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This article has also been published as a three-part series on The Wire Science.
Panaji: The number of days Debasis Shyamal, a fisherman from Digha in West Bengal, can take his boat to sea has declined over the last decade owing to cyclonic storms and other adverse weather conditions.
“At least 40-50 days of the year go just like that when we don’t get to fish and this is apart from the monsoon months, when fishing is banned,” Shyamal, the vice-president of a small-fishers’ collective, Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, said.
The western coastline, along the Arabian Sea, also has this problem. Kerala reported a 46% decline in the number of fishing days over a year to 2017 after cyclone Ockhi hit the west coast, a study by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute found.
“The number of weather warnings issued by the Indian Meteorological Department has also risen since the cyclone,” said A.J. Vijayan, former secretary of the National Fishworkers Forum. “So it’s not just the big cyclones but local fluctuations such as heavy rain, localised depressions in the sea as well that lead to weather warnings and, therefore, a fall in fishing days.”
This is not the only crisis to have hit India’s small fishers (who make up 67% of those in the trade), leaving them impoverished and indebted. The per capita income of 40% of workers in the fisheries sector is well below the poverty line, an October 2021 study published by the Institute of Social and Economic Change concluded.
To understand the reasons for this crisis, we investigated using Right to Information applications, state budget documents and interviews with fishers, union activists and researchers.
We found that the livelihood of small-scale fishers across India’s nine coastal states has been affected by multiple factors – decline in fishing days and catch, inaccessible central and state welfare schemes, and a policy that favours capital-intensive, production-driven, export-oriented growth.
In a three-part series, we analyse these findings in detail. In the first part, we focus on how fewer fishing days and reduced catch are together exacerbating the financial stress on India’s small-scale fishers.
In the coastal villages of Kutch, along western Gujarat, almost every fisher is caught in a debt trap that is hard to escape, Usmangani Sherasiya, of the Machimar Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan, a local fishers’ union, said.
In the monsoon months, when the government disallows fishing to keep mechanised boats away from breeding fish, fishers take advance payments from fish traders, whom they call “agents”. Then they spend the rest of the fishing year paying off that debt.
“It is bonded labour,” said Sherasiya.
This story is not unique to Kutch.
Naveen Namboothri, director at the non-profit Dakshin Foundation, a marine conservation and research non-profit in Bengaluru, said fishing in India is very different from how it is practised as an occupation in the west.
In contrast to industrialised, single-species, centrally and scientifically managed fisheries of developed countries, those of India are scattered. There is often one fishing village every 3-4 km, and the trade is run mostly as a subsistence-based artisanal business, Namboothri said.
There was a greater international demand for prawns and fishers in the 1960s, with more mechanised boats and trawl nets sweeping the ocean bed for catch, according to one study by researcher and activist John Kurien. So the Indian government encouraged private investment in the sector, brought in big merchants and marginalised traditional fishers.
Trawlers and small fishers were soon competing for prawns in the same fishing zone, especially during the monsoons, when prawns spawn, according to Kurien.
Traditional fishers soon formed a union and demanded a ban on trawling during the monsoons. Their protests lasted 18 years. Finally, in June 1989, Kerala banned trawling during the monsoons; other coastal states soon followed.
“The monsoon fishing ban is one of the best examples of conflict resolution mechanisms in fisheries in our country,” said Namboothri. “In a sector that is predominantly state-driven, with every state having its own set of regulations, this uniform ban is a significant achievement.”
The monsoon fishing ban happens every year and lasts for 61 days – from April 15 to June 14 on the east coast and from June 1 to July 3 on the west (first and last dates included). In this time, the Centre uniformly bans fishing in the country’s exclusive economic zone. States impose the ban within territorial waters .
The Centre exempts non-motorised boats from the ban.
Some states follow the Centre – allowing only non-motorised boats to venture into the sea. Others, such as Kerala, call it a monsoon trawling ban and allow traditional motorboats to ply as well.
Climate change impact
Tropical cyclones have been battering India’s coasts with increasing frequency. Heavy rains and localised depressions in the sea add to reasons why fishing days have become fewer. The pandemic-induced lockdown exacerbated the crisis in 2020, directly affecting the supply chain and the livelihood of fishers and fishery-workers. In this time, the marine fisheries sector lost Rs 6,838 crore a month, according to a report by the Central Institute of Fishing Technology.
