Lockdown, followed by two months fishing ban; Koli fisherwomen are on the edge

Koli fisherwomen in Mumbai have not earned a penny in the last almost three months. Fishing ban in June and July, with no monetary compensation, may tip them over the edge

Nidhi Jamwal
Deputy Managing Editor| Updated: Last updated on May 27th, 2020,

Versova fishing village. Mumbai

Sulochana Dhakle belongs to the Koli fishing community of Mumbai, which is considered the original inhabitant of the present day megapolis that once was seven separate islands. Koli claim it is the sweat and the blood of their past generations that have made Mumbai what it is today — a bustling state capital. But, amid the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the city has turned its back on the Koli community whose fisherwomen claim they are inching closer to destitution.

Sulochana tai, in her mid-60s, resides with her paralysed husband in Versova fishing village in western suburbs of Mumbai. Till some three months back, her mornings used to be very rushed, as along with the fellow fisherwomen, she would leave home at 2am and travel 27-kilometres, in a tempo, to Crawford Market in south Mumbai to pick up fresh fish. By 4am she used to return home, cook for her husband, eat herself and leave to sell the fish. She would not return home before the evening.

“Four days in a week, I used to sell fish by carrying it in a basket on my head and moving from locality to locality. Some days I would earn Rs 100 only, other days Rs 300. That was the only source of my income, which also helped buy medicines for my paralysed husband,” Sulochana tai told Gaon Connection. “Now, for almost three months, I haven’t earned a penny. I can barely feed myself and my husband. I have no money to buy his medicines,” she added.

Out of habit, Sulochana tai still wakes up at 2am. To brood. And occasionally cry over how a pandemic and an unconcerned government have turned Kolis destitute.

Sulochana tai, a fisherwoman in her mid-60s, resides with her paralysed husband in Versova fishing village, Mumbai. Since March she hasn’t earn anything. Photo: Nidhi Jamwal

Exactly two months back, on March 25, the country was put under a nationwide lockdown by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address challenges arising out of the COVID-19. All the fishing activities came to a standstill, too.

“At least 16 million fishers and fish workers are dependent on this sector for their livelihood, of which half are women,” T Peter, general secretary of National Fishworkers’ Forum, a federation of state-level trade unions in India, told Gaon Connection. “The lockdown has badly affected the fishing community with no source of income. We have been demanding a special relief package from the Government of India, but, so far, received nothing,” he added.

The National Fishworkers’ Forum has asked to “immediately provide livelihood financial relief measure of Rs 15,000/month/fishing household across capture and allied sectors and include all workers, sorters, dryers, vendors [without the limiting condition of Aadhaar card].” For fisherwomen who earn their living by selling fish, the Forum has demanded Rs 5,000 per month for the three months period of March, April and May.

“We are hard working Koli women who start our day at 2 am and end it only late evening. We earn on a daily basis and support our families,” Jagruti Tushar Bhanji. Photo: Nidhi Jamwal

“Versova fishing village has about 4,500-5,000 fisher families dependent on fishing activities for their livelihood. There are 400-500 boats that haven’t gone fishing since March due to the coronavirus problem,” Pravin Bhanji, chairperson of Shiv Galli Koli Samaj Trust in Versova fishing village told Gaon Connection. “There has been no earning for the last three months and now the annual fishing ban will come into force from June 1. How will we survive?” he wondered.

Every year, there is a 61-day fishing ban around the monsoon to protect the marine fishing wealth. To this effect, in March 2017, the Central government issued a notification on the ‘uniform ban on fishing by all deep-sea fishing vessels in the Indian exclusive economic zone (EEZ) beyond the territorial waters on the East Coast and the West Coast’.

The 2017 notification specified a 61-day fishing ban on both the coasts of the country, including Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep, “for conservation and effective management of fishery resources and also for sea safety reasons”. All fishing activities are banned during this period except traditional non-motorised boats, which can continue fishing.

On the East Coast of the country, this ban comes into force from April 15 till June 14, whereas on the West Coast, it starts from June 1 and ends on July 31.

“Our fisherwomen are already in a very bad condition with no income for the last three months and the upcoming fishing ban will make our survival impossible. No fishing means no fish vending,” said Jagruti Tushar Bhanji, a fisher woman from Shiv gully (lane) in Versova fishing village. The fishing village has a total of nine gullies. “We are hard working Koli women who start our day at 2 am and end it only late evening. We earn on a daily basis and support our families. The government should compensate us,” she added.

