Editor’s Note: This month, that is January 2021, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Work and The Workplace, where we invite various articles to highlight the profound changes that our workplaces may or may not have undergone and the effect that these changes have had on our personal and professional lives and ways of living in the time of the pandemic and lockdown. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chhaya Bhoir, a fisherwoman from Vashi Gaon, narrates her community’s dire condition to The Wire, “Most women from the community are illiterate, don’t have jobs in companies and are dependent on the fishing business. Since the lockdown, we have to shut our sales at 1 PM. On most days, we struggle to sell off the catch within the stipulated time frame..we are struggling with food, with our daily expenses.”
As the lockdown was implemented in March 2020, this was the predicament of the 1.6 crore fishers, fish workers, and fish vendors in India. The industry faced a daily loss of a whopping Rs 224 crore. The fishing industry, especially the small-scale fisheries that constitute 80% of the sector, are amongst the worst hit in this pandemic.
After the first phase of the lockdown, fishing was included in the essential commodities and restricted functioning was permitted; yet, members of the fishing fraternity saw a loss of livelihoods, starvation, stranding, deteriorating health, and more. As many industry experts say, that the pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for the fisher folk, entrenching them deeper into their misery.
A Supply Chain Debacle
Many deep-sea fishermen had already left for fishing before the lockdown was implemented on 20th March. An ideal fishing period falls anywhere between two weeks to a maximum of 40 days. The fisherfolk at the seas—unaware of the nascent COVID-hit world—returned to the shores with their huge fish catch only to find a clampdown on fish markets. The fish landing centres were empty with no women vendors to buy their stock. Barriers kept mounting due to the lack of transportation facilities and the declaration of ice (used for storage) as a non-essential commodity. The ones not equipped with cold storage facilities were forced to sell their stock at decreased prices, or worse, discard their catch.
For instance, almost 60 out of the 300 deep-sea shrimp trawlers in Kolkata had to destroy their catch when they reached the harbour. 2000-3000 kilograms of fish were destroyed per boat which amounted to a loss of Rs 200,000-300,000 lakh per fishing vessel.
The Chairman of the National Association of Fishermen, Dr. Gajendra Bahanji said, “Fishing was allowed, but selling was not, which caused a lot of damage.” He anticipated that the harm caused may be irremediable. He further elaborated on the plight of the Koli community, one of the oldest fishing communities of Mumbai. Despite relaxed restrictions, they couldn’t work because of the mandatory, annual 62-day fishing ban which allows marine life to replenish—a situation witnessed across various states.
Moreover, some fisher workers are mainly involved in the export sector. For example, 80% of the fish caught in Goa is reserved for exports. Some importers include the US, Japan, China, European Union countries, and a few Southeast Asian countries. Global border restrictions led to trade inertia that caused further destruction to the livelihoods of fish workers. Several allied activities such as processing, net-mending, transportation, and maintenance of the boats and engines were also thwarted by the pandemic.
Stranded At The Waters And Docks
A sudden lockdown left at least a hundred thousand fish workers stranded at the waters and docks. Many vessels that had ventured into the waters to attain their catch were instructed not to return until the lockdown came to an end. The calculative amount of food and resources that they had taken was bound to get exhausted. Many were living in cramped spaces and suffered from severe starvation. The government initiated selective relief and rescue measures that were insufficient to repose the suffering of many.
Amongst the stranded were the migrant fish workers who received the least attention during the migrant worker crisis. These migrant workers are traditional fishers who migrate from their villages, due to a depleting fish catch, to large harbours. Their mental and physical health deteriorated under constant exposure to mosquito bites, inadequate sleep, and lack of access to bathing and sanitation facilities. The boat owners could not offer them relief for long due to an extended lockdown, and the fish workers’ unions provided them with poor quality food and faced food shortages. The informal nature of their work could not offer them enough protection from their deplorable conditions.