B. Kotesu (49) has been working as a fisher in Sonapur, in Odisha’s Ganjam district, for over 25 years. When Cyclone Phailin assailed Odisha in 2013, it destroyed his small, 13-horsepower boat and his nets.
Kotesu took a loan of Rs 5 lakh from a local moneylender and bought another boat in partnership with a friend. But the interest piled up faster than he could keep up, so three years ago, he sold his share of the boat, and has since been working on another friend’s nine-horsepower vessel.
On a good day, Kotesu’s catch can earn him up to Rs 1,500. “But then we get no catch for the next three-four days,” he explained. “The catch and fishing days have been going down over the years. The price of fish is up but it does not make up for the loss of catch. There is so much pressure on us [to supply fish]. How do we earn a living like this?”
The state of Odisha paid him a compensation of Rs 8,500 for Phailin’s damage, but it wasn’t nearly enough, he said over the phone.
‘We search aimlessly for fish’
Adding to the worries of fishers like Kotesu is a steady and steep decline in the catch itself. Climate change has led to a rise in the number of cyclones and coastal weather disruptions. Overfishing by large mechanised fleets – both Indian and foreign – has been responsible for the loss of a large amount of fish stock.
Studies and reports have also found that heavy infrastructure development and pollution from industrial plants along the coast have killed off marine life in the sea. States have their own marine regulations to control overfishing – like Tamil Nadu’s Marine Fishing Regulation Act 1983 and Karnataka’s Marine Fishing (Regulation) Act 1986. But the catch continues to plummet.
Shyamal, from Digha, said there is thus little incentive to go fishing. “Fish catch has been very low. We don’t get enough to justify the trips. Fishers ask each other about the conditions at sea and the potential catch, and then assess on a daily basis whether it is worth the expense of taking their boats to sea,” he said. “This did not happen earlier.”
A single fishing trip today can cost up to Rs 50,000, Kiran Koli, general secretary of the Maharashtra Machhimar Kruti Samiti, a fishers’ union in Madh Island, near Mumbai, said.
“The fish catch has gone down, we move around aimlessly looking for fish and waste a lot of diesel. The more the number of days at sea, the higher the costs,” according to Koli.
Apart from declining catch and rising fuel costs, fishers in Maharashtra have also complained that they haven’t received the fuel subsidy they are due. Fishers in India buy fuel at subsidised rates under a scheme implemented by state fishery departments. “We have not received our dues for the last three years, and fuel costs are rocketing,” Koli said.
In the aftermath of May 2021’s cyclone Tauktae – the fifth-strongest storm in the Arabian Sea since 1998 – 70 boats were completely damaged on Madh Island alone, according to Koli.
Each fisher received Rs 25,000 as compensation.
Each boat had cost Rs 25 lakh.
Then there is a financial support scheme meant to help fishers tide over the seasonal unemployment due to the monsoon ban. This is a savings-cum-relief plan that kicks in during the ban and to which the states, Centre and fishers contribute equally.
It’s a part of the Centre’s Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana, an umbrella mission for fishers floated in May 2020. The Indian government has allocated Rs 20,000 crore over five years to realise what it has called the ‘Blue Revolution’ – a rapid increase in fishing output.
The scheme has been criticised for focusing on economic and technological growth over the food security and livelihood needs of fishers.
Also, “policy trends show a preference for allocating budgets to deep-sea fishing, aquaculture and infrastructure over coverage of welfare schemes,” according to Adithya Pillai, a researcher at Dakshin Foundation. He also said 8% of the funds have been set aside for fisher welfare.
The plan includes a group insurance scheme for fishers and covers accidents and death.
The schemes are not inclusive enough of vulnerable fishers, collectives, researchers and activists across India’s coastline told The Wire Science. Our analysis revealed that their implementation is patchy and riddled with glitches of access, awareness and distribution.
During monsoon fishing ban, India’s small-scale fishers are left at the deep end.
B. Kotesu, a small-scale fisher in Ganjam district, Odisha, is so stricken by poverty that he is unable to apply for a welfare scheme that could potentially help him tide over the monsoon fishing ban.
