'India's policy on marine fisheries excludes small-scale fishers'

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Thursday 08 June 2017

Siddharth Chakravarty is investigating human rights abuses in the fishing industry and illegality on the world's oceans. He talks to Vibha Varshney on Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14) and what India is doing to achieve it. SDG 14 targets to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

It is being discussed at the Ocean Conference in New York. You can see coverage from the conference here.

The policy envisages private property rights as a management tool invariably excludes small-scale fishers (Credit: Arvind Yadav/CSE)

Has the government taken any proactive steps to meet the 14th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG14)?

The target of the SDG14 is primarily meant to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources and includes tackling marine pollution, reducing ocean acidification, protecting coastal and marine ecosystems, reducing overcapacity in fishing effort, doing away with harmful fishing subsidies etc. A report on the website of the NITI Aayog, specific to SDG14, cites the following interventions for India to achieve the SDG14: National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems and the Sagarmala Project. 

The National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems relates specifically to the conservation of lakes and wetlands and doesn't relate to SDG14 at all. The Sagarmala project is an industrial makeover of the coastline with the creation of ports, coastal economic zones and industrial clusters which again do not directly relate to the targets of SDG14. In addition, if one is to read reports on the National Policy of Marine Fisheries and the proposed Marine Coastal Regulation Zone (MRCZ) notification, in conjunction with the Sagarmala project, it is clear that India’s steps, while being very active, are not geared towards the realisation of SDG14.

What is your opinion on the recent national policy on marine fisheries? Will the rights of fisherfolk in India be protected in future?

The simplest way of defining the new policy is to term it as Ocean Grabbing, which basically means the takeover of marine, coastal and inland fisheries resources by large-scale capital interests that then determine policies, laws and practices. By using words in the report such as the Public Trust Doctrine, Gender Equality and Intergenerational Equity, the policy is clear in its aim to provide a rights-based approach to the expansion of fisheries. However, the rights-based approach merely focuses on economic efficiency without recognising the principles of social justice. Thus the new policy aims to generate rent from the ocean resources by auctioning quotas to the highest bidder and then allowing the free market to regulate the harvest, the trade and the sustainability of the resources. The outcome of this policy which envisages private property rights as a management tool invariably excludes small-scale fishers because it does not ensure respect for their human rights, customs and practices.

The deadline for meeting many of the SDG targets is just 2020. Do you think it would be possible to achieve anything in such a short time?

Most of the targets of the SDG14 cannot be measured against a checklist and therefore it will be hard to know if they have been achieved by 2020. However, for a country to keep working towards its commitments to the SDGs, 2020 should not act as a deadline but as a starting point to put in place policies which help reverse the trend of ocean health decline. As per a report supported by the UNDP and the MOEFCC, India’s financial shortfall in achieving the targets of the SDG is Rs 36 lakh crores per year. It is evident that the process to achieve the SDG targets will be a long-term one.

What major issues, pertaining to oceans, should the government tackle at a priority if it wants to meet the SDG14?

Personally, overfishing (Target 14.4) is one which the government must work towards. The reason for this is that in order to achieve it, all of the other targets will automatically need to be addressed. To address overfishing, managing marine and coastal ecosystems (14.2), conservation of marine areas (14.5), ending harmful subsidies (14.6), increasing economic benefits to least developed communities (14.7), promoting technology transfer (14A), giving access to small-scale fishers (14B) and implementing international law (14C) must be included. In addition, to successfully manage marine and coastal ecosystems, marine pollution (14.1) and ocean acidification (14.3) will need to be addressed. In summary, all the targets under the SDG14 are linked and the government must undertake a holistic approach and assimilate and streamline its approach to achieving these targets synchronously. 

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