The National Fishworkers Forum reported at least two deaths on vessels stranded in the Veraval harbour in Gujarat—starvation being the alleged cause of one death. Mailupalli Polisu, a fisherman who was stuck at the same harbour for over a month, was jammed into a boat’s cabin with eight other people. “We barely have any drinking water. There are no toilets on the boat. We get two meals a day. All we want is to go home now,” he informed Al Jazeera.
The Marginalised And Invisibilised Fisherwomen
Patriarchal power structures manifest to marginalise the fisherwomen within a community that is already marginalised. Women’s labour in fishing-allied activities amounts to 67% of the total fishery workforce. They are mainly involved in activities that precede and succeed fishing, some of them include net making, peeling, drying, vending, and salting the fish. (CMFRI 2012).
When viewed from a social and political lens, the discrimination against fisherwomen is very palpable. They face several gender-specific barriers: inaccessibility to credit as they aren’t registered with cooperatives; without any credit, they succumb to the competition from large-scale vendors, and social stigmas prevent them from using public transports. The informal spaces that women fish vendors pay to occupy lack basic amenities such as toilets, which increases their risk of sexual harassment. Their work is underpaid and unpaid, and they face exclusions from government welfare schemes. Their oppression has mushroomed in the lockdown, posing a threat to fisherwomen across India.
For instance, Eswari Ramesh, a fisherwoman from Pulicat said, “With my husband a fisher, and my mother-in-law and I selling fish, it’s a complete loss of income for our family.” Her husband’s earnings fulfill the major expenses, whereas her earnings with her mother-in-law were used for their daily expenses.
The lockdown brought plummeted incomes for several fisherwomen due to limited to no fishing activities and reduced consumer demand. Many customers bargained to reduce the prices further. Women also make up 90% of the workforce involved in seaweed collection. Their work came to a halt as traders couldn’t sell their collection with the export markets shut. Even lending money wasn’t an outlet for these women as the traders themselves were income-less.
The hasty implementation of the lockdown placed the fisher folk in a crisis akin to the migrant workers. An unprecedented lockdown trampled on the lives of millions of people without giving them any time to prepare for resources or reach their homes. Their situation did not improve even at the ease of the lockdown. While fish was mentioned in the list of essential commodities, what wreaked havoc were the unclear instructions on exactly how fishing is supposed to be carried out.
On 15th May 2020, the centre unveiled a relief package of ₹20,000 crore under the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana, specifically designed for the fisheries sector. They used catchphrases like “inclusive” and “sustainable” development of marine and inland fisheries. How much relief was doled out in this scheme? No definite answer can be given to this, but instances of inefficiency can be pointed out.
The fish workers were required to have their Aadhar cards linked to their bank accounts to claim the relief fund. However, this was not an accessible option for many as they did not have a bank account or a government identity card.
Focus on the Global South spoke to Jesu Rethinam Christy, a leader within the National FishWorkers Forum (NFF). They said that the government’s efforts have mostly been directed towards the formal and industrial food system. A majority of the fishers, especially fisherwomen, have been left out of the central government’s welfare measures. They further talked about the Draft Fisheries Policy which was released in the middle of the pandemic. The guidelines of the policy seem to be subverting the traditional fishers and are attractive to private investors. The entire policy draft mentions fisherwomen only four or five times, thereby making them redundant.
Lastly, it is crucial to know that the woes of the fisher folk are not incipient. They belong to the downtrodden class—banjaras, bansforas, and khatwes—many of them still facing caste based discrimination like untouchability. They are categorised under other backward classes (OBC), even though their oppression insofar as requires them to be under the SC/ST category.
Their issues have different dimensions, coming from different directions: the vagaries of the weather, social stigmas, neoliberal government policies, depleting fish catch, displacement, and disruption of coastal communities, and unfortunately, I could go on.
- Focus on the Global South
- Rural 21
- M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation
- Dakshin Organisation
- Tandem Research Organisation
- The Free Press Journal
- The Bastion
- Sanctuary Nature Foundation
- The Wire
- The Print
Featured Image Source: Gaon Connection English