“I can’t afford the relief, as I can’t afford the savings,” he said. “We live on a day-to-day basis.”
In 1992, in the time of India’s eighth Five-Year Plan, India introduced a set of welfare schemes under the ‘Centrally Sponsored National Welfare Scheme for Fishermen’, with a view to supporting small-scale fishers. One of them is a savings-cum-relief plan that kicks in during the monsoon fishing ban, and helps beneficiaries with some money to make up for the forced unemployment.
The second is a group insurance against accidents, and covers accidental injuries and death.
Since May 2020, the funds for these schemes have been managed by the National Fisheries Development Board (NFDB), under the so-called ‘Blue Revolution’ scheme.
Patchy release of funds
The savings-cum-relief scheme was borne out of a need to help small-scale fishers during the annual fishing ban.
India’s eastern coastal states impose their seasonal annual fishing ban from April 15 to June 14 – and the western coastal states from June 1 to July 31. This is to help the fish breed and increase their population before fishing resumes.
“Even though it was initially a trawling ban, small-scale fishers didn’t venture into the sea. They were careful [about] the breeding season,” Pradip Chatterjee, convener of the National Platform for Small-Scale Fishworkers, said. “Since small scale fishers don’t have any other means of livelihood, they needed this monetary support.”
The scheme is funded by three sources, who contribute equally: the Centre, the state and the beneficiary themselves. In 1992, the quantum offered to every small-scale fisher was Rs 1,080 a year, with the Centre, state and fisher each contributing Rs 360. Today, the amount is Rs 4,500.
However, the scheme’s implementation has been iffy.
Responses from the Central fisheries ministry to applications via the Right to Information (RTI) Act show that the money is released in uneven fashion.
For example, Maharashtra received Rs 30 lakh for 2,000 fishers in 2016, but nothing the year before or the ones after until 2020. Similarly, Karnataka received funds from the Centre in 2015, 2017 and 2019 – but nothing in 2016 and 2018. Yet its state-level budget report for 2019 says that the Karnataka government has been contributing its share of the welfare fund – and the scheme is non-functional because the Centre hasn’t been doing its bit.
Officials of Karnataka’s state department as well as fishers in south Karnataka told this correspondent that they hadn’t received any relief money since 2017. So it is unclear whether the state received funds from the Centre and didn’t pass them along – or if the Centre didn’t pay at all.
Manjula Shri Shenoy, assistant director at the department of fisheries in Mangalore, Karnataka, told this author in 2020, “The state has the money ready, but it all needs to be given together. We are waiting for the Central government to release the money.”
At that time, Shobendra Sasihithlu, president of the Sasihithlu Fishing Cooperative Society near Mangalore, had said, “We put in our share, but we have not received our own money back.”
The ministry records don’t mention Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat or West Bengal. In fact, of India’s nine coastal states, the ministry’s records don’t say anything about contributions to the savings-cum-relief scheme to these three states from 2015 to 2020.
A Centre-state divide
“Fisheries has historically been a state subject,” Siddharth Chakravarty, a fisheries researcher and council member of the National Platform for Small-Scale Fishworkers, explained. “The Central government can provide the structure, schemes and suggestions, but it is the state government that decides what it wants to implement and manage.”
Other experts said that both the Centre and state governments have roles to play in the marine fisheries sector. Indeed, governing the fisheries sector requires cooperative federalism – as a lot of the management is focused on coasts, and the states’ role thus becomes important.
The Centre in turn must navigate international governance laws and trade agreements in which nation states participate.
Experts also said that the problem is that the Centre is drawing more powers unto itself, to the exclusion of the states. “A central set of laws is a problem because it takes away the autonomy and diversity that needs to exist and the pluralist ways in which laws and access mechanisms work at a local level,” Chakravarty said.
In addition, some states use the Centre’s schemes and others don’t. West Bengal, for example, has not availed of the savings-cum-relief plan since 2015, according to information obtained through an RTI query by Debasis Shyamal, a fisher and vice-president of the Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, a union for small scale-fishers in the coastal districts of West Bengal. He is also a national council member of National Platform for Small-Scale Fishworkers.
