`A good occasion for change'

Published : Feb 11, 2005 00:00 IST



Interview with Prof. John Kurien, fisheries economy expert.

John Kurien, Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, is one of India's leading experts on the fisheries economy. In the early 1970s, he helped small-scale fishing communities organise fish marketing cooperatives. These cooperatives were the first in the network now called the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies (SIFFS), which is coordinating the relief and rehabilitation work by non-governmental organisations in Nagapattinam. He was the secretary-general of the first International Conference of Fishworkers and their Supporters held in Rome in 1984. In 1986, he facilitated the creation of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF), a global network that supports the cause of small-scale fishing communities and has offices in Chennai and in Belgium. He is the Vice-Chairperson of the Food and Agricultural Organisation//United Nations Director-General's Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research. Excerpts from a telephonic interview he gave V. Sridhar:

Fishing in Tamil Nadu has come to a virtual standstill after the tsunami. The State and Union governments have announced packages for rebuilding and repairing boats, nets and other assets of fisherfolk. But rehabilitation is taking time. What should the State do to address the issue of unemployment in these settlements across the State?

The tsunami was sudden and the scale of devastation has also been immense. Everybody - the government, NGOs and civil society - has been taken by surprise. Therefore, one must give some allowance for the response time after the tsunami. The relief response has been fairly okay. But when it comes to rehabilitation, there are two sets of issues. For one, there has been the lack of a clear policy, which addresses the issues of safety of fisherfolk and their livelihoods. These are not issues that have suddenly become important. State policy should have addressed these issues and they should have been the backbone of the policy framework in normal circumstances. It should not take a tsunami to work out such a policy. The absence of a clear policy makes it more difficult to respond to the crisis.

Secondly, along the coastline there is no credible organisation that identifies closely with the fishing communities. For example, had there been well-functioning networks of cooperatives among the fishing communities, which give credit to fisherfolk and enable the marketing of their produce, they would also have acted as a credible vehicle for relief and rehabilitation after the tsunami. There is, of course, the Department of Fisheries in Tamil Nadu. But like all other development departments, it is project-oriented, not people- or community-oriented. It does not have a sustained presence in the fishing villages. It functions mainly as a vehicle for doling out development goodies. Fishing communities have had to fend for themselves.

This is owing to a combination of factors ranging from cultural, caste, spatial and other considerations. Fisherfolk are at the fringe of the sea. Nobody cares for them in normal times. In Chennai, except at the Marina beach, who ever cared what they are doing now. Or how the fishing communities near Nagapattinam or Cuddalore were faring before the tsunami? Fisherfolk belong to the lower castes.

There are also specific cultural traits attributed to them, most of them being stereotypes. They are regarded as spendthrifts, perpetually drunk and violent. All these characteristics could be applied to any other community, but it sticks in the case of fisherfolk. All over the country, not just in Tamil Nadu, I feel that fisherfolk are culturally, socially and politically social outliers even though they may be economically better off than other poor communities. Fishing communities are relatively well-off today. I would not have said that 30 years ago. For example, the fisherfolk in Nagapattinam are not poor , but certainly they are outliers in cultural, social and political terms.

They come into focus only during times of elections because they form a concentrated and large vote bank. Political parties find it easy to tap that potential. Promise a boat here and a harbour there. That is all it takes to garner their votes. The community's contact with the state is very tenuous. For instance, the State and Central governments have done nothing creative to address the problems posed by the Sri Lankan Navy to fishermen from the Nagapattinam area. Instead, political parties have been harping on the Katchativu issue alone, which is actually a non-issue for fishermen. If, in normal times, the state is unable to interact and intervene to address the problems of the fisherfolk, how can one expect an imaginative response from it after a disaster?

We have an extraordinary situation along the coast. Fishing has stopped. By a strange irony, the tsunami has destroyed areas in Tamil Nadu that harbour this country's most skilled fishermen. You will find Kanyakumari fishermen all over India. There is not a fishing port in India that does not have at least a spatter of fishermen from Kanyakumari. Most of them, being Christians, were back home for Christmas. They have not gone back. Fishing has come to a standstill not only in Tamil Nadu, but also in other major ports in other parts of the country, particularly Kerala.

Fisherfolk have been gripped by fear. The sea is something they thought they understood. Those who have ventured out into the sea have also noticed major changes in the configuration of the bottom structure of the coast. Those who used to fish over natural reefs find that reefs even at depths of 50 metres are covered by sand. Fishing potential has been ruined in many places. They have also noted changes in fishing currents. They are unable to explain all this. They have lost their families, assets, resources, and are suffering in many ways after the tsunami.

The government should have adopted a more sensible approach to get fishing going as soon as possible. It could have easily got wood for catamarans and distributed it to the villages. The catamaran is the mainstay of fishermen in Kanyakumari, Cuddalore and Nagapattinam.

But Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has said that fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP) catamarans would replace damaged catamarans...

That will take time. People will not be able to start fishing quickly. All the fishermen were originally catamaran fishermen. It is only in the last two or three decades that they have graduated to other craft. Fishermen would be very happy to get back to the sea on these craft. Nets and other gear are readily available. The government should have organised for boats to be repaired sooner. It may not be a perfect job, but so be it in this extraordinary situation. At least fisherfolk can get on with their lives. But politicians do not consider these activities as sufficiently glamorous. Of course, it is understandable why this is happening. There is no organisational structure that can address these issues. You cannot just walk into a village with a Revenue Department official and set things right. Only people who maintain a continued presence can offer these things to the community.

There should also have been food- and cash-for-work programmes to address the livelihood issues. It is also important to recognise that creative forms of employment generation also help in reducing the trauma that fisherfolk communities are undergoing after the tsunami.

It is possible that NGO activity in the affected areas will turn sporadic after some time. So should the government not be involved in rehabilitation efforts more directly - say in rebuilding houses or fishing craft and gear?

That is necessary. The government knows that the catamaran is the most important craft for fishermen. Government statistics show that more than 60 per cent of the fishermen depend on this craft. What is the government waiting for to upgrade these craft? FRP boats will take more time. A catamaran requires only four logs of wood and can be built in 24 hours. Building catamarans will give employment to many persons.

Building a catamaran is a community affair. It is a decentralised labour-absorbing activity. This will also help distressed people be occupied in creative ways. Moulds are required for making FRP boats. There may not be an adequate number of moulds available because the demand for FRP boats was not very high. Making a mould takes time; and if you are in a hurry, you may end up making a poor-quality mould. This will result in poor-quality boats. It may take three to four months to manufacture enough FRP boats, which can make a difference to fishing in the affected areas.

What about repairing trawlers?

Repairing mechanised vessels and trawlers will take even longer. I am of the view that there should be no more addition to the trawler capacity. This also calls for a policy. The government should recognise that fish production has not increased significantly in the past seven to eight years. Adding trawler capacity involving fresh investments just does not make sense. The running costs of operating a trawler are going up but the output is stagnant. Fishermen in Nagapattinam have been reeling under debt because of this. Basically, there are too many trawlers.

But there were a lot of people who used to work on the trawlers that were damaged.

Certainly. I do not think the crew of a trawler would mind going on a catamaran now, because it is a matter of subsistence. It is possible to provide them with catamarans. In Kerala, a lot of the people working on trawlers are not from the fishing community. Here, more than 90 per cent of those working on trawlers are from the fishing community. A catamaran is something they already know and would not mind owning now, to earn a livelihood.

You mentioned safety as an issue in which there is a policy vacuum.

Let me take the example of the safety of fishermen. There are issues relating to safety at sea. Fishermen are not very much agitated about this. They feel confident being at sea. Even so, there is much greater need for giving them the confidence that there would be no time lag in rescue efforts. This requires establishing infrastructure such as appropriate communication devices. This will give fishermen the confidence to venture deeper into the sea.

But the tsunami has shown that safety on land is far more important. The tsunami has shown that fishermen are far safer at sea than on land. That sea has to do with where the fisherman is situated on the land. This has do with the rights that fisherfolk should have regarding where they can stay. This is where the regulations governing the use of the coastal zone come into play. The provisions of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) are only part of the Environment Protection Act, and do not have the teeth that a formal legislation exclusively meant for this would have had.

The regulations have been flouted with impunity and all kinds of exemptions have been given by governmental agencies. In the process, the housing safety issues of fisherfolk have been neglected. Today, no fishing community feels safe on land. I think, as a priority people should be given property rights to land that is safely situated on the coastline. The 500 metres pull-back zone should be a "no development" zone in which there are only benign user rights.

No construction activity should be allowed here, not even for fisherfolk or for tourists. Good, decent housing for fishermen can be built in the land that is contiguous to this stretch of the coastline. This is where the safety and livelihood issues overlap. Housing and livelihood are intimately connected. Unless fisherfolk have a safe habitat, they cannot have a secure livelihood. Secure livelihoods are in turn dependent on housing, water, sanitation and other social infrastructure. Fisherfolk are not necessarily poor. They get a lot of cash incomes. But this never translates into a better quality of life because they are caught in a vicious circle of not being able to have a secure livelihood owing to lack of safety and amenities. It is important to recognise that fisherfolk contribute as much to the economy as tourism does. So, why are their rights neglected?

Fishing communities are marginalised from the rest of society. However, they are also hierarchical from within and are not homogeneous entities. There are those without any boats at all; there are those who have catamarans, fibre boats or larger vessels, and trawlers. The traditional panchayat structures are also said to be robust, as the field reports on the delivery of relief in tsunami-hit areas indicate. In what way and manner have such panchayats facilitated or thwarted the progress of these communities? Or, how have they ensured maintenance of the status quo in the communities?

