Natural Disasters

COVID-19 pulls fishermen back to Bengal, Amphan forces them to reconsider

Several fishermen in West Bengal have begun weighing options to go back to fishing harbours in other states where they worked

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Monday 15 June 2020
Migrant fishermen come back to West Bengal after the lockdown was extended Photo: Jayanta Basu

If the lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) forced migrant fishermen to come back to West Bengal from coastal states, the impact from cyclone Amphan is forcing them to reconsider their decisions.

Close to 60 per cent of the nearly 40,000 migrant fishermen have either just returned to West Bengal or are in the process of returning.

Many, however, have begun to weigh options to go back to the fishing harbours in other states. Amphan has not just shrunk their employment opportunities in Bengal, but has also forced them to look for urgent money to help rebuild their damaged homes.

A large proportion of the migrant fishermen live within Kakdwip and adjoining Namkhana blocks — the areas affected the most in the Sundarbans, as cyclone Amphan had landfall close to the area.

Of the 2.4 million fishermen in West Bengal, two million work inlands in rivers and wetlands, while 400,000 are involved in trawler-driven marine fishery.

Fishermen primarily migrate to western coastal states like Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu on the east, as the fish catch dwindled in Bengal, according to specialists in the fisheries sector.

Fishermen stuck in coastal states and a few other western states wanted to come back after the lockdown was extended, as their income dried up, Pradip Chatterjee, convenor of the National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers told Down To Earth.

“We took up the issue with the respective governments, including West Bengal. They finally started to return through trains and buses,” he said.

Chatterjee alleged the migrant fishermen are yet to get privileges mandated by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The impact from cyclone Amphan did force fishermen into thinking of going back to the states they were working in, according to Chatterjee.

“Most people had migrated because they did not get much work due to comparatively less fish catch for several reasons. Amphan has made their lives tougher,” he said.

The fishing season continues for 10 months in coasts across the country, barring mid-April to mid-June in the east coast and June and July in the west coast to allow uninterrupted breeding among fishes.

In 2020, the ban was reduced by 15 days to accommodate losses accumulated during the lockdown period.

Amphan happened when many returned after several arguments with boat owners who were not keen to let them come back,” said Milan Das, general secretary of the Dakhinbanga Motsojyibi Samity, a fishermen’s collective.

“Amphan, however, changed the equation overnight and a few actually started to ask about the possibilities of returning even before reaching home,” he added.

Gopal Das, a fisherman from Kakdwip, said he was ready to go back to Kerala before the next fishing season from August 1. “I have more or less finalised my return with my boat owner and captain,” said Das, who needs money to repair his damaged house.

Other fishermen, like Mithun Das and Ripon Das, are eager to go back, as the fish catch is much more in southern states, according to them.

The return of migrant fishermen is also important for fishing boat owners in most southern states, as there has been a shortage of workers.

Nearly 100,000 migrant workers work in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are mostly from Andhra Pradesh, followed by West Bengal.

Fishermen from Bengal are involved in ancillary work as well.

Milan Das said most fishermen in southern states earn through profit-sharing of their fish catch with boat owners and other crew, who are around nine in every boat. The share for fishermen comes to not less than Rs 15,000 per month on average.

“We can send at least Rs 10,000 per month back home, which has improved our families’ standard of living,” said one fisherman.  

Not all fishermen, however, want to go back.

“I have decided to work in my state and will not go back after all that has happened,” said Abhiram Das, who claimed to have been beaten up in Kerala while leading a protest demanding arrangements for coming back to Bengal during the lockdown.

Such fishermen, however, are exceptions rather than the rule.

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