Fishworkers' campaign draws attention to the sale of marine waters
"There is widespread sense of outrage amongst the country's coastal communities," says Harekrishna Debnath, chairperson of the National Fishworkers' Forum. The indignation stems from the loss of traditional livelihood. With privately-operated special economic zones scything through mangroves and hazardous industries playing havoc with coastal ecology, fishworkers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. Many of them have taken to the streets Debnath is leading a campaign, the Machhimar Adhikar Rashtriya Abhiyan, to draw attention to the sale of India's marine waters to private players.
The campaign began on May 1 at the port town of Jakhau in the Rann of Kutch--the day the draft coastal zone management (czm) notification was finalized.For nine days fishworkers travelled along the coastal villages of Gujarat holding public meetings and rallies and agitating against the draft czm for ignoring rights of coastal communities. "Hazardous units, manufacturing petrochemicals, pesticides and agrochemicals, have mushroomed along the Gujarat coast. Refineries and private ports have compounded the misery of people living in these areas. Our survey shows that the worst culprits are the Adani group, which is building a port at Mundra, Sanghi Cement company in Sanghipur in Saurashtra and Atul Agrochemicals in Bharuch," says Debnath.
The campaigners entered Maharashtra on the tenth day of their journey, stopping in Mumbai for a day-long seminar on the International Labour Organization's Convention on Working in Fishing (see box Fisher's rights). The fishworkers will traverse the coasts of India, and the journey will culminate in Kolkata on June 27. The campaigners also hope to organize a huge rally in Delhi in early July to warn the government against selling the country's shores to private operators.
"The yatra has been an eye-opener of sorts. I have been associated with the country's fisheries sector for decades, but have never seen such misery. The fishing villages have no drinking water, no sanitation, no primary health centres and very few schools," says Debnath recounting several horror stories. For example, at a public hearing in Dahej, in Bharuch district a fisherman, Gaganbhai Rathod, openly accepted that the 75 fisherfolk families in his village do nothing but sleep through the day. At night they venture out to rob their fellow villagers. Many are caught and beaten mercilessly, Rathod said.
Debnath rues that with fish production in Gujarat falling from 700,000 in 2000 to 400,000 by the end of 2007, many fishermen have little choice but take greater risks. "A growing number venture into deep seas and often land up in Pakistani jails. More than 500 boats from Saurashtra have been confiscated by Pakistani authorities. You think the fisherfolk are mad to take such high risks?" he asks. Debnath also says that none of the fishing villages had water, health and sanitation facilities. Women, evidently, suffered the most under the circumstances.
There were several other hard facts that the campaigners encountered. "In Kutch and Saurashtra, government sponsored welfare measures like lean season grants, relief cum savings schemes, assistance to buy fishing equipment and compensation for deaths by accident, have virtually dried up. The 50,000-odd people who do not have boats and eke a living by picking crabs are the worst off.
Seas badly polluted
Philip Mastan, Vasai town, about 50 kms north of Mumbai
Harunbhai Siddiqi from Kuna Wandi village in Anjar district
Ahmadbhai Illiaz, Luni village, Mundra taluka, Gujarat
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