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Fish wars in the Global South

By Anosh Malekar

Ten thousand tonnes of fish that would have been available for the common man are converted into fish meal to produce 1,000 tonnes of shrimp that only the rich can afford to buy, says Thomas Kocherry, who has for decades been organising coastal communities around the right to fish. In this interview he explains the challenges faced by 13 million fisher people in India who face displacement, the predatory practices of industrial fishing fleets, and pollution

 Thomas Kocherry was born in 1940 in Changanassery, an inland fishing community in Kerala. He studied chemistry and law at Kerala University. As a young man, he started working for Bangladeshi refugees and fisher communities, and went on to help found the Kerala Independent Fishworkers Federation and serve as chairperson of the National Fishworkers Forum from 1982 to 1996. He continues to mobilise fisher people to fight against destructive fishing and water pollution, organises coastal communities around the right to fish, and pushes for a stronger voice in Indian fishing policy.

Kocherry was general coordinator of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples and helped organise the World Summit for Sustainable Development. He is a co-convener of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, a national network of community struggles in India. An ordained priest, he is also a member of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, a Roman Catholic congregation founded in 1732 to work among marginalised people in over 77 countries around the world.

Tom, as he is referred to in close circles, also teaches the theology and spirituality of people's movements at a number of seminaries across India and abroad.

In this interview to Infochange, Kocherry speaks at length about the challenges facing India’s fisher people and their struggle since the 1970s.

What challenges do fisher people face today?

India’s coastline stretches over roughly 7,500 km and is dotted with small villages inhabited by around 13 million traditional fisher people. Most of them live below the poverty line and are illiterate. They catch around 40 lakh tonnes of fish annually. The lives of these fisher people have been organically linked to the coast for centuries.

The aim of multinationals, and some rich local inhabitants, is to transform the coast into a money-making haven. In the name of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and tourism development, more and more people are being displaced from the coast. And, in the midst of it all, there are natural disasters like tsunamis, cyclones, floods, etc.

The coast is also closely linked to inland waters, rivers, lakes and reservoirs, many of which are slowly drying up and becoming polluted. The condition of the fisher people is fast deteriorating. Catch per vessel is decreasing, and debt among fishermen is on the rise.

Is globalisation responsible for this?

Globalisation began with colonialism. In the 16th century, Europeans began to migrate and conquer other continents. The sword and the cross went together. The conquerors forcibly enslaved and converted natives and indigenous peoples. They took their lands, exploited the resources, and accumulated wealth. In the 20th century, the world witnessed a number of people’s uprisings for political freedom. But economic exploitation has continued through multinational and transnational corporations. The rich and the ruling classes in the newly-freed Third World generally side with the foreign corporations against the interests of the common people. As a result, according to a UN study, today, a 20% minority in the northern hemisphere has cornered or controls 82.7% of the world’s gross national product, 81.2% of world trade, 94.6% of all commercial lending, 80.5% of all domestic investment, 80.6% of all domestic savings, and 94.0% of all research and development.

It is in this context that we need to understand ‘globalisation’. Those who have more are bound to get more. This means more accumulation and centralisation. The North’s 20% people are better placed to take away even the 10-20% of wealth left in the hands of 80% of the people in the South.

But how has globalisation impacted fisheries in particular?

The first surge of fishing vessels came during the Industrial Revolution. It tapered off during the two World Wars, but began again in the 1950s through the 1970s. The world’s fishing fleet doubled between 1970 and 1990. In the 1990s, fishing reached the point of diminishing returns. Indeed, many fish populations have fallen to levels from which they can no longer recover. There are simply too many boats catching too many fish.

More than 100 million people in developing countries in the South are dependent on fisheries for their livelihood. For them, fishing is a way of life, not a source of profit. The sea is like a mother. Traditionally, small-scale or artisanal fishers provided fish for local consumption; but as fish became scarce and its value increased, people found they could no longer afford it.

Most governments, particularly those of the North, promote unsustainable fishing. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), every year governments worldwide pay US$116 billion to catch just $70 billion worth of fish. Developed nations, which have over-fished their own waters, have headed into the waters of developing nations. The European Union (EU) has around 40% more vessels than is necessary to catch fish on a sustainable basis.

