 5.75 lakh tonnes.

But the gains from the increased fish wealth did not benefit the ordinary fisherfolk. Today, the fishing sector is dominated by huge vessels operated by Indian and foreign owners as part of new international agreements. The annual Economic Review of the Kerala government for 2005 notes: “Subsidy reform in the fishery sub-sector forms part of the multilateral trade negotiations agreed at the fourth ministerial conference (of the WTO) at Doha. Significant work on the relationship between fishery subsidies and overfishing has been done by various international organisations in recent years… Most of them focused on marine capture fisheries rather than aquaculture.”

Fishing bans and rich-country subsidies in the fisheries sector are having a severe impact on the fisheries sector. Many small and medium export-processing firms in Kerala have been badly affected. This is the backdrop to the emerging unity among mechanised boat fishermen and traditional fisherfolk. In fact, the traditional sector is now almost extinct; its negligible catch caters exclusively to the local market. The mechanised segment provides fish products for the export-processing firms that operate in various parts of the state.

According to recent figures, there are roughly 4,300 mechanised fishing boats in Kerala while the number of inboard-engine-fitted canoes is only around 400. A recent report in The Hindu claimed that many boat-owners are in deep debt as catches in the past year have been lean. The Kerala State Fishing Boat Operators Association estimates that each operator has to spend Rs 2.5-3 lakh on annual maintenance. Painting alone costs between Rs 75,000-90,000. With new trade agreements covering marine resources, the financial stability of the local fisher people is under strain.

Then there is the investment needed to compete in the international market, according to agreements on sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) conditions. SPS conditions have been harsh for small and medium exporters, with bans being imposed by rich countries like the European Union, Japan and the United States. The ban on shrimp from Bangladesh, Nile perch from Uganda and some shipments from India are recent examples, pointed out by the Kerala government’s Economic Review.

According to a 2001 estimate, global subsidies in the fishing sector are as high as US$ 15 billion, most of which goes to fishermen in rich countries. In order to achieve safety standards in conformity with European Union norms, exporters will have to set up their own capital-intensive Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plants. The Economic Review points out that the installation cost of HACCP plants in India varies between Rs 10-25 million. The annual maintenance cost itself would be around Rs 2 million, increasing pre-export handling charges by an additional Rs 7-10 per kg of fish products. The government document says that the state will have to move towards international standards for product hygiene in order to retain its existing market share in the overseas market. Exporters involved in the marine sector claim that the cost of such factories is much higher; a number of exporting firms have faced ruin in recent years owing to rejection of shipments because of the strict standards set by importing countries.

The present situation calls for huge investments, even as the fisheries sector faces a major setback with falling prices, cost escalations, intense competition, and other problems. All this explains the high levels of anger.

The new scenario offers some hope for the future. Unlike in the past when a divisive and obscurantist ideology took control of the masses in fishing villages, the new situation has forced people to recognise external economic aggression and the need for a united front to face it. This united front transcends caste and communal divisions, based on a rational and realistic agenda. It could be the basis for a secular political movement in the coastal regions.

(N P Chekkutty is a Kerala-based journalist. He is presently Executive Editor of Tejas, a Malayalam daily. This article is based on a three-part series on the economic underpinnings of communal polarisation of Kerala’s fisher community, researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2006)

Infochange News & Features, April 2010