“The savings-cum-relief scheme was (and still is) non-existent in our state,” Shyamal said over the phone. “We had to start a campaign to begin the scheme in our state.”
In 2000, West Bengal’s fishers went on a nine-day hunger strike demanding the commencement of the savings-cum-relief scheme. The government relented – only for the scheme to crumble by 2010.
“From 2000 till 2012, we were 10,000 beneficiaries availing of the scheme,” Shyamal said. “After that, they introduced the criteria of giving the scheme to ‘below poverty line’ fishers, which was unfair, because even those who do not [meet] the BPL criteria need to avail of the scheme to sustain themselves. We protested, but the scheme officially shut down.”
Today, there are several general schemes that offer to support fishers’ livelihoods in West Bengal – but nothing specifically for marine or inland fishers.
“This isn’t a good sign,” according to Shyamal. “They are marginalising the marine fishers more and more. The state fisheries budget is skewed towards schemes that incentivise fisheries entrepreneurs and aquaculture. This is the time [at which] we need the most support.”
While West Bengal imposed and then rescinded the Centre’s scheme, Andhra Pradesh floated its own.
“Andhra Pradesh, where fisheries contribute 9% of the state’s GSDP, gets a lot of money from local fisheries businesses – mostly shrimp farming,” according to Chakravarty. So “the state ends up allocating more money into fisheries, even marine fisheries.”
RTI data from Andhra Pradesh revealed that the state had discontinued the Centre’s savings-cum-relief scheme in 2015 and continued its own monsoon ban relief scheme, which gives Rs 4,000 a year to affected fishers.
In 2020, it introduced a scheme called ‘Y.S.R. Matsyakara Bharosa’ and increased the amount to Rs 10,000 a year.
“But this money never reaches everyone,” according to Lakshmi Kowada, president of the Traditional Fish Workers Union in Visakhapatnam. “If there are ten people on a boat, four may not be able to avail of the scheme. Distribution is patchy.”
There are several reasons for this being the case. The funds are distributed through politically affiliated groups, which could lead to corruption and bias and miscommunication between departments, and questions over eligibility.
Chakravarty explained that a lot of fishers and fish-workers also don’t have biometric cards or Aadhaar cards, or aren’t members of fishing cooperative societies. “The government thinks it has covered everyone but people … fall through the cracks.”
Identifying the beneficiary
The scheme also caters to fisher families, and not individual fishers. To wit, of the nearly 9 lakh fishers (men and women), the scheme provided for 1,09,231 fisher families in 2020.
“If in a family there are two brothers, both fishers with their own nuclear families set-up, and sharing one ration card, then they will be considered one family and provided with the relief amount accordingly,” said Father John Churchill, general secretary of the South Asian Federation of Fishermen in Kanyakumari.
Instead, he said, the money should be given to individual fishers.
In addition, “fish-workers don’t have a separate identity,” according to Jones Thomas Spartegus, a researcher in Thoothukudi. “There is no such thing as a fish-worker in any identity card. You will find fishermen, boat owners and fish vendors, but who is a fish worker? They all fall through the cracks.”
I know people living in coastal districts such as Ramanathapuram who are part of fisher cooperative societies and avail of the relief schemes despite not being fishermen and not even eating fish – and I know of hardworking fish-workers who are not recognised.”
Fish-workers are an integral part of the mechanised fisheries sector. They migrate from India’s eastern and interior states of India to work in boat yards, net-repair shops and ice-plant factories that supply ice to preserve fish.
They are also employed as crew members on large boats, such as trawlers and purse seiners. Their jobs include labour-intensive work at or outside the harbour, such as loading and unloading fish, hauling nets, ferrying fish stock from trucks to auction sites and crushing ice.
Most of all, they are often invisibilised and ostracised.
According to NFDB guidelines, to be eligible for the savings-cum-relief scheme, one needs to be a full-time, active fisher; a member of a functional fisher cooperative society; below the poverty line; and between 18 to 60 years of age. States impose their own criteria on top of these – for example, applicants must have a ration card, a fisher ID card or a biometric card, and so forth.
Tamil Nadu’s fisheries welfare board provides three relief schemes, including the Centre’s. They add up to a total compensation of around Rs 13,500 per year – the highest in the country.