Volatile ‘fish wars’ are commonplace. There are over 1 million large industrial fleets in the world that have depleted the world’s oceans. These industrial fleets have organic links with the coastal mono shrimp culture. Fresh fish caught by industrial vessels is converted into fish meal for the production of shrimp. Ten thousand tonnes of fish that would have been available for the common man are converted into fish meal to produce 1,000 tonnes of shrimp that only the rich can afford to buy.

What is the impact on traditional fisher communities in India?

With its long coastline and innumerable rivers and lakes, India has one of the largest populations of fisher people in the world. Estimates vary between 10 and 13 million, of which one-third constitute marine fisher folk and two-thirds depend on fishing in inland waters.

The Indian fishing community covers a wide spectrum -- tribal, dalit, Hindu, Christian and Muslim. They are generally extremely poor and have low social status and little political power. Each community is socially stratified, particularly on a class (rather than caste) basis. Local merchants often hold positions of power, as moneylenders.

Each religious group generally lives in a compact geographical area, though there are a few exceptions where Christians, Muslims and Hindus live together. Traditionally, they have lived as enclosed societies gathered around the church, mosque or temple which gives them their identity.

Incidents of communal clashes over fishing rights are rare. Because there are usually clearly demarcated areas and times for fishing and landing among the various communities, fishing populations have worked together in harmony. 

Over the centuries, the fisher people have amassed a vast fund of knowledge about the resources in their immediate vicinity, and have developed a variety of technologies tailored to specific ecological niches along the coast. This accounts for the immense diversity of artisanal fishing techniques in the country, the hallmark of which has been their ecological sophistication rather than an orientation towards quick monetary gain.

In the south of India, 40% of fishing crafts are still the traditional catamaran -- a canoe built out of three logs of lightweight albyzzia wood, bound together by rope.

When did the process of modernisation begin?

The modernisation of Indian fisheries started in the 1950s with a Norwegian-financed project involving the introduction of mechanised boats and renovation of a port in Kerala. The aim was to help traditional fishermen increase their production, but in reality the project brought them nothing but trouble as they did not have the necessary capital to invest in the more expensive gear and fuel needed for mechanised boats. Nor did they have access to markets to sell their larger catches. This was only the beginning of their woes.

In the following decades, outsiders started coming in with trawlers that scrape the bottom of the sea anddeplete fish stocks by destroying larvae and young fish. The economy underwent a marked technological polarisation, with traditional fisher people rapidly losing their hold on a livelihood that had kept them going for generations. By 1975, Kerala alone had 3,500 mechanised trawlers. In 1997, their number across India was around 23,000.

But it was the arrival of purseiners (mechanised trawlers that encircle the fish with a long net and draw the bottom closed to capture them) in the 1970s and 1980s that caused near panic among the fish workers and led to violent clashes. The trawlers cut the nets and damaged the boats of smaller fishermen. The government of Kerala had set apart inshore waters up to a depth of 20 metres exclusively for traditional fish workers, but the trawlers did not keep to the rules because prawns are normally found within these waters.

In recent years, the greatest predators of all have been industrial fishing vessels whose trade is sustained largely by demand in the United States and Europe for fish meal for farm animal feed and pet foods. Jobs provided by industrial fishing are few, and working conditions rarely comply with the labour standards set by the International Labour Organisation. Even if these huge vessels were to be prevented from encroaching on coastal waters, the ecological damage caused by deep sea industrial fishing would still mean the destruction of species essential to coastal fishing.

In the mid-1980s, the Government of India began to support the motorisation of traditional fishing craft. By 1993, however, only around 13% of vessels had been fitted with engines, and the expected massive transformation from artisanal crafts to boat fishing did not take place. Fishermen who fitted outboard motors to their crafts became dependent on multinational companies whose high prices for their machines and spare parts soon led those with little capital into debt. Moreover, kerosene and diesel were in short supply, therefore expensive.

In the landmark judgment of June 23, 1993, the Supreme Court of India summed up the situation: “Over the years, while the population of the traditional fishermen has increased by more than 20.8%, the average production of each fisherman declined by more than half, which resulted in 98.5% of the fishermen population descending below the poverty line.”

