Lockdown enforced when they were at sea — so more than a lakh of fishers now wait in deep waters

At least a hundred thousand migrant fish workers are stranded in fishing boats off the Maharashtra coast. Meanwhile, the lockdown is a death blow to the livelihood of 16 million fishers and fish workers

Nidhi Jamwal
Environment Editor| Updated: April 2nd, 2020

As you read this piece, at least a hundred thousand fishers and migrant fish workers are stranded in their fishing boats in the Arabian Sea off the Maharashtra coast. A large number of fishers in the state practice deep-sea fishing, which requires them to be in the sea for days or weeks together. They carry food supplies with them when they leave the coast for a fishing trip.

“Like their regular practice, these fishers left the coast for deep-sea fishing. While they were in the sea, in response to the coronavirus lockdown, Prime Minister Modi announced nation-wide lockdown and now these fishers cannot return to land. They are living in their boats in the sea,” Kiran Koli of Maharashtra Machhimar Kriti Samiti told Gaon Connection.

“As per our estimate, about one-and-a-half lakh fishermen and fish workers are stranded in the sea. We have supplied them with dry ration and drinking water. They can now get off their boats only after the 21-day lockdown period gets over on April 14,” he added.

A large number of these stranded fishers are migrant fish workers hailing from land-locked states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. They come to coastal Maharashtra to earn a livelihood by spending weeks in the sea catching fish to earn money.

Lockdown has added to the woes of fishers who are seeking relief from the Centre. Photo Credits: Nidhi Jamwal

“If these over a lakh stranded fishers return to the land, how do we ensure no over-crowding? Where do we house the migrant fish workers? Trains and buses are not plying, so they cannot return to their home states. They have no choice but to be in boats in the sea,” lamented Koli.

The government is not unaware of the plight of stranded migrant fish workers. In its letter dated March 28, the Central Department of Fisheries noted “a large number of migrant workers from different states have been stranded on fishing vessels and fish-landing sites across the country… such migrant fish workers do not have any avenue to return to their villages, and thus are stranded in unfamiliar locations.”

The department has directed the states to ensure “adequate food, water, shelter, essential sanitary supplies in the light of COVID19 and wages are continued to be made available”. It has also told the state administrations to ensure a tally of migrant workers with their full names, residence details and a contact number are made available in order to communicate back to their families about their condition. The families of these migrant workers should be supported with ration and essential supplies in their respective states, the letter reads.

Many fishermen and fish workers are stranded in their fishing boats in the Arabian Sea off the Maharashtra coast. Photo Credits: Nidhi Jamwal

The nation-wide lockdown has thrown lives of over 16 million fishers and fish workers in the country out of gear. Of these, half (5,570,217) are women, as the sale of fish is most undertaken by fisherwomen in the country.

“Fishing activities along the coastline of India have come to a standstill. None of the fishers are venturing out into the sea to catch fish, as there is no availability of ice, fish workers and transport facilities,” T Peter, general secretary of National Fishworkers’ Forum, a federation of state-level trade unions in India, told Gaon Connection.

“All the 1,547 fish landing centres in the coastal states are shut. Fisher families are staring at starvation and need a supply of ration and financial support,” he added.

“Please tell the government to help us. Whatever food we had at our homes is finished. We do not know from where our next day’s meal will come,” Rehman, a fisher attached with the Traditional Fishworkers Trade Union in Andhra Pradesh pleaded with Gaon Connection.

“It is only now the government has started giving five kilogram rice and one kilogram dal [lentil] per person. But, the ration shop gives this dry ration to only 50 people in a day,” he said. 

The nation-wide lockdown has thrown lives of over 16 million fishers and fish workers in the country out of gear. Of these, half (5,570,217) are women, as the sale of fish is most undertaken by fisherwomen in the country. Photo Credits: Nidhi Jamwal

The worries of Rehman and other fishers in the eastern coast of the country do not end here.

On April 15, the first day post 21-day lockdown, 61-day fishing ban period [an annual practice] comes into force in the eastern coast of the country. “We haven’t been able to fish in the month of March. Half of April will also go in lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak. Thereafter, another two months we cannot fish due to the fishing ban period,” said hapless Rehman.

“Like farmers, we fishers may also have to commit suicide,” he added.

Similar voices emerge from the western coast of the country. “Last year, from August 1 until November 15, there was an excess rainfall and several storms in the Arabian Sea because of which fishers could not do regular fishing. The first fishing season was lost and fishers suffered huge losses,” said Koli.

The second fishing season from December is always a lean period when 50 per cent of the boats remain idle. “Post Holi, the third fishing season is our peak season, but coronavirus has killed that season for us. And now, the 61-day monsoon fishing ban period will come into force on the western coast from June 1. We cannot cope with any more disasters. The government must support us,” he added.

Fishing activities along the coastline of India have come to a standstill. Photo Credits: Nidhi Jamwal

Maharashtra has a total of 28,000 registered fishing boats, while 15,310 boats have a fishing licence. About 9,310 fishers in the state are eligible for fuel (diesel) subsidy to carry out fishing activities.

Shockingly, the Maharashtra government owes fishers Rs 187 crore towards diesel subsidy. “We buy diesel for our fishing boats and the government later returns us a part of the money as a subsidy,” informed Koli. “However, it’s been more than four-five years, the state government hasn’t paid this money to the fishers, which now stands at Rs 187 crore for 9,310 fishers in the state” alleged Koli.

On February 14 this year, representatives of Maharashtra Machhimar Kriti Samiti had a meeting with the state fisheries minister Aslam Shaikh requesting release of the diesel subsidy. The state claims to have released Rs 78 crore. But, according to Koli, the money is yet to reach the bank accounts of beneficiaries.

Lockdown has added to the woes of fishers who are seeking relief from the Centre.

On March 24, soon after Modi announced the 21-day nationwide lockdown, National Fishworkers’ Forum shot off a letter to Pratap Chandra Sarangi, minister of state, Union Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry & Dairying. The letter informed the minister that “many boats with fish who ventured to the sea prior to the lockdown were forced to forgo their catch in the harbour across the coastal states.”

About 9,310 fishers in Maharashtra are eligible for fuel (diesel) subsidy to carry out fishing activities. Shockingly, the state government owes fishers Rs 187 crore towards diesel subsidy. Photo Credits: Nidhi Jamwal

As per news reports, fishers in Maharashtra had to throw away 10,000 tonnes of fish catch back into the sea owing to lack of ice and transport facilities. Similar reports are pouring in from other states. 

In its letter D.O. No. 12035/1/Fy (WU) dated March 24, 2020, the Central department of fisheries requested all state chief secretaries to issue directions “to the law-enforcing authorities to include fish and shrimp in the list of commodities to be exempted from the lockdown and allow for the movement of fish and fish products”. However, shutting down of ice factories and lack of transportation has meant rotting of fish stocks and huge losses to the fishers.

National Fishworkers’ Forum has demanded the Central government to announce an economic package specifically for the fishing community “keeping in mind that the monsoon ban season is arriving and will also affect the livelihoods of crores of fishworkers and ones who are dependent on the occupation.”

The Forum has also demanded a monthly allowance of Rs 10,000 per fisher family for three months period to be paid in advance. It has also demanded an adequate supply of ration with cooking fuel to the fish workers.

In its letter dated March 30, the Central department of fisheries has indicated it is proposing financial assistance to the fishers with pre-requisite of Aadhaar linked bank accounts of the beneficiaries.

Coronavirus pandemic is not just a health crisis. It is a livelihood crisis for millions of fishers and fish workers in the country whose survival is threatened.