But “the amount is not enough,” according to Father Churchill. “In Kanyakumari, fishers do not have any alternative source of income, and this amount for two months for a family of four or more does not work. We are demanding a minimum of Rs 10,000 a month” – which would bring the total up to at least Rs 20,000 a month.
In four coastal districts of Odisha – Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur, Puri and Ganjam – the fishing ban lasts for up to seven months. This is because there are two bans: one to protect the fish population and another to protect olive Ridley turtles.
These turtles are highly endangered and nest in the sandy beaches of these districts every November. Studies have shown many of them get caught in fishing nets. So the ban for them runs from November 1 to May 31, when the turtles – including those newly hatched – return to sea. According to sources, the ban is fully enforced in at least Kendrapara district, if not others, followed by the two-month monsoon fishing ban.
To make up for this loss, the Odisha government provides Rs 7,500 a year to all affected families plus 25 kg of rice a month.
“How is this kind of money going to make up for the lost fishing days?” asked K. Aleya, of the Odisha Traditional Fishworkers’ Union. “It is a livelihood loss, not a hobby loss.”
An October 2021 study by researchers at the Institute of Social and Economic Change analysed working conditions for the fisheries sector. They found that while wages for fish-workers are sufficient to support a single worker, they aren’t enough to support an average rural family. The per capita income in the fisheries sector is well below the poverty line for 40% of fishers.
‘There is no such relief scheme’
When fishers are not at sea, they repair their boats and nets, take up odd jobs, such as work at construction sites, move to other areas for work or attend to family affairs.
Kotesu, in Ganjam, works as a construction labourer and makes Rs 150-200 a day. “We have to struggle every day to find work, and expenses keep rising. Ninety percent of my village is living in debt,” he said.
Fishers in Maharashtra and Gujarat are in the same boat. Information obtained through RTI applications for Raigad district in Maharashtra from 2016 to 2021 and the 2021-2022 budget document of Gujarat show no money allocated for relief during the fishing ban.
“There is no such relief scheme functioning in Gujarat,” Usmangani Sherasiya, of the Machimar Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan, a fishers’ union based in Kutch, said. “During the fishing ban period, the fishers get busy with repair work, or with house affairs. They need money, so they borrow it from middlemen and then this adds to the pool of debt.”
Fishers are also forced to sell their goods cheaply when debt-collectors come calling. For example, if the market price of pomfret is Rs 350 per kg, a fisher who has taken a loan will be forced to sell it at the price fixed by the moneylender – which is often far lower than the market price.
This problem has worsened in the last five years – as cyclones have become more frequent and more intense, leading to fewer fishing days, damaged equipment or both.
Sherasiya said that the 1998 cyclone in Kutch destroyed a lot of boats, turning fishers to the seemingly more sturdy fibre boats. Some fishers then took loans to buy them. “They are still paying off that loan. Fish catch has declined, and so has the number of fishing days.”
Lower fish catch means fishers spend more time at sea looking for fish, spending more and more on fuel and other costs. “The price of fish has gone up but cash has gone down,” Sherasiya added, repeating that everyone in his region also “lived in debt”.
So fishers’ unions demand compensation based on need. “We demand Rs 15,000 for the first month of the ban, Rs 10,000 for the second month and Rs 5,000 a month for the [remaining] months,” Aleya said. “That is the only way to be truly compensated.”
“When you are calling for an official halt on working days, the compensation has to match the loss of income,” Chakravarty added. “A semi-skilled worker’s daily minimum wage would be about Rs 320 – then you multiply that with the number of non-fishing days and compensate … that amount.”
“Safeguarding the rights of traditional fishers has been historically introduced after much lobbying by fisheries-related civil society,” Jones, the researcher from Thoothukudi, said. “Yet our policies are more fisheries-centric than fisher-centric. Welfare schemes and cash transfers by themselves can’t be the answer to systematically addressing these issues.”
There needs to be better dialogue between the government and traditional fishers, and measures must be taken to protect their rights and empower them.”
The government has one welfare measure – a group insurance – for when a fisher dies at sea.
Fishers die at sea. Their insurance falls through the cracks.
Divu Dandi was 21 when she married Dinesh Bhambaniya in 2005 and moved to his village, Delwada, in Una district, Gujarat. Their daughter Nisha was born the following year. Dinesh worked on a trawler, often staying at sea for up to seven days at a time.