What about inland fishing?

The plight of inland fish workers as a result of four decades of ‘development’ is probably even worse than that of marine-based fishermen. Water pollution, construction of huge dams, deforestation due to industrialisation and other encroachments, siltation, and land reclamation have all drastically reduced fish availability.

In recent years, these problems have been compounded by the government’s push for industrial fishing and aquaculture, involving large tracts of land being taken over for prawn farming by national elites and multinational investors. The prawns are destined for the apparently insatiable markets of the United States and Europe. Usually, after about 10 years, productivity declines and disease sets in among the prawns. So the aquaculturists move on, taking over more land and leaving saline, toxic wastelands in their wake.  

My contention is that an alternative already exists in the form of traditional small-scale coastal aquaculture and coastal fishing operations that are presently being carried out by millions of fisher folk in Asia. These coastal communities that are facing the threat of displacement and loss of livelihood are the human foundation on which an alternative should be built. And the numerous low-lying inter-tidal coastal zones and inshore seas are the ecosystem foundations on which to build this alternative.

An important aspect of the alternative is to support the cause of small-scale coastal marine fishery and actively promote techniques that do not distort ecosystem dynamics. In a sense, it is like going back to the future. There is a need to harmonise strategies for food production with nature’s principles of ecosystem dynamics. This is the only sustainable manner in which we can maximise the benefits derived from it, with the least possible negative social and ecological impact.

Could you recount the struggle of fishing communities in India?

From the mid-’70s, there have been spontaneous outbursts of violence in different parts of the country between small trawlers and the catamaran fishermen. The first big clash occurred near Chennai on the east coast of India, in May 1976, resulting in loss of human life. Tamil Nadu was under President’s Rule then and no serious action was taken despite the fact that the state government, as early as 1964, had issued an order granting artisanal fishermen exclusive fishing rights within three miles of the coast.

But, although buoys were placed at sea to demarcate fishing areas they could hardly prevent trawlers in pursuit of shrimp coming closer to the shore. Peeved at official inaction, traditional fishermen took the law into their own hands and started burning trawlers. The bloodiest revolt was witnessed in Tuticorin where, by the end of 1976, fishermen had destroyed 11 trawlers, risking 16 lives in the process.

Simultaneous protests broke out in the former Portuguese colony of Goa on the west coast, where rampon nets are used for fishing. These eco-friendly nets give a good catch and have traditionally provided hundreds of fisherfolk along Goa’s 150 km coastline with a good source of income.

In 1977, no longer able to accept the way the catch was dwindling, rampon fisherman Piedade Fernandes of Velsao in south Goa, declared: “Velsao is a quiet bay. The entire population of 3,750 people is engaged in traditional fishing. There are 28 shore-seines here and around 145 smaller canoes for gill net fishing. First, the Birla-owned Zuari Agro Chemicals Ltd ejected its effluents into our bay, polluting the waters, now the trawlers are destroying our nets and taking away the fish. We have to hit back.”

The otherwise-fun-loving Goans suddenly woke up to the fact that they were being colonised once again, this time by business interests targeting their shores. New chemical industries were depositing poisonous effluents in the sea; the tourism industry was privatising beaches for foreign tourists; and, worst of all, newly-introduced purseiners and trawlers were depleting their fish stocks.

Goans were angered not only by rising fish prices but by the fact that certain varieties of fish were no longer available. ‘Goan fish for the Goans’, ‘Save Goa, Save Our Beaches’: these were the dominant slogans as hundreds of rampon fishermen took to the streets and, for over a year, sustained a struggle demanding marine fishing regulation.

Mathany Saldanha, a young schoolteacher, took the lead in an organisation called Goenchea Ramponkarancho Ekvott (GRE). In June 1978, Mathany and Xavier Pinto, an enthusiastic young Redemptionist priest, began travelling along the coast making contact with activists, citizens’ groups and NGOs involved with the fishing community in the south. They met large groups of women net-weavers in Kanyakumari who spoke about their apprehensions that machine-made nets were entering the market and would eventually render them jobless.

