With its 1600 sq. km, long coastline, the longest for any state, Gujarat has reportedly been recording highest marine fish catch for four consecutive years. In 2016 with 7.74 lakh tonnes of catch, Gujarat produced an enviable number with many states coastal states lagging far behind. But dig a little deeper and behind these numbers lies a dwindling state of affairs for the fishing community.The sea is to more than 3.36 lakh fish workers what the fields and farms are to the agrarian community. But their access to the sea and its resources is steadily shrinking.It is a well-established fact that much like other natural resources, the state of the oceans and rivers are worrisome. If drought and crop failure characterise the agrarian landscape, the oceans are yielding less and less. As a study by the Agro-Economic Research Centre in 2016 notes, “Gujarat’s share in the total fish production has been fluctuating in volume terms and has come down in value terms in the last decade. The main reason could be the declining fish catch and quality of catch. It is reported that 35 per cent of the catch in the marine sector is low value miscellaneous fish”. Moreover, according to analysis in line with global trends, since 1995, the growth in marine catch in Gujarat has slowed down from almost 70 percent to approximately 5 percent – indicating that marine resources have been affected adversely.
Corresponding with the decrease in fish catch, an analysis of the previous Marine Census indicates a decrease in full time fishworkers and fishlanding centers, particularly in districts of South Gujarat. A loss of 3,954 active fisherpersons in five years in a population of 65,002 families is indeed a substantial loss.
The fishing community is being displaced from their homes and their occupation by two consecutive processes since the late 80s and early 90s. On sea, the needs of the export industry drove the fishing community towards catching fish for export rather than self-consumption, local or domestic markets, much like crash crops have led to a change in crops being sown by farmers. Secondly, the expanding scale of fishing – as global markets expanded with liberalisation led to more and more fishing. Meant mainly for export, such a pattern of fishing has busted the sustainability of fishing and local food security.
On land, increasing industrial development on the coastline for manufacturing estates ( GIDC), Thermal Power Plants and infrastructure development such as ports, cut-off access to the sea shore (used for parking of boats, drying, sorting and cleaning of fish etc.) and displaced fishing villages. Pollution from industrial and manufacturing activities further degraded water quality in estuaries, rivers and coastal waters.
The interviews conducted during the course of the study by The Research Collective indicated that both large scale fishers operating trawlers, and small fishworkers (including traditional and motorised boat owners), are feeling the impacts of decreasing fish catch and polluted waters near the coastline on their livelihoods, and on their health.
For example, the Danti fishing village is situated at the intersection of Mindhola estuary with the Arabian Sea in Navsari District. The Mindhola river and estuary receives industrial effluents from industrial estates of Sachin, Pandesara, Hazira Industrial Area, Kadodara- Palsana Industrial Belt, as well as Surat Municipal corporations and textile mills in the district. Studies report that effluent and sewage containing toxic chemicals such as Fluoride, Chloride, heavy metals and organic compounds such as Phenols are released in the waters. Studies from as far back as 1980’s to 2016 indicate unabated pollution in the river that has affected the health of marine life and ecology.
Jakhau fishing jetty in Kutch Photo Courtesy: Ishita Sharma
Once a prosperous fishing village, Danti now only has two families that are still fishing. Villagers say that large fish such as dolphins and sharks used to be found in the river and fishworkers used either traditional wooden boats or pagadiya fishing to catch enough fish to feed their families and sell in local markets. But in the last 10-15 years, the quality of water has changed drastically and the fish have disappeared. The river water has become black and the estuaries, where fish breeding takes place, no longer contain any marine life. Villagers say that they have stopped using the river to bathe and any contact with the water leads to skin irritation. The two fishing boats now travel out to the open sea or towards the Purna Estuary, which is relatively cleaner. Many of the fishing families have now started working as daily wage labourers in the neighbouring industrial estates. Those who are still fishing narrated that it is becoming harder and harder to make enough to sustain themselves. A similar story repeated itself in Budiya village, upstream from Danti village at the banks of the Mindhola River, where fishing has entirely stopped.
Almost 600 km away, in the Saurastra region of Gujarat, the Porbandar district houses one of the most prosperous fishing jetties in Gujarat. Approximately 4367- 5000 medium sized and mechanised boats operate from the Jetty. The 80’s and 90s saw the gradual motorisation and then mechanisation of traditional crafts (wooden crafts without motors), bolstered by state subsidies, and help from more prosperous members of the fishing community, who early on established themselves as fish exporters. A majority of fishworkers transitioned to using mechanised boats and trawl and gill-nets. From fishing in waters near the Saurashtra coast, the boats started travelling across the length of Gujarat. Today, boats from Saurashtra go as far as Maharashtra and towards the international waters with Pakistan in search of fish catch. Like in South Gujarat, fishworkers narrated that the quantity of catch has decreased, and some fish species have entirely disappeared from the coastal waters. While trawlers work with much larger capital for each fishing trip and also stand to make greater profits, boat owners narrated that most of them are unable to make ends meet and are in debt.
Multiple issues that the fishing community identified across the state of Gujarat were common across the scale and location of fishing the fishworkers engaged in. Primary amongst them was the lack of State support for the fishworkers as a community and as a productive occupation. Some of the key issues included lack of access to subsidies for expensive material and technology necessary for fishing, lack for adequate avenues for loans, a minimum price on fish and infrastructure development in fishing villages and jetties.
In the absence of effective and adequate state mechanisms of accessing loans, interviews suggest that the fishing community largely accesses loans from informal money lenders that double up as fish traders or exporters. Fishworkers are then forced to sell their fish to fish traders that they take loans from and in some areas such as Kutch, the price of fish is fixed very low and not according to market prices. This perpetuates a cycle of debt and poverty that smaller fishworkers are unable to come out of. Such a system was compared to bonded labour by small fishworkers in some parts of Kutch. Fishworkers described that there is no minimum price, such as in agricultural crops. In time of high supply, fishworkers are then forced to part with their catch for less than market prices.
In all the fishing villages and jetties that interviews were conducted, the fisheries department consistently remained absent. Basic infrastructure of landing jetty and ice storage for fish were missing and fishworkers repeated that multiple appeals for infrastructure construction were ignored. Even bigger jetties of Jakhau in Kutch and Porbandar did not have usable auction halls or cold -storage facilities for fish catch. In big fishing jetties such as the Jakhau fishing harbour, no fresh water is available for drinking/ domestic uses or for cleaning of fish.
Adding to such difficulties was the lack of access to adequate subsidy on diesel for boats. The largest cost in fishing trip is incurred for fuel and labour. While a reports by the fisheries commissioner states that the department has been running schemes for distribution of kerosene, fishworkers from different fishing villages reported that the refund system does not work. If the refund comes at all, it does not come in time. In addition, the refund for diesel has been reduced substantially.
Whereas much of the literature focuses on climate change and overexploitation of fisheries and issues of waste and bycatch, the fishing community across the state identified limited state support as one of the key issues that have affected their livelihoods and made fishing unsustainable. The lack of any formal loan systems, infrastructure support and regulation has contributed to worsening an already difficult situation.