On October 17, 2015, Dinesh went on a multi-day fishing trip. Five days later, the boat returned but he was not on it. “It was Dussehra night. One of his mates came over and told me he had gone to the bathroom at night, and must have slipped and fallen into the water,” Divu said over the phone.
When she went to the village headman for support, he asked her to wait. “It has been six years now. He hasn’t come back. He is dead. I can’t prove that he is dead, so I can’t even apply for the widow pension scheme.”
Divu works at a fish-packing factory in Veraval, earning Rs 250 a day. Her daughter would have completed class X today, but she dropped out of school over the summer vacations this year.
“She is very good at her studies, but I need to have her work with me at the factory,” Divu said. “We are very poor. They are saying we will get insurance after seven years. What choice do I have? We need to earn a living.”
The Indian government introduced a ‘Group Insurance Against Accidents’ in May 1982, to provide “a sense of security to fisherfolk”.
Shortly after the scheme was launched, fishers registered themselves with state governments, and would receive insurance payments for accidental deaths (Rs 2 lakh) and injuries (Rs 1 lakh) without having to pay any premium themselves. The Centre paid half the premium and the state government the other half.
The scheme was executed by the National Federation of Fishers Cooperatives, or FISHCOPFED. The scheme is now managed by the National Fisheries Development Board. The insurance amount has also gone up to Rs 5 lakh for deaths and Rs 2.5 lakh for injuries.
But most fishers’ union activists have complained that the process of applying for insurance is lengthy and complicated, and requires long forms to be filled out in English.
When a fisher dies at sea, a family member must produce the victim’s biometric card or fisher ID, a death certificate, a police report detailing the nature of death and a post-mortem report (if available) – claim the insurance money.
These documents must be filed with the state fisheries department. A regional head then checks and hands them over to a nodal agency that’s a go-between between the government and the insurance company. The agency also performs its own checks.
There are several ways in which seafaring can be deadly: an injury on the boat, seasickness and rough weather, an underlying injury aggravated on the boat or – most of all – cyclones.
“During the 2005 tsunami in the Bay of Bengal, 4,500 people died on the east coast,” FISHCOPFED president Ramdas Sande told The Wire Science. On average, according to him, they receive reports of 100-200 deaths every year – with “more deaths on the east coast than on the west coast”.
Historically, the Bay of Bengal has been a hotbed for cyclones. About 80% of all tropical cyclones of the north Indian Ocean have formed here. But in the last two decades, thanks to climate change, more and more cyclonic storms are also being reported from the Arabian Sea.
Just as with the savings-cum-relief scheme, most coastal states have their own funds as part of a scheme called ‘Distress Relief Funds’. Here, the insurance compensation provided in cases of death varies from Rs 5 lakh to 10 lakh – in addition to the Centrally sponsored scheme.
A Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute paper published in 2017 analysed various fisheries’ insurance schemes. It found that Kerala and Tamil Nadu had well-developed fisheries welfare boards that provided good insurance schemes for fishers – while Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra lagged behind.
Separately, according to the budget of Gujarat state, it spent Rs 11 lakh in 2019 on group insurance against accidents. In Porbandar, Usmangani Sherasiya, of the Machimar Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan, a fishers’ union in Kutch, said the scheme could function through cooperative societies – but “all cooperative societies are currently defunct, so no one has gotten anything from this scheme.”
For widows like Divu, the resulting stress and uncertainty means no support and an additional burden.
“Many deaths happen every year on boats here in Gujarat,” Arvind Bhai Bhimji, a fisher-activist at the Centre for Social Justice who works with the Dariya Na Dayaro Legal Service Centre in Amreli, said.
“We filed a [public interest litigation petition] in 2012 demanding 10 road ambulances and seven speedboat ambulances,” he said over the phone. The group won the case in 2017, and ambulance services are currently functioning, he added.
In Andhra Pradesh’s Srikakulam, information obtained through Right to Information (RTI) Act requests revealed that of the 27 claims made in 2019, only 10 were accepted, and the state released Rs 50 lakh. In Guntur, of the eight claims between 2016 and 2021, two were settled, two rejected and four are still being processed.
