Covid, cyclone and tensions with China devastate Konkan fishermen

konkan fishermen
Konkan fishermen on the beach.
Credits: Maharashtra State Fishermen Sangharsh Samiti.

Fishermen on the Maharashtra’s Konkan coast are set to lose their earnings for a second consecutive year due to the global Covid pandemic.

The repeated lockdowns since early 2020 have inflicted heavy losses on them due to lack of transport and plummeting prices for their catch. Despite relaxation  in the lockdowns in recent months, the fishermen have not able to get out of the financial crisis.

The fishermen of Konkan say that they had stopped fishing completely from March 25 last year to the second fortnight of May this year due to the lockdown. When they started fishing again they had to sell their fish to big traders at very low prices due to a lack of options.

The tensions on the border with China in particular has slowed down exports leaving them with only domestic market to sell their fish. In the pre-Covid period fish exports to China boomed but now many big traders and companies are not placing orders due to the dispute between the two countries.

“Apart from the lockdown and market slowdown, companies exporting fish from Konkan suddenly stopped commercial activities so we had to sell the fish at a cheap price. We have had to bear huge losses in our business” says Ramesh Dhuri, a fisherman from Sindhudurg district.

According to Baban Savji, a fisherman of Raigad district, “We do not want to go fishing in the sea anymore. Even if we catch fish where will we find good buyers.”

Konkan’s fishermen were hoping for government assistance to emerge from their financial condition and save their livelihoods. They had made a demand to the government to give them a guarantee to buy their fish at a reasonable price by getting the Marine Products Export Development Authority (MMDA) to fix the price of fish through mediation with big fish exporters in the state. As an alternative they wanted the government to directly buy the fish from them at a fair price. Both demands have been ignored so far.

A large population on this coastal strip of Maharashtra is involved in the fishing industry. Fish is caught  on a large scale here every year mainly between August and December. During this time, fish worth crores of rupees are traded in the market. But, for the last couple of years due to the Covid crisis and slowdown in exports, the fishermen were forced to turn away from this way of livelihood.

Fishing is also done on a large scale in the Bhayandar region on the Maharastra coast but there is no cold storage facility for the fish caught here. This is another reason why fishermen here have had to sell fish to traders at low prices. Till now the construction of cold storage has not started despite several inspections and promises by the central and state governments.

Bhayander Mayor Sharmila Bagaji says, “The lack of cold storage for fish has angered the fishing community. This demand has been made by the fishermen for a long time.”

According to local MLA Geeta Jain, “This is a legitimate demand and the fishermen have been making this demand continuously. I will raise this matter in the  Maharashtra assembly”.

The fishing industry has also been severely affected by a series of storms and cyclones during the fishing season from the year 2019. A report by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute said that cyclones in the Arabian Sea have reduced the total number of fishing days. During the year 2019 itself, there were seven heavy storms in the Arabian Sea.

Appa Vanderkar, a Ratnagiri fisherman, says, “Every year from the month of August, fishermen used to get an opportunity to earn an income. During this time fishing was carried out with trawlers and other small and big boats. But, due to bad weather for two consecutive years, the fishermen’s hopes have been dashed”.

There is a shortage of fishing industry workers too, many of whom are migrants from other states. According to Appa Vanderkar, workers were brought from Karnataka, Nepal and Kerala but they have not been able to come due to the Covid lockdowns. As a result only 30 percent of the fishermen could go to sea with the help of local sailors during this year’s season.

Fishermen have the option of taking loans from the National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development (NABARD), as part of a central government scheme to help them become self-reliant. However, in practice, there are many bureaucratic obstacles to getting these loans and there are very few who benefit.

The continuous rise in diesel prices  has also increased the cost of operations for fishermen. During a typical fishing trip, that lasts for ten to fifteen days, around two and a half thousand litres of diesel are required for each trawler boat. In the first four months after the Covid lockdown itself, the price of diesel increased by over Rs 18 to 20 due to which fishermen had to pay an additional Rs.35-50,000 per trip.

While India’s marine fish production increased by 2.1 percent  during the year 2019-20 in Maharashtra  it declined by 32 per cent during the same period. According to the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute 35.6 lakh tonnes of fish was caught in the country during the year 2019-20, in which Maharashtra’s contribution was  only 2.01 lakh tonnes. Maharashtra ranks  seventh in India’s marine fisheries.

Shirish Khare has been associated with rural journalism for a long time and has been regularly reporting on the economic, social and health impacts on rural life during the Covid pandemic.

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