They invited all these groups to a meeting in Chennai where around 30 representatives from 13 fishing organisations decided to set up a national organisation and make a representation to the prime minister. Thus, the National Forum for Catamaran and Country Boat Fishermen’s Rights and Marine Wealth came into being and held a nationwide action programme culminating in New Delhi on July 15, 1978.

Although the Goa struggle made national news, most members of parliament in Delhi knew nothing about coastal communities. The National Forum received some support from leftist groups and, on July 27, a delegation met Prime Minister Morarji Desai and presented a memorandum with the following demands: introduce a marine fishing regulation bill that would reserve 20 km of coastal waters for the artisanal sector; fix a minimum mesh size for different fishing gear; restrict the number of trawlers and purseiners; introduce regulations to prevent pollution of coastal waters; and initiate fishermen’s development banks.

In order to control and study the violence at sea, the government appointed the Majumdar Committee that submitted its report in 1978. The main recommendation was the creation of a consolidated legislation, called the Marine Fishing Regulation, to end the dichotomy between territorial waters (22 km from the coast) and national waters. But, instead of it being discussed in Parliament, the draft bill was sent to the state governments where it got stuck.

The beginnings of local organisation started in Anjengo, Trivandrum, in 1978, where the fishermen came together under the banner of the Anjengo Boat Workers Union (ABWU) to expose corruption in the Anjengo Refinance Scheme. This was a scheme initiated during the Emergency to assist fishermen in acquiring mechanised boats for which they received soft loans. But the boats were of bad quality and the fishermen could not repay their loans. As a result, many boats were confiscated.

Supported by a group of Redemptionist priests and Medical Mission sisters who lived in the village, ABWU members went on a fast in front of the Kerala secretariat. As a result, the government was forced to return the boats and order an inquiry into corruption in the scheme.

Subsequently, along with the parish priest and local NGOs, the Trivandrum District Fishworkers Union was formed. With the enthusiasm generated, people felt empowered to take up other issues as well. Women fish workers demanded that the exorbitant tax in Chirayinkil market be reduced. In Kanyakumari, thousands of women took to the streets when a merchant who dealt with the sale of nylon yarn imported a net-making machine. This, again, was a three-month struggle.

The National Forum, still a loosely-knit body, at its second general body meeting in Bangalore in August 1979, came up with the following nine common demands: central marine regulation reserving 20 km of coastal seas for artisanal fisherfolk; a ban on trawling between 6 pm and 6 am (night trawling); diverting fund allocations for trawling and purseining to the artisanal sector; nationalising deep-sea fishing and shrimp exports; preventing the pollution of common waterbodies; prohibiting the removal of sand from beaches; stopping licences to mechanised net-making machines; organising pisciculture to benefit traditional fishing communities; ending the eviction of traditional fishing communities in favour of tourism.

In November 1979, fishermen’s organisations in different states initiated fasts and carried out public action to pressurise the government into enacting the marine bill. In Goa, a fishermen’s relay fasted for 367 days. In Kerala there were relay fasts in Trivandrum, Quilon and Alleppey. Picketing action took place in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka.

In 1980, the National Forum presented the central ministry of agriculture with a model copy of the marine law which the minister agreed to forward to the states. From 1981 onwards, a few state governments began to formulate and pass a Marine Regulation Act but these were instantly opposed by the boat-owners associations. Thus began the long battle between the state and the fish workers.

1981 also saw a series of protests in Trivandrum, ignited by the fact that the government issued a ban on trawling during June, July and August, but, within three days, had exempted Neendakara, a major harbour in Kerala at the confluence of the Arabian Sea and Ashtamudi lake, because of pressure from boat-owners.

Following an 11-day hunger strike and a series of protests, the government agreed to institute the Babu Paul Committee to consider the “scientific and technological issues and assess the socio-economic consequences of the fishery management demands of the fishermen”.

The agitation was originally led by the Trivandrum District Fishworkers Union, that later became the Kerala Swathanthra Malsya Thozhilali Federation (KSMTF) led by a fisherman, Joyachen Antony. The KSMTF started a series of agitations for a seasonal ban on trawlers during the monsoons. Today, this seasonal ban has been legislated all along the Indian coast.

Tamil Nadu also witnessed a series of protests on the issue. Unlike in Kerala, it was the local party organisations of the DMK, the AIDMK and the Janata Party that came together under one banner to lead the struggle.