A 2020 socio-economic state survey report states that the compensation amount has been increased to Rs 10 lakh, and that 20 fishers were compensated in the whole state in 2020.
But D. Pal, of the National Platform for Small-Scale Fishworkers, said of Andhra Pradesh: “It is a mess here in our state.”
“In the last 11 years, there have been 4,000 cases of deaths that applied but only a few people got the insurance claimed”; the remaining “were neither rejected nor closed, but simply eliminated from the list on flimsy grounds by different departments,” Pal added. “I myself have run from pillar to post for many of these.”
In Andhra Pradesh alone, according to him, several people die every year due to high tide, rough weather and heart attacks at sea. “The bodies go missing, many don’t have fisher ID cards, many are not able to prove death at sea – so many ridiculous reasons” are provided for denying compensation.
Other states aren’t much different. In Raigad district in Maharashtra, RTI requests revealed that three people had signed up for claims for deceased members in their families in the last two years, but that no funds have come through thus far.
In West Bengal, Debashish Shyamal, a fisher and member of the National Platform for Small-Scale Fishworkers, said the state government stopped the accident insurance scheme for fish workers in 2017 – even as small-scale fish vendors’ deaths continue to be a common occurrence.
“At least 3-4 fish vendors die every year in Purba Medinipur [district],” he told this correspondent. According to him, the fish harbour is generally 20 km from the auction centre, and the vendors’ villages are about 40 km away. So they wake up at 2 am every day, rush to the harbour on their bikes, getting there by around 3:30 am, pick up the fish and then rush to the auction centre by 5 am.
“In between this rushing, accidents happen,” Shyamal said. “Deaths and disabilities of fish workers due to accidents are also common during tiger attacks in the Sundarbans. Without insurance cover, the poor and distressed families of the dead or disabled fish-workers are imperilled.”
Both Tamil Nadu and Kerala provide Rs 10 lakh to the deceased’s family, according to RTI requests and state budget documents. The Tamil Nadu fisheries welfare board also contributes to funeral expenses and supports those disabled on the job.
However, that there is more support from the state doesn’t mean it should also be availed more.
Saravanan Kasi, a fisher and activist with the Chennai-based Coastal Resource Centre, said that there are no official figures but that the number of deaths and accidents has gone up in the last year.
In Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district, in a village called Thengapattinam, the state built a harbour last year. “Something about the way it was constructed has changed the sandbars and the ocean currents,” Kasi said. “A lot of boats strike the rocks in that area now. At one point last year, in a month, there were two deaths in that village on consecutive days.”
Kerala’s Vizhinjam harbour was once “one of the safest places to land”, according to A.J. Vijayan, former secretary of the National Fishworkers Forum and a researcher and activist in Thiruvananthapuram. But fatal accidents are now common here. In May this year, three fishers died when their boats capsized and they were unable to swim back to safety.
“The families of fishers are getting increasingly worried about going into the sea,” Vijayan said. “It is getting riskier and riskier.”
Notwithstanding the Central and state support mechanisms, what can boat owners do to minimise accidents?
“Indian Coast Guard rules say all fishing vessels must have life jackets and life buoys, and several state marine fishing regulation Acts say that all mechanised boats of [shorter than] 24 metres are required to have automatic identification system transponders,” Ganesh Nakhawa, a fisher in Karanja, Maharashtra, said.
These transponders are designed to provide position, identification and some other data about a vessel at sea, and are particularly useful in rough weather. While some states have mandates to subsidise these devices, Nakhawa said many don’t. “One transponder costs anything between 50,000 and 80,000 rupees. Many vessels wouldn’t bother keeping one.”
Private ventures such as Sky.lo and Numer8 are attempting to change this. Numer8, through its app OFish, allows fishers to monitor fishing conditions and the weather at sea in real-time. Sky.lo develops AIS technology and works with fishers to communicate the importance of these devices.
But the reality for Divu is a long, painful wait – for at least another year – until she receives her insurance money.
“What is the point of blaming anyone?” she told me when I asked if she felt the wait was unjust. “It is my luck that is bad. The poor are meant to suffer. This poverty will kill us.”
This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.
Supriya Vohra is an independent environmental journalist based in Goa.