Developed nations are not bothered about marine resources

Fifty-five-year-old thomas kocherry , one of the founders of the National Fishworkers Forum -- a trade union network of 200,000 traditional fisherpeople -- has been its chairperson since 1983. Although he has worked for traditional fisherfolk since 1971, the government's 'liberalising' move to open up Indian waters to foreign deep-sea vessels has found Kocherry at the forefront of a bitter struggle to oppose these alien raiders. He represented the interests of ethnic fishing communities before the Murari committee which recommended a ban on the fleet. Apart from the foreign vessels, Kocherry and his people are tackling a government and bureaucracy that is shirking from the implementation of these recommendations. Kocherry spoke to Anto Akkara about the movement to bring succour to India's eight-million-strong fishing community

Published: Wednesday 15 January 1997

Why are fisherfolk vehemently opposed to foreign deep-sea fishing vessels?
There are 25,000 deep-sea fishing vessels all over the world. Many of these are now partially or totally idle because they have depleted marine resources worldwide.

How many of the 25,000 industrial fishing vessels are operating in India?
There are two categories: the licensed vessels and the poachers. Regarding the licensed ones, the government sometimes says there are 200 and at other times claims that there are only 40. In our opinion, there are 200 licensed ones and 200 poachers operating in Indian waters.

To what extent have fisheries got deplet ed worldwide?
The total catch in 1991 was 90 million tonnes (mt). By 1993-94, it came down to 81 mt. A 1995 Food and Agriculture Organization report clearly states that fishery resources are declining. One cannot calculate exact global figures since depletion is qualitatively specific to certain areas and is often not reflected in the quantum of catch, as the fishing of unexploited species compensates the loss in the output of traditional varieties.

How has the depletion of fish stocks affected fisherpeople? Are they losing their livelihood and switching over to new professions?
The 1993 Supreme Court (sc) judgement upholding the ban on bottom trawling and the use of purseine nets pointed out a pronounced 50 per cent decline in the catch of the traditional sector due to mechanisation. However, not all are in search of new jobs. They continue in their profession as they have no choice. But some have entered other fields. While women have taken up domestic work and nursing, some men have found fishing jobs in countries like Egypt.

How would you assess the environmental impact of the operation of large fishing vessels?
Industrial fishing vessels like bull trawlers are highly destructive. They scrape the seabed and destroy its vegetation. They also deplete marine stock by damaging eggs and small fish. The dumping of unwanted catch into the sea pollutes too.

How have green activists reacted around the world?
The very fact that several countries have banned large fishing vessels shows the pressure green activists have built up. They have successfully campaigned against environmentally-destructive fishing technologies and practices. For instance, the Peruvian anchovy was vanishing at an alarming rate in the '80s due to indiscriminate fishing. But once a ban on its fishing was imposed, stocks picked up.

Is opposing the industrial fishing fleet the fisherpersons' prerogative or the environmentalists' concern?
The depletion of marine resources seriously concerns both fisherpeople and those who care for sustainable technologies. Fishing in small vessels is sustainable fishing -- something that will preserve both resources and the people who rely on fisheries for their daily bread. But some industrial groups want short-term benefits and destroy marine resources in their blind pursuit of profit. In the case of Japan, it protects its own waters but allows its fishing vessels to poach abroad. In fact, all the 25,000 industrial fishing vessels belong to developed nations which are not bothered about what happens to marine resources.

What has been the Indian government's deep-sea fishing policy in the '90s?
To encourage deep-sea fishing, the government initially launched a scheme whereby Indians could charter foreign vessels on the condition that they would own them within five years. More than 100 of these were issued licenses. But the import of bull trawlers drained marine resources and the government was forced to scrap the scheme. However, licenses were reissued by the food processing ministry in 1991 and so bull trawling which had been banned earlier, is still in operation.

The government also tried to help Indian entrepreneurs acquire foreign fishing vessels. Around 180 vessels were operating from Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. This too worked well and was profitable in the beginning but subsequently failed. The vessel owners now owe more than Rs 2 billion to various financial agencies.

Under the fisheries policy of 1991, the government allowed joint, lease and test fishing with 51 per cent of the equity being Indian and 49 per cent foreign. Though it is called a 51/49 equity on an investment of Rs 200,000, the actual cost of the vessels has been so high that it is not at all a joint venture but a totally foreign one. Besides, these vessels were targeting only shrimp and destroyed huge amounts of by-catch. This has had a great impact on traditional fisherfolk who rely on these other varieties for their livelihood and on Indian consumers who relish the cheaper varieties.

Has the entry of large fishing vessels been opposed only by traditional fisherpeople?
A study by the Fisheries Survey of India has pointed out that 99 per cent of the catch of these vessels is from territorial waters. Therefore, the entry of large fishing vessels has affected both traditional fisherpeople and the small mechanised sector. In fact, the 1991 policy invited protests from traditional fisherpeople, the small mechanised boat sector and even fish merchants. On February 4, 1995, there was an all-India strike. The issue was debated in Parliament and the minister of food processing promised to freeze licenses until the policy was reviewed. A review committee under the chairpersonship of P Murari, the former secretary to the food processing ministry, was appointed.

I myself went on an indefinite hunger strike at Porbandar, Gujarat, on May 2, 1995, (for eight days) demanding that the government call us for discussions. In May, 1995, after a meeting with ministry officials we came to the agreement that bull trawling should be stopped immediately. The Murari committee was divided into five sub-groups which visited various fishing pockets. Despite unanimous recommendations regarding the cancellation of new licenses, the committee took no decision. Fishworkers once again went on a countrywide strike on January 18, 1996. The committee finally came out with its findings on February 6. It issued 21 recommendations.

The Murari committee gave the government six months' time to ban foreign fishing vessels. Did the government act on the committee's recommendations?
The six-month deadline ended on August 6 this year. On August 7, we undertook an indefinite hunger strike and harbour blockade in Mumbai and held demonstrations. On August 13, Dilip Kumar Ray, the minister for food processing, gave us a written assurance that the committee's recommendations will be implemented by September 12. Unfortunately, that deadline has passed us too and we are yet to hear from the government about the steps being taken. The problem seems to be with bureaucrats who are delaying these crucial decisions to help vested interests. But we are not going to sit back quietly. We have no alternative but to resume from where we let off on August 13.

What was the major victory scored by the National Fishworkers Forum at the national level, prior to the Murari committee's recommendations?
In 1993, the sc decided in favour of traditional fisherfolk. In two separate judgements, the court upheld the ban on monsoon trawling and purseine nets. It also agreed with our contention that the mechanisation of fisheries denied native fisherpeople their catch. Justice Jeevan Reddy had said that development did not merely mean production and that it should be coupled with distributive justice. The pronouncement was a vindication of our stand.

Is it true that the fishing community is losing its distinct identity?
One cannot say that fisherpeople are losing their identity because fighting off this threat is what their struggle is all about. They are standing together and fighting globalisation. If anything, their identity has been further strengthened by the struggle.

Once the Murari committee's recommendations are implemented, will fisherpeople give up their ongoing struggle?
The recommendations are not linked to deep-sea fishing vessels alone. They shall affect the fishing sector in a rather holistic fashion. There are many things like the upgradation of traditional fishing gear and the setting up of a National Fisheries Authority, which cannot be implemented at one go. Even if all the 21 are followed up, they will bear repercussions every year. It will be an ongoing process.

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