Ch. Potudu, 48, an artisanal fisher from the traditional Nolia fishing caste, took up sea fishing at the age of 13 and mastered it over the next 20 years. His livelihood depended solely on knowing how to practise his craft, learning from it every day. But the last two decades have seen a major shift in the fortunes of the Nolia community as the sea began to yield less and less. With few other skills or options to make a living in his seaside village of Podampeta, in Ganjam district of Odisha, Potudu migrated all the way to the west coast in search of work.
Question of identity
This was not just a physical journey but one of identity: a highly skilled artisanal fisher with impressive knowledge of the sea was reduced to unskilled labourer. For the last 15 years, he has been sorting fish, cleaning the deck, and doing other menial jobs on mechanised trawlers in harbours in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Kerala. He visits his family once a year. “A trawler is no place to sleep or eat or live in, but I see no other way to stay afloat on life’s endless sorrows,” said Potudu.
This is a fate shared by many small-scale fishing families from the eastern States of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu.
Bharathi, 35, belongs to the Pattinavar fishing caste that traces an ancient lineage and is a resident of Nambiyar Nagar, one of the prominent head-villages of this community, in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu. She shared with us the contours of her family’s hopes: “The boat was our dream. My husband bought a new ‘fibre boat’ using a loan I took from a microfinance company. Each month, he needs to bring home a profit of at least Rs.10,000 from fishing. Only then can I repay the loan EMI [equated monthly instalment] and hope to run my family. In the past few years, fuel prices have risen so sharply that even if we do catch the few fish left in the sea, there is hardly anything left as a profit.”
In a sort of desperate consolation, Bharathi added: “I’m not the only one. While I couldn’t pay fees for my daughter this year, my neighbours have not paid school fees for the past two years. For everyone in this village, life is a struggle .Some even take loans from their neighbours to pay back their EMIs.”
Seasonal migration to work as trawler labourers is now a normal practice among the Pattinavars of Nambiyar Nagar. Bharathi’s younger brother too migrated to Singapore for a job to support his family.
As with India’s agrarian labour force, resource degradation is a major reason for distress migration among fishers. Across the east coast, extensive mechanisation, declines in catch, and increasing operational and living costs have pushed small-scale fishers, especially artisanal fishers, towards economic vulnerability and structural exploitation. Ironically, many of them seek employment in the very mechanised sector that is linked to the degradation of marine resources in the first place.
An estimated 450 million Indians migrate to far off places for employment, and this includes marine fishers and sometimes their families. Although the majority of migrant fishers are largely intra- and inter-State migrants, many go abroad, mainly West Asia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The exact extent of migration from the coastal areas of the country is unknown, but the trend is significant and apparent to anyone working with fishing communities. Complex trigger factors spark off such migration, which is not necessarily healthy in its cumulative impact as we found in the course of our work along the east coast.
While providing relief support to stranded migrant fishers during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, Dakshin Foundation received calls for help from across harbours on the west coast. The migration map (Figure 1) shows home States and host States where migrants were stranded.
Sathyakeerthi, a Pattinavar fisher from Chinnakudi fishing village in Mayiladuthurai district in Tamil Nadu, migrated to Singapore, a country famous for its strict labour laws but which has failed to protect workers like him. Leaving his home State in 2004, the 19-year-old took a job in the shipbuilding industry. He imagined that he would fit easily within the familiarity of an allied maritime sector but was given the job of painting tanks fitted inside the large ships.
“Within a few days, my body started reacting to the paint’s chemicals. One day, when I was painting the interiors of the ship’s tanks, I suddenly felt severely breathless. Somehow I managed to climb out of the tanks. I was out of action for a week with high fever. All this was known to my supervisors,” said Sathyakeerthi.
At the height of his fever, when Sathyakeerthi wanted to go to hospital, the site manager replied, “If you are going to die, die here.” As his health deteriorated and breathing got difficult, he began worrying about his survival. “I formally reported my health condition to the company’s management without knowing that this would be the end of my career here.” The company failed to ensure his workplace safety or provide redress after his illness.
