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Fishing industry suffers another blow as workers are stranded on boats, debt is piling up

Coronavirus pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for fishing sector, which was just beginning to recover from last year’s cyclones.

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New Delhi: Satyajeet Jharve, a 35-year-old fisherman in Maharashtra, has been hit hard by the Covid-19 lockdown. Business is down, and the 32 migrant workers who operate his boats have been stranded in the vessels at his village in Ratnagiri.

Already in debt, Jharve said he was also providing for the workers, which made his financial situation all the more precarious. 

“There are at least hundreds of such migrants stranded in my village who are left with no work as there is no demand for the product and a large part of work remains suspended because of the lockdown,” Jharve told ThePrint. 

The workers, who hail from different parts of the country, have been living in the boats in cramped conditions, with no option to return home.

“We have supplied them with dry rations and drinking water with whatever little money we have left as they can’t get off the boats now…” said Jharve. “They have nowhere to go because of the lockdown.” 

To add to the worries, the cramped living conditions on board the boats constitute a Covid-19 hazard, but Jharve claimed they were helpless. “There is no way of practising social distancing on the boats… Even if they get down, they will have to live in the temporary shelters erected on the coast (by fisherfolk), which are already occupied by other workers,” he added. 

In light of the lockdown, industry experts say, around 1 lakh migrant workers are stranded in fishing boats and at harbours in Maharashtra alone. According to the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF), a national federation of state-level unions representing small and traditional fish workers, there have been at least two deaths on board such boats from the Veraval harbour in Gujarat, one of them allegedly due to starving. 

Amid these complaints, the government says it’s doing its best to provide aid to the stranded fishermen. 

An official with the department of fisheries under the Union Ministry of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries said “the states have been instructed to maintain a record of fisheries-related migrant workers with their full names, residence details and contact numbers. “This is meant to ensure rations and other essential supplies to them and their respective families,” the official added.

Speaking to ThePrint, the office of Maharashtra Fisheries Minister Aslam Sheikh said, “We are doing our best to provide food and other amenities to all the migrant fish workers stranded at sea and in other coastal areas.”  

“However, a large number of migrant workers from different states have been stranded on fishing vessels and fish-landing sites across the states and most of them do not have an avenue to return to their villages due to the lockdown and are thus stranded in unfamiliar locations,” the statement added.

Also Read: Rotis, mobile recharges, carrom boards — how Kerala fixed its migrant worker anger

Fishermen at sea

Jharve and his employees are not alone. Covid-19 has left India’s fishermen at sea all along the Indian peninsula. Lashed by a series of cyclones last year, the industry was just finding its feet when the pandemic knocked it to its knees again, say insiders.

While the lockdown exemptions announced by the government cover the fisheries sector (page 3), members complain that the absence of key inputs is keeping them from setting out on sea. The demand, they add, has dwindled, which has shrunk returns. 

“For each boat, there is an input cost for every trip, like diesel, fishing net and ice, when they go for fishing, which amounts to Rs 30,000-35,000 (per trip),” said Kiran Maha Deo Koli, president of the Maharashtra Macchimar Kruti Samiti (Maharashtra fisherfolk’s action committee), a collective of state-based workers employed in fisheries and allied sectors. “But nowadays the returns have dropped to Rs 5,000, which takes the losses as a whole in the sector to crores.”

Even though the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has allowed work related to fisheries and allied sectors during the lockdown, Jharve said, there is no availability of ice or fish workers at mandis and the usual transport facilities. “So, there is no scope of monetary returns in fishing as of now.”

Also Read: Media blew Surat migrant workers’ crisis out of proportion. Then residents stepped in

Exports hit too

The fishery industry is among the mainstays of the economy in India’s coastal states. Fisheries and aquaculture production — which involve meat, feed for poultry, fish oil, etc — contribute around 1 per cent of India’s GDP.  

According to the National Fisheries Development Board, a Hyderabad-based autonomous organisation overseen by the central government, fisheries and aquaculture form an important sector of food production that provides nutritional security, livelihood support and gainful employment to more than 1.4 crore people, and also makes a significant contribution to agricultural exports. 

India exports more than 50 different types of fish and shellfish products to 75 countries around the world, with shrimps courting particularly high popularity. The exports total around 13.77 lakh tonnes and fetch around Rs 45,106.89 crore in value per year, according to NFDB data. This accounts for around 10 per cent of India’s total exports.