Fisherwomen of Versova fishing village in Mumbai earn between Rs 100 and Rs 300 a day by selling fish. Lockdown has meant no earning. Photo: Nidhi Jamwal

Like Sulochana tai, Meenakshi Dhakle of the Versova fishing village sells fish by visiting various localities in Mumbai. She has been watching her mother sell fish and that is how she learnt her traditional occupation. “My mother used to travel 20 kilometres to go sell fish in Wadala. Now I do the same thrice a week and earn Rs 200-300 a day. Sometimes I have to put in money from my side, as fish vending is like a gamble,” Meenakshi told Gaon Connection.

Since mid-March, she has no income. “We Koli women never beg for any help. Our forefathers have built this city. But today, we have become destitute and do not know how to feed our families,” she lamented. “Forget the lockdown, the state government does not even compensate us for the two months annual fishing ban,” she lashed out.

A number of coastal states in the country compensate their fishing population for the 61-day annual fishing ban period. “Kerala provides free dry ration to fisher families during the two months ban period. Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry offer Rs 4,000 per month per fisher family as compensation for the annual fishing ban,” informed Peter.

Andhra Pradesh offers a monthly compensation of Rs 5,000 per fisher family during the ban period. And, there have been demands to raise this compensation, too.

“Fishing is a semi-skilled activity and the legal wage for such an activity in the country is Rs 371 per person per day. Thus, each fisher should receive this much daily wage,” Debasis Paul of the Democratic Traditional Fishers and Fish Workers Forum, Andhra Pradesh told Gaon Connection. “In any fishing family, apart from the men who go fishing, women are also involved in fishing activities. Each such fisherwoman should be paid at least half the legal wage of Rs 371 a day,” he added.

Meanwhile, fishers allege Maharashtra offers no such compensation. “We receive no compensation against the annual fishing ban. We sit idle at home for those two months,” said Pravin Bhanji. “This year has been particularly disastrous. Three months of no income due to the coronavirus followed by two months of fishing ban. And, no support from the government,” he added.

Versova fishing village has about 4,500-5,000 fisher families and 400-500 boats that haven’t gone fishing since March due to the coronavirus problem. Photo: Nidhi Jamwal

It is not just the fisherwomen involved in fish vending activities who feel it is the road’s end for them. Fishing boat owners, such as Dhanashree Dhakle of Versova fishing village, are also having sleepless nights thinking of the huge losses they have suffered due to the lockdown.

“I own a large fishing boat which employs 10 khalashi (workers, mostly migrants). My boat goes for deep sea fishing for 10-12 days,” Dhanashree told Gaon Connection. When the lockdown was announced, her boat was fishing in the Arabian Sea. It returned to the harbour with huge fish catch. “But because of the lockdown, I could not sell the fish catch and had to throw it back into the sea. All the diesel and ice that I had put in for the fishing trip went waste,” she added.

And fishing trips aren’t cheap. “One fishing trip of 15 days consumes 2,000 litre diesel [Rs 1.3 lakh approximately]. We need 7-8 tonnes of ice for fish catch storage, which costs Rs 15,000-20,000. Then there is a daily salary to pay the captain, vice captain, khalashis. In addition, dry ration cost too. Thus, each fishing trip costs us Rs 2-2.50 lakh,” told Pravin Bhanji.

Dhanashree informed she suffered a financial loss of at least Rs 2 lakh in the last fishing trip. And that is not her only loss. “Last September, October, and November, there were rains and storms on the west coast because of which we could not fish. December, January and February are cold months and we not get much fish. It is only in March, April and May months that we get good fish catch. But, all that was lost due to the lockdown,” she said.

Every year, there is a 61-day fishing ban. On the East Coast of the country, this ban comes into force from April 15 till June 14, whereas on the West Coast, it starts from June 1 and ends on July 31. Photo: Nidhi Jamwal

And now the next two months — June and July — are the annual fishing ban months on the west coast of the country, which means fishing activities cannot resume before August.

“What we earn during March, April and May sustains us during the fishing ban period when we mend our boats and other fishing gears. We have already suffered huge losses. There is no money to feed our families let alone fix our fishing boats for August,” she said angrily.

Both the Central and the state government need to address concerns of the fishing community. “The government must provide some financial support to tide over the lockdown losses. And, like other coastal state, the Maharashtra government must compensate us for the two months fishing ban,” said Jagruti Tushar Bhanji.

Gaon Connection reached out to R R Jadhav, fisheries commissioner, Maharashtra to clarify on the compensation for the fishing ban period. “In Maharashtra, we have ‘Bachat and Sahuliyat Scheme’ under which if a fisher deposits Rs 1,500, he/she receives additional Rs 1,500 each from the Centre and the state government. Thus, a total of Rs 4,500 per fisher family during the fishing ban period,” he informed.

However, fisherwomen in Versova fishing village have no information about this scheme. And hence, receive no compensation.