Sathyakeerthi laboured for three more years in Singapore, haunted by the prospect of letting down his family back home. In 2007, he returned to Chinnakudi, burdened with physical ailments and the debt from paying an agent to get the Singapore job. He has since found respite in small-scale fishing, albeit from a depleted sea, which still feeds his family and has restored his self-respect.
The condition of internal migrants from fishing communities came to light during the first COVID-19 lockdown’s relief efforts. Aside from their poor working and living conditions, relief workers faced a serious problem in contacting and connecting migrant fishers to their families, or to relief measures and support. Even fisher leaders across the east coast struggled to reach people who had migrated from their village. The value of maintaining records of migrant fishers became apparent after the lockdown.
In the first month of the lockdown, around 2,000 fishers from small-scale fishing communities of Andhra Pradesh were stranded at the Veraval harbour in Gujarat, without adequate drinking water, food, or accommodation. However, speaking to migrant workers who returned to the west coast for work after the lockdowns were lifted nearly two years later, we understood that their conditions were not any better during “normal” times.
No adequate safeguards
In the absence of any dedicated legislation or scheme for migrant fishers and the peculiar nature of their work on vessels and at sea, ensuring their safety at work escapes the attention of government departments.
The Labour and Fisheries departments put the onus on each other when it comes to issues regarding migrant fishers. The ambiguity over definitional issues has meant that this constituency slips through state records and safeguards, rendering them doubly vulnerable, as workers and as fishers.
Government initiatives like e-Shram presumably attempt to correct this lapse. There are virtually no databases of migrant fishers, and the authors were part of a project that set out to create community databases in 15 villages of Nagapattinam and Mayiladuthurai districts in Tamil Nadu, and Ganjam district in Odisha, all of which experience extensive migration.
“These databases are not only helpful for fisher migrants, they play a significant role for non-fishing migrants also. We faced so many serious challenges during the lockdown to even reach our own people” said Sanjukta Pradhan, Sarpanch of Pallibandha Gram Panchayat of Ganjam district of Odisha.
No dedicated State financial outlays have been allotted for making decentralised databases at the State or district level. The future of such fishworker labour records, which even the 2021 NITI Aayog draft migrant worker policy advocated, is dependent on the involvement of civil society organisations and the participation of traditional institutions of fishing communities and gram panchayats.
The ‘push factor’
While these post-pandemic efforts to make migration safe and secure are important, the intensity of the “push factor” grows in strength. Districts like Ganjam have become the newly famous sites for rapid sea erosion, in addition to more entrenched problems such as declining fish catch and increased indebtedness.
With strong cyclones, rising sea levels, and dramatic shoreline changes from port and other construction, coastal erosion has become a powerful push factor in villages like Podampeta which have seen many waves of displacement.
Podampeta has seen its shoreline shrink dramatically to an extent where each year the sea swallows rows upon rows of brightly tiled homes, eroding any hope among its last remaining residents.
This devastation started in 2007. By 2012, 110 houses in the newly settled site called “New Podampeta” were also taken by the sea. When their beach commons vanished, the traditional fishers found themselves having to pay rent to store their boats and nets since the only available space near the sea was private farmland. These daily rents add to rising fishing input costs.
Sathyakeerthi’s migration story ended on a positive note. He managed to return home to Chinnakudi village, sell his wife’s jewellery to pay his debt, and he continues fishing in his small boat, just managing to stay afloat.
Not all east coast fishers have even the assurance of the existence of their homes when they return. It appears that when erosion sets in, then hardships accrete, adding bit-by-bit to the migrant fisher’s life, or as Potudu from Podampeta described it, a virtual sea of sorrows.
The authors are with Dakshin Foundation, a non-profit organisation working with marine fishers of India. The views expressed here are personal.
- The last two decades have seen a major shift in the fortunes of the fisher community as the sea began to yield less and less.
- With few other skills or options to make a living, fishers migrate all the way to the west coast in search of work and end up as manual labourers.
- This is not just a physical journey but one of identity: from a highly skilled artisanal fisher with impressive knowledge of the sea to an unskilled labourer.
- As with India’s agrarian labour force, resource degradation is a major reason for distress migration among fishers.
- In the absence of any dedicated legislation or scheme for migrant fishers and the peculiar nature of their work on vessels and at sea, ensuring their safety at work escapes the attention of government departments.