In 1983, the National Forum was rechristened National Fishermen’s Forum (NFF) and worked to finalise a national manifesto. On June 15, 1985, the NFF observed National Demands Day.

When did the march to Kanyakumari take place?

Members of the fishing community commenced a march from Kolkata on the east coast of India on April 2, 1989, and from Mumbai on the west coast, on April 3, 1989. The slogan was ‘Protect Waters, Protect Life’. The core team of activists travelled in vans alighting at fishing villages to talk and walk with people en route to St Anthony’s High School in Kanyakumari on May 1. At 3 pm that day, the marchers assembled at the venue and launched a procession towards the seashore. They waved blue flags and banners and shouted slogans. They were greeted by fishermen with banners in boats on the sea. The most spectacular part was the massive participation of women who constituted about three-quarters of the crowd that stood against the backdrop of the Vivekananda memorial.

The march to Kanyakumari was supposed to represent the people’s desire to resist dominant development concepts. It was also meant to be a call to start a people’s movement. However, the people’s voice was drowned in police firing; several people were injured in the skirmish that ensued.

It was after this that the struggle was taken up in Umbergaon. Umbergaon was once a quiet fishing village on the southernmost tip of Gujarat. It is now known to social activists all over India as the home of Lt Col Pratap Save, a martyr in the struggle for alternative, more humane, development.

After retiring in 1995, Save settled in his hometown and was looking forward to a quiet life working the family land. In 1999, word spread about the Gujarat government’s plans to set up the Maroli-Umbergaon port. Save was among those who vehemently opposed the proposed port and helped form and lead the Kinara Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (Save the Coast Action Committee). The Samiti organised non-violent protests to prevent survey work from being conducted at the site.

In April 2000, there was a sudden crackdown by the state police and several activists of the Samiti, including Save, were taken into police custody. Save’s family and fellow activists allege that the police beat him up, causing severe brain injuries that killed him a few days later. The police claim he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage out of natural causes.

Friends and colleagues have filed criminal complaints and petitions in the courts alleging that Save was murdered in cold blood. But justice is still awaited. Although the Gujarat government has instituted a judicial inquiry into Save’s death, the report is not yet out.

Save’s son, Nikhilesh, maintains his father was murdered at the behest of those who had a vested interest in the port’s development. Save’s martyrdom did serve a purpose: the government of Gujarat dropped its plans to construct the port.

When was a national policy formulated?

After the adoption of a new economic policy, the Indian government announced a Deep Sea Fishing Policy in March 1991. The policy allowed foreign fishing vessels into Indian waters beyond 12 nautical miles (18 km) of the coast. Further, it permitted duty-free import of vessels under joint ventures, and the sale of diesel at international prices. Also, vessels could transfer their catch on the high seas and carry away fish from Indian waters. 

The Indian government had plans of importing 2,660 foreign fishing vessels. At the time this policy was introduced, there were around 35,000 small mechanised boats and about 2 million artisanal crafts with a wide range of gear suited to tropical waters.

The NFF presented a paper opposing licences for joint venture fishing at a national workshop organised by the government in Kochi, in 1992, to arrive at a consensus on a proposed National Fisheries Policy. By this time, fisher people’s groups from Maharashtra and West Bengal were actively opposing the intrusion of deep sea vessels into coastal waters.

By the end of 1992, the Maharashtra Machhimar Krithi Samiti stated that the NFF should unequivocally demand a ban on deep sea fishing and begin efforts to reserve this sector for traditional fishing communities. Just as there are regulations on the use of agricultural land, it said, the coastal belt should be reserved only for fishing communities. No foreign and multinational intervention should be permitted in this area of ‘primary production’.

