Fishing communities: the economics of impoverishment

By N P Chekkutty

Foreign trawlers are entering Indian fishing zones as part of global joint ventures, and Indian markets will soon be flooded with foreign fish products. This is yet another nail in the coffin of Kerala's traditional fishing communities, and a major contributor to violence and social conflict

While secular democratic politics withdrew from the social lives of the fisher people, leaving the field wide open for communal forces, the government was pursuing an economic policy that resulted in the steady impoverishment of artisanal sections of the fishing community. These policies impacted the lives of fisher people all over the southwestern coast, following the advent of mechanisation and modernisation of fishing activities. John Fernandez, a leader of the Kerala Matsya Thozhilali Federation, who died a few years ago, described these policies as "trawlerisation", meant for the unchecked exploitation of coastal shrimp, which resulted in the further marginalisation and pauperisation of fish workers and the destruction of coastal habitats.

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 into the sidelines and their owners into penury. 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 artisanal 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 major shift in fishery policy came about in the mid-'60s: until then the traditional fish workers were the only people employed in this sector all over south India. The economic relationship of various people employed in fishing activities, from boat-owner to worker to vendor, was 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 -- the workers had the right to a one-third share in the proceeds.

The '60s, however, saw the advent of the 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 proved to be disastrous for traditional fishermen in south Indian coastal villages. There was a shift away from traditional fishing to a capital-intensive industry that focused on exports, and it led to over-exploitation and speedy depletion of marine resources.

This soon launched the first series of physical clashes between the boat-workers and traditional fisherfolk, and organised violence became the norm in fishing villages all along the coast of south India. A senior activist with the Matsya 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 in clashes. 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 fishery sector. The protests were led by church leaders like Fr Paul Arakkal, who, in the '80s, became one of the leading figures of the Kerala State Swatantra Matsya Thozhilali Federation.

A conference of fishermens' representatives from Goa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala resulted in the formation of a National Forum for Catamaran and Country-boat Fishermen's Rights and Marine Wealth. Other independent organisations soon took up the cause of the fisherfolk in the clash of interests between the industrial entrepreneurs and traditional artisans in the fishery sector.

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 investments 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 destroyed most of the marine wealth of the region, 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 '70s. 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 overfishing continued unchecked with new foreign trawlers entering Indian waters. By the end of 2000, the situation had become serious, with a substantial drop in overall catches, indicating that fishing activities had far exceeded the maximum sustainable limit.

One new dimension to this turn of events 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 fishery sector and the import of fishery products envisaged as part of World Trade Organisation agreements. Recently, the Fisheries Coordination Committee (FCC), a joint-action council of fish workers, at a meeting in Kochi, drew up an agitation programme against an official move to import fish items from Thailand into India. A decision was taken to stop ships carrying fish cargo from entering the harbour, and to prevent foreign fishing vessels, on joint deep sea fishing ventures, from entering the harbour or waters off the southern coast.

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 introduced that 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 are reduced to wage labourers. The tribal 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 destruction of the old social order based on the egalitarian principles of traditional hunter-gatherer communities into a class-based exploitative economy, in the short span of a few years, has had a tremendous impact on the people who, unwillingly, became victims of this transformation. 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. Huge mechanised boats roam the sea with their 'catch-all' perseine nets (widely in use, though officially banned) that leave nothing untouched. This new kind of activity has aptly been described as the "rape of the sea".

Dr K N Ganesh, who did a major study on the social and economic factors leading to communal tensions in Maradu, 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 the 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 the fisher people in Madappally, in the northern belt, asserts that while one section continued to live in abject poverty, a new class of newly-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 exhibitionism of wealth has added fuel to the fire and 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 '70s and '80s), and those of a communal nature that took place between the Hindu fishing communities on one side and Muslims or Christians on the other. In the southern parts, it was between the Christians and Muslims. This second type of confrontation became rampant mainly after the '80s, although some flashpoints, like Maradu, have a history of communal violence right from the early-'60s. But these were occasional and rare.

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 Alapuzha, 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. Minor communal clashes are common in the entire region, resulting in loss of human life and property. According to police sources, there are dozens of sensitive pockets all along the coast.

The government must take a comprehensive look at this problem, and find solutions in the realm of economics and politics. Already, competition from abroad has added a new dimension to the already confused scenario: foreign trawlers are entering Indian fishing zones as part of global joint ventures, and Indian markets will soon be flooded with foreign fish products. This will be the next phase of an impoverishment process that started way back in the '70s...

(N P Chekkutty is a Kerala-based journalist. He is presently Executive Editor ofTejas. This is the second in a series of articles on the communal polarisation of Kerala's fisher community, researched as part of the CCDS-InfochangeIndia Research Fellowships 2006.)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2006