Religious differences among fisherfolk evolved about 500 years ago. The main change was from Hinduism to Christianity. In Kanyakumari, almost all the fisherfolk are Christians. The Church is the main social and cultural organisation among fisherfolk. Issues relating to fishing are very much mediated under the auspices of the Church. The Church committee may be composed of the richer people in the village; often, it is the merchants who dominate the committees. The ordinary fisherman may not be in an influential position. It may be that someone who acts as a representative of the Church, but one who has a dual role as a merchant, who may be in an influential position. But this situation has been changing in the past 10 years or so. One of the important reasons for the change is the presence of fishermen's cooperatives. These are not government cooperatives but are run by fisherfolk.

Caste panchayats are dominant in most other parts of the State. In the stretch from Nagapattinam right up to the Andhra Pradesh coast, the "panchayats" of the fishing castes play an important part. They are hierarchical and the headman's is usually a hereditary position. What the headman says is final, but there is definitely a transparent process by which decisions are taken in the panchayat. Issues are discussed in the open. In a community that is otherwise neglected and lives in isolation, the caste panchayat gives the community its identity and a sense of unity. This is why you would have to meet the head of the caste panchayat if you want to make contact with the village. This is not to be seen to be commending it for its lack of justice and other failings.

Would this correspond roughly to the feudal situation on the land? Would there not also be gradations in fishing communities, just as you would find on land?

There is of course differentiation. But just as you cannot have all landowners and no agricultural workers, you cannot have all boat owners and workers with no equipment. But there is much greater asset fluidity among fishermen. A catamaran owner may sell his boat to work on someone else's if he gets a good share of the catch. This flexibility is not possible on land.

The state of being a labourer can also be a fluid one. Sometimes it may be advantageous to remain a labourer because the system is share-based. It is also significant that despite the increasing capital intensity in fishing, the sharing pattern has not changed significantly in favour of capital as one would normally expect. This is because the caste panchayats, where decisions are communally determined, have not allowed it. The sharing pattern has been sticky because it is socially and culturally conditioned, and not merely based on the economics of the operation.

Although the social exclusion of fisherfolk cannot be justified, there are also inequalities within the community. What is the potential for change in these communities?

The isolation has been created by mainstream society. The differentiation process is not likely to get out of hand, as you may perhaps expect by, say, agricultural workers. It is unlikely that those working on boats will revolt against boat owners. This is mainly because there is open access to the sea and also because there is a production-sharing system in operation. The worker feels as if he is a part of the enterprise and is not being exploited. It is important to recognise that their consciousness is conditioned by this.

But with increasing commercialisation and the entry of merchant capital, is the situation likely to change?

That is happening. With trawlerisation, ownership is completely with absentee owners. In Chennai, politicians, film stars and other wealthy sections own large vessels. Without doubt there are class differences and these manifest themselves in economic differences. The good thing since the tsunami is that all this has been opened up. I see this as a good occasion in which even the caste panchayats can be made to change. They have to deal with the outside world and should be engaged by social activists.

What ails the fishermen's cooperatives in the State? Why have they not been an effective vehicle for providing relief or speedily ensuring rehabilitation of the community that has been paralysed after the tsunami?

For fishermen, the word cooperative has an odour that is worse than rotten fish. Cooperatives have generally been used to exploit them. The main problem with most cooperatives is that they are government-run enterprises. They are created to meet targets, not to meet the needs of people. They are not peoples' organisations. They are envisaged largely for political parties to please their lower-level functionaries.

The Registrar of Cooperative Societies has more powers over cooperatives than the Registrar of Companies has over companies. I can envisage that the loans given for the repair of boats will not be repaid. A fishery cooperative cannot work successfully unless credit is linked to marketing. There are no serious cooperative initiatives for marketing fish in Tamil Nadu. The SIFFS cooperative is an exception. It works well, particularly in Kerala and Kanyakumari because it is run by fisherfolk.

Most of the cooperatives have adopted the agrarian rationality, which is not readily applicable to fisheries. In fisheries, the commodity is crucial and has to be sold immediately. Intervention at the first sale point is crucial. Cooperatives need to get control of the first transaction as soon as the fish lands on shore. This will result in better prices for fishermen. Out of Rs.100 paid for fish by the consumer on the east coast of Tamil Nadu, the fisherman probably gets only about Rs.20. By cooperative intervention at the beach price, the price that the fisherman commands can easily go up to Rs.40-50. That is the kind of difference that a very minor intervention can make. All it requires is for fishermen to appoint someone to ensure that the catch is auctioned transparently. It requires transparent dealing, greater competition and a mechanism to collect the money from the merchants. Credit is safer for such cooperatives because loan repayments can be adjusted against the fish sales made by members. Credit can be used for buying assets, which can help in increasing productivity, which results in better incomes, leading to a better quality of life.

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