In September 1993, the NFF organised a National Seminar on Deep Sea Fishing where the problems of deep sea fishing were analysed. The report read: “In 1992, India’s fisher people caught 23 lakh tonnes of fish; 98% of this comes from territorial waters. The exploitation of territorial waters has reached a saturation point… Despite such a grave situation, the Government of India feels that 15 lakh tonnes of fish can further be caught from the deep sea. Therefore, the Government of India appointed a technology mission to look into the matter. The mission recommended 2,600 deep sea fishing vessels in the range of 12-40 metres and recommended the promotion of joint ventures. A number of big industrial houses have queued up to enter deep sea fishing with foreign equity participation. Most of these are 100% export-oriented units. The past experiences of deep sea fishing were not taken into account. All the deep sea fishing vessels including the public sector ones are being operated from Visakhapatnam. Out of 148 vessels, only 20 are running at a profit. In spite of this, the food processing ministry has already issued 39 licences to Indian entrepreneurs and three joint ventures -- Japanese, American and Mexican. It is interesting to note that the Mexican vessels have six purseines that are each 15 km long. These are going to be a big threat to the artisanal fisher people and the small mechanised sector. This conflict has already appeared in West Bengal between the gill-netters and the 148 deep sea fishing vessels. In spite of continuous requests, the central government has refused to do anything to resolve the crisis. Despite several declarations on its intention to enact deep sea fishing regulations, the food processing ministry has not done anything concrete in this regard.”

Of course, there were dissenters at the seminar who were of the opinion that, rather than oppose joint ventures, the NFF should try to fight for the rights of workers on joint venture vessels, thereby protecting the interests of traditional fish workers.

A series of state-level seminars were held to discuss these issues at greater length, bringing together the small mechanised sector and the artisanal sector to work out a strategy to face the onslaught. Finally, it was decided to organise an All-India Fisheries Bandh in the first week of February 1994. The struggle against joint ventures in deep sea fishing had just begun. The strike on February 4 was a huge success, serving as an example of united action within the traditional and mechanised sectors, merchants and exporters. Gujarat led the struggle, supported by no less than the Gujarat fisheries department. Wholesale fish merchants in Howrah and Mumbai too actively participated. Leaders from various states went to Delhi and staged a dharna before the Ministry of Food Processing.

The only response from the ministry was the appointment of the Dr D Sudarshan Committee to study conflicts between the traditional sector and deep sea vessels. As this was seen merely as a means to postpone a decision, the NFF went ahead with its plans that included an indefinite hunger strike by me in Porbunder, on May 2, 1995.

What about the Murari Committee? What were its recommendations?

The P Murari Committee, constituted by the central government in 1995 to look into issues concerning deep sea fishing in Indian waters, was a 41-member panel comprising a diverse group of bureaucrats, experts, politicians and activists. It was expanded to include 16 members of parliament and six representatives from the fisheries sector. I was nominated as one of the members of this expanded committee that made 21 recommendations. The important ones are:

  • All permits issued for fishing by joint ventures/charter/lease/test should immediately be cancelled subject to legal processes as may be required.
  • No renewal/extension of licences/permits should be issued in future for fishing by joint ventures/charter/lease/test fishing vessels.
  • All licences/permits for fishing should be made public and documents and copies made available for inspection at the office of the registered authority.
  • Areas already being exploited by fishermen operating traditional crafts or mechanised vessels under 20 metres in size, or areas which may be exploited in the medium-term, should not be made accessible to vessels above 20 metres in length, except for Indian-owned vessels currently in operation that may be given three years to move out.
  • Parliament should enact deep sea fishing regulations after consulting the fishing community.
  • Coastguards should be strengthened, expanded and technically upgraded with state-of-the-art systems of navigation, surveillance and weaponry, and properly tasked to prevent poaching by foreign vessels and the observance of zone restrictions.
  • All types of marine fisheries should be put under one ministry.
  • Fishermen and women need to be trained in handling new equipment, larger vessels and new fishing techniques besides fish-handling and processing. The government should give this priority under a new deep sea fishing policy.
  • The new policy should be reviewed/evaluated from time to time (three to five years).
  • Government should take decisions on the recommendations of the committee within six months.       

Have any of these recommendations been implemented?

The recommendations of the high-powered Murari Committee constituted the first victory for the fisher people against globalisation. However, the government has made no move to implement them though it was expected to arrive at a decision within six months. Forty foreign vessels continue to operate within Indian waters. Apparently, they have life-long licences although no such facility exists for Indian fishermen who are forced to renew their licences every year. Meanwhile, the struggle continues…

Infochange News & Features, April 2010