However, the global expanse of the coronavirus pandemic has taken a hit on exports as well. According to a 2 April report in Business Standard, exports to the US, India’s largest seafood market, have halved on account of the lockdown

With annual export volumes of 2.8 lakh tonnes, India is the largest shrimp supplier to the US. A leading exporter added that there were no fresh orders from other key markets either, including the European Union, Vietnam and Japan. Spain, the exporter said, had stopped procurement.

Fresh catch has come to a complete halt too. While seafood lovers can still order fish off different delivery apps, the product on offer is drawn from frozen stocks.

Industry experts say the pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for the sector, which was just beginning to recover from last year’s cyclones and a halt in operations to facilitate a seismic survey — an analysis of the geological structure beneath the Earth’s surface, particularly for oil, gas and mineral exploration, by the ONGC.  

“The peak season of fishing across the country from August to the end of December was first destroyed by a series of cyclones on the east and west coast, because of which boats were withdrawn from the sea. The downpour also affected the markets,” said Narendra Ramachandra Patil, chairperson of the NFF.  

“After the peak season, the fish retreat to the high seas… We were to approach the deep seas in order to fish, but this was stopped until late February because of the seismic survey being conducted by ONGC that further depleted our financial position,” he added.

“Due to the frequent cyclones and floods, much of the small and inland fishermen (those who fish in rivers, lakes as opposed to those who trawl oceans and seas) with little capital already paid a big price… They primarily deal in smaller fish, which are dried and then supplied as fish and poultry meal, which were completely destroyed by the cyclones,” said Debasis Shyamal, an NFF member in West Bengal.

“Since the lockdown kicked in, the companies that used to procure fish for fish oil products have been completely missing from the market, as are export demands and other domestic consumers,” Shyamal added. “For whom should the fishermen make the catch?” 

Another casualty of this series of onslaughts have been the women who make their living off selling fish.

“The livelihood of over 1.6 crore fishermen and fish workers have been hampered by the Covid-19 lockdown in the country, but the impact has been worst for women, who form half the fishing community and have to manage their household alongside selling fish, a task largely performed by fisherwomen,” said NFF chair Narendra Ramachandra Patil.  

Purnima Meher, vice-president of the Maharashtra Macchimar Kruti Samiti and convener of the NFF women’s wing, added, “Hundreds of women in Mahim and Satpadi villages in Palghar used to travel and sell the famous ‘Bombay Duck’ variety of fish in Mumbai, which used to fetch at least Rs 1,000 each, but the lockdown has wiped off sales.”

A fish native to the waters around Mumbai, Bombay Duck is very popular among seafood lovers. However, a low demand on account of the lockdown and the transport curbs have made its sales financially unviable, thus bringing them to a halt.

Also Read: No matter how you look at it, India’s lockdown-2 can cost as many lives as it will save

The looming monsoon ban 

Even if the lockdown is lifted on schedule after 3 May, it will offer no relief to the fisheries sector, say insiders, because the two-month monsoon fishing ban would have already kicked in (east coast) or be days away (west coast).  

Along the east coast, the ban commences from 15 April, while the date is 1 June on the west coast.

This period is usually utilised by fishermen to repair their boats and other gear, but this year, most have little money to do this.  

“With the capital from the previous season, fishermen used to take a loan of Rs 1 lakh-2 lakh, depending on the boat size, for repairs, but now they don’t have the money, nor any promising future prospects on whose basis they can avail of loans,” said Debasis Paul of NFF in Andhra Pradesh.

Given the series of challenges that have hampered livelihood opportunities for fishermen, the National Fishworkers’ Forum has asked the central government to announce an economic package for the fishing community. The package, they say, should include Rs 50,000/month for boat owners, Rs 15,000/month for the crew and Rs 10,000/month for people involved in selling fish. Along with this, there is also a demand for credit-free loans of up to Rs 5 lakh from national banks ahead of the new fishing season, which will commence from August 2020.

 “The Kisan Credit Card announced in February 2019 includes no aid for fishermen… We also demand a loan waiver for fishermen from the NCDC (National Cooperative Development Corporation) and nationalised banks, along with postponement of instalment payouts from cooperative banks until July,” said Kiran Maha Deo Koli of the Maharashtra Macchimar Kruti Samiti. 

Also Read: Covid hasn’t gone viral in India yet, but some in the world & at home can’t accept the truth


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