Struggling to stay afloat

Print edition : December 09, 2016

Boats at Kasimedu harbour in Chennai. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam.

Fishermen in Tamil Nadu are hit hard as the cash flow dries up and people stop buying fish.

CUSTOMER footfalls in the Chintadripet fish market, one of the many government-designated markets for the retail fish trade in Chennai, have gone down from about 5,000 in the morning hours to a few hundreds. Arrivals at most fish markets in the State remained steady on November 8 and 9, but fell subsequently because of poor demand.

“Yes, there is a huge slip [after the demonetisation],” said S. Janakiraman, who was until recently president of the Kovalam panchayat, a village that depends on fishing and tourism for its survival. “Earlier, for instance, if a hawker sold fish worth Rs.5,000, now it is down to about Rs.1,500,” he said and added that people were willing to undergo the pain caused by demonetisation because they believed that it was for a greater good and that it was a temporary phenomenon.

What if the present situation continues? “Then, there will be a problem because people will find it difficult. Cash is an essential requirement to run the trade,” he said. Similar sentiments were voiced by other workers and association representatives across the State. “There’s a liquidity problem even after a week,” said U. Arulanandam, a prominent voice in the Fishermen’s Association in Tamil Nadu. “All of us support the government in the drive against black money. Our only request is that the government help us with some kind of subsidy because many fishermen are out of work,” he told Frontline.

That is the main problem. Across the country, the fisheries sector has ground to a halt. In Tamil Nadu, despite the fact that no association has openly come out demanding relief, most of the boats across the 13 coastal districts are barely venturing out. For most of them, the economics just do not work out.

Each boat (regardless of whether it is a mechanised or a smaller motor-fitted fibre one) has four or five persons working on it. The input costs vary: for fibre boats, they are insignificant because the government makes available five litres of diesel for each and the boats do not venture too far from the coastline. But mechanised boats have to carry anything from 50 to 100 litres of diesel, and this is the major input cost. Once back on land, the catch is sold and the money evenly distributed among the labourers (if the boat owner is also one of the crew).

But in the case of hiring a boat from an owner, this cost too has to be factored in. The hiring route is not available to many labourers and fish workers though. It depends on the confidence of the boat owner in the person hiring the boat, and also on the “record” of the labourers. The record—in the case of most of the boats in Thangachimadam, Pamban and nearby areas—depends on whether the labourers have been arrested by the Sri Lanka Navy. If they were in the past, then the confidence of the owner in the crew diminishes.

According to Tamil Nadu Fisheries Minister D. Jayakumar, the total fish production of Tamil Nadu in 2015-16 was 7.08 lakh tonnes. “Tamil Nadu stands fourth in total fish production of the country, besides exporting marine products of 85,063 tonnes and earning foreign exchange worth Rs.4,184.06 crore in 2015-16,” he informed the State Legislative Assembly while presenting the demands for grants for the Ministry earlier this year. “A total of 5,862 mechanised fishing boats, 28,886 motorised and 5,261 non-motorised traditional craft have been registered till 15.07.2016,” says the policy note for 2016-17. Tamil Nadu has the second longest coastline in India: 1,076 kilometres across 13 coastal districts (exclusive economic zone of 1.9 lakh sq km and a continental shelf area of 41,412 sq km). The marine fisher population in Tamil Nadu is 9.64 lakh, living in 608 fishing villages. Fishermen’s unions, including its leaders such as Arulanandam, dispute this number. They say that the State government only counts those with a government identity card; in reality, there are over 13 lakh fish workers in Tamil Nadu.

The entire trade, barring a few up-market retail outlets, operates on cash. Cash is required to meet the daily needs of the labourers and also for the cost inputs for the next trip. A few fishermen this correspondent spoke to insisted that there was nothing illegal about their cash transactions as most of them did not have the annual income required to make it even to the lowest income tax bracket.

It is largely a hand-to-mouth existence, and the government subsidies, such as the lean season allowance—though it is delayed every single time—are a welcome relief whenever they reached them. Most of the registered fishermen do have bank accounts and also opt for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme during the lean months.

Fishermen’s representatives insist that there is no other way to run the sector—barring a minuscule part of the industry populated by big multi-day trawlers employing 15 to 20 labourers. In such cases too, the labourers have to be paid in cash after each trip.

Despite the fact that the sector provides employment to about 15 million people in the country, the problems of the fish workers have barely made it to the media after the November 8 announcement on demonetisation. The sector is in danger of falling apart unless the government provides input support or buys the catch—as it does in the case of procurement of crops—fish worker leaders say. But, with hardly any spotlight on the sector—except when fishermen are shot at by the Sri Lanka Navy—even this is a tall order. For now, it appears that the fishermen will have to fend for themselves.

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