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Trade liberalisation: The new threat to Kerala's fishermen

By N P Chekkutty

Trade liberalisation has had a severe impact on Kerala's fisherfolk. With no organised lobby to fight for their rights, the fisherfolk have been fighting among themselves, leaving the wealth of the sea to be plundered by middlemen and the global marine industry. But this August, traditional and mechanised fishermen across caste and communal divides, came together to fight the 62-day ban on monsoon trawling

Referring to the long-term consequences of globalisation policies on Kerala’s fishing community, a scholar pointed out at the Congress of Kerala Development Studies in 1994 that the real impact of these policies would become evident within the next few years.

Today the impact is quite evident, and during the 2006 monsoon season, when the fishing ban was imposed, Kerala’s fishery sector was up in arms. A new joint movement of local fisherfolk against the foreign-controlled fishery sector is emerging. The WTO agreement on Non-Agricultural Markets Access (NAMA), of which fishery is a part, had a tremendous impact on the lies of the fisherfolk, both traditional and mechanised boat crews. This is a qualitative change in the local scenario, as it brings together both segments on a joint platform against a new threat of global dimensions. The Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) for fish workers and traditional artisans has launched a series of action plans to fight the import of fish products from other countries and to prevent joint operations by Indian and foreign vessels in Indian waters.

This changed scenario, however, is not being reflected in the policy perceptions of either the state or central governments or the mainstream political parties.

The 1994 Kerala Development Congress, organised by the CPM-controlled AKG Centre for Research and Studies, was an exception. It took important steps to analyse the economic, social and political factors that have hampered Kerala’s growth and made a sincere effort to find lasting solutions to the development crisis faced by Kerala society in the past two decades. Addressing the congress, veteran politician and two-time chief minister of the state, E M S Namboodiripad, stated that “praise from scholars should not divert our attention from the intense economic crisis that we face. We are behind other states of India in respect of economic growth, and a solution to this crisis brooks no delay. We can ignore our backwardness in respect of employment and production only at our own peril”. A decade later, in 2006, the AKG Centre organised a second congress as a follow-up, but its deliberations are yet to be reflected in the policy decisions of the newly-elected Left Democratic Front government that assumed power in May 2006. The finance minister of Kerala, Dr T M Thomas Isaac, an expert on coastal economic life in Kerala, has announced special plans to revive the fisheries sector with an allocation of Rs 3,000 crore in his maiden budget, announced on June 23, 2006.

In both congresses, one of the areas that received the attention of scholars and policymakers was the islands of poverty in Kerala society -- the hills and coastal villages. 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. 

While the serious situation in the farm sector received the full attention of policymakers and administrators, thanks to the spate of farmer suicides, and media attention on the nationwide impact of policies, the fisher people who face a similar situation in the coastal villages are largely ignored. While the farmers had their influential political and trade organisations that kept their grievances on the national agenda, the fisher people had no such organised lobby and were trapped in the clutches of obscurantist and communal outfits, as seen in the coastal villages of Kerala over the past few decades. Instead of fighting a common enemy, the fisherfolk 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 significant transformation, mainly due to the impact of the on-going globalisation policies. The age-old enmity between traditional fisherfolk and mechanised boat crews, which has been the main source of conflict in the coastal region since the late-’60s, is giving way to new contradictions. Mechanised boat crews and traditional artisans are now coming together to fight the impact of new forces entering the fray. 

The recent incidents in coastal villages, following the blanket fishing ban enforced as part of the trawling ban during the monsoon season, is a case in point. The unprecedented 62-day ban on monsoon trawling in Kerala’s coastal regions, which ended only on Independence Day, caused frustration and anger among the fishing community. Traditional fishermen in their engine-fitted country boats were included in the ban for the first time as a result of a Supreme Court order in July 2006. Much of the coastal belt was on the brink of a violent uprising, forcing the authorities to issue prohibitory orders in many parts of the coast. Fish workers from both the mechanised boat segment as well as traditional fishermen declared their intention to defy the ban. They observed a day of hartal in the coastal belt during the first week of August.

The changes in economic and social relations within the fishery sector were evident from the early days of the implementation of globalisation policies, 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 the ban has been imposed, varying from 30 to 62 days. Traditional fisherfolk in their small vessels were allowed to venture out into the sea. This year’s ban was the longest, as, at the end of a 45-day ban imposed by the state, the Supreme Court ordered its extension by another 17 days on the basis of a petition filed by a group in Goa. And traditional vessels were included in the ban. The government machinery strictly enforced the ban with prohibitory orders on many beaches.

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 from 1988, and 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 Government of Kerala 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.”

The problems posed by fishing bans and rich-country subsidies in the fisheries sector are having a severe impact on the fishery sector as a whole. 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 exclusively caters 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. Their operations centre on nine fishing harbours along the coast, namely Kochi, Vypeen, Mmunambam, Sakthikulangara, Neendakara (all in south Kerala), Beypore, Ponnani, Puthiyappa and Cheriya Azheekkal (in the north.) A recent report in The Hindu claimed that many boat-owners were 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 to 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 fisherfolk is under a lot of strain.

The second aspect is the investment needed to compete in the international market, following the agreement on Sanitary and Phyto Sanitary condtions, which forms part of the WTO agreements. The SPS conditions have been harsh for small and medium exporters. Bans have been 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, as pointed out by the Kerala government’s economic review.

Even though the ongoing agreements in the fishery sector are likely to hit the fishing community hard, the central government has entered into new agreements allowing imports of fish products into the country. The state government itself expressed the view that provisions in the Indo-Thailand trade agreement, signed in New Delhi in August 2004, would adversely affect the fisheries sector in Kerala as it allows the import of fish products. The Government of India would have to re-negotiate the duty structure of fisheries products in order to save the fishing community, said the official document.

The Early Harvest Scheme in the Indo-Thailand agreement envisages duty reductions for 82 items, including mango, marine products and a number of industrial products. Among the marine products covered in the agreement are salmon, sardine, mackerel and crab, which are some of the most abundant fish items in south Indian waters.

Experts have pointed out the serious nature of the global threat to our local fishery sector, because, according to a 2001 estimate, the global subsidy in the fishing sector is 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 million and Rs 25 million. The annual maintenance cost itself would come to around Rs 2 million, increasing pre-export handling charges by another Rs 7-Rs 10 per kg of fish products. The government document says that the state would have to move towards international standards for product hygiene in order to retain its existing market share in the overseas market. But exporters involved in the marine sector say 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 fishery sector faces a major setback with falling prices, cost escalations, intense competition and other problems. All this explains the extreme levels of anger and the unprecedented unity among various sections of the fishing community during the recent trawling ban season. This time both fish workers’ unions and boat owners’ associations claimed that the monsoon ban was totally unscientific and unrealistic, and against the interests of the local fishermen. The scientific community and environmentalists generally take the view that a monsoon ban is necessary to ensure sustainability of fish stocks.

The ban was imposed following recommendations by the Dr K Balakrishnan Nair Committee that studied the depletion of fish resources in the wake of inshore trawling. In fact, there have been a number of studies on the impact of trawling and the monsoon ban by administrators and scientists in past decades. Recently, the Kerala government set up another expert committee, headed by the state fisheries secretary, to study the impact of the ban. The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi, is the nodal scientific agency conducting the study.

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 the problem of external economic aggression and the need for a united front to face it. This united front calls for broad unity across 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. This is the last in a series of articles on the economic underpinnings of the communal polarisation of Kerala’s fisher community, researched as part of the CCDS-InfochangeIndia Research Fellowships 2006.)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2006