Fish Workers in Kutch Caught in Severe Debt Bondage

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Situated at the edge of the Rann of Kutch, once an old port city which hosted a grand fort, the village of Lakhpat now stands almost deserted. But for the 100 families of the Sodha community, this village in the creek system between India and Pakistan is more than home.

Lakhpat is not only rich with unexploited marine life but is also a naturally protected zone for traditional fishing communities as the Border Security Force (BSF) restricts fishing in these areas. Despite this, the fish workers in Lakhpat are barely able to make ends meet. Worse, they have huge debts hanging over them amounting to as much as Rs 10 lakh.

Even worse, this is not just the story of fishowrkers of Lakhpat alone. Some 40 km further, 270 families of the Wagher fishing community in the border village of Narayan Sarovar are having a hard time making ends meet. Many fish workers in villages across Kutch are reeling under heavy crisis.

“Bandhelu”- Low prices ensuring cyclical debt bondage

The deprivation is such that a severe form of debt bondage has cemented in the region.
“Bandhelu” loosely translated to ‘tied’, a practice where a fish worker’s catch is promised to a fish trader who advances him capital in the beginning of the season has become the norm here. The capital provides for fuel, ration and labour costs, and can also be for boat repairs. In turn, the fishworker has to exclusively sell his catch to the fish trader or merchant at predetermined annual prices. In some cases merchants also include loan repayment along with fixing price of catch.

The prices are fixed arbitrarily at practically half the market price. For instance, fish workers in the Narayan Sarovar Village sell Pomfret, which would fetch Rs 600 per kg in the open market for Rs 200, Lobster that would get a fish worker Rs.1200-1500 is sold for Rs 650. Low prices ensure that fish workers do not make enough money to save or reinvest in fishing , ensuring that they have to go back to the fish trader for an advance. The debt becomes cyclical and self-perpetuating, tying a fish worker and his labour to the fish trader, like in traditional debt bondage practices where the labour of the peasant or worker is bartered for an advance.

Nothing less than criminal, this exploitative practice has been thriving for years in Gujarat’s Kutch, the district with highest number of fishing families in the state.

With 68 fishing villages, the practice of fishing in Kutch differs from other parts of the state. It is the “Macchiyars” or the Muslim Wagher community which has been the traditional fishing community of Kutch and is practicing fishing since generations. Their entire family is involved in fishing and live in temporary structures on the intertidal zone for 8-9 months a year, where boats are parked, catch landed and fish is sorted, dried and then sold.

The fishing community has limited access to basic amenities of health, education and housing. Poverty levels are high and literacy is low. The inept role of the state in changing this dire situation is evident from the fact the communities interaction with the state is mostly limited to obtaining fishermen identity from the Fisheries Department and other paperwork for schemes- either from the State or the Centre.

Photo: The Media Collective

Lack of support from the state fueling the crisis

The only other important intervention from the state is in the form of heavy surveillance that the fishing community in Lakhpat and Narayan Sarovar are subjected to, given their close proximity to the International Border.

However, there have been plenty of schemes and assistance announced for financial assistance and relief from the fisher folk. Prominent amongst many program are: centrally sponsored National Scheme of Welfare of Fishermen which provides for development of Model Fishermen Villages, group accident insurance amongst other things, Potential Linked Credit Plans in conjunction with NABARD and Dena Bank

But all schemes and assistance programmes leave out critical practices and gaps that have led to phenomenons such as ‘bandhelu’.

Some 37 years ago, a report by the Commissioner of Fisheries, had documented the problem and spelled out a few measures to tackle the same. The report titled ‘ Present Status of Small-Scale Fisheries in India and a Few Neighboring Countries’ from 1981 notes that while fishermen have benefited from schemes that have helped them modernize their capture gear (boats, nets), these schemes are dependent on institutional finance. Fishermen are often not able to satisfy rigid terms of financing agencies or raise necessary loans. The paper goes on to state, “Intensification and strengthening of the capture equipment alone cannot help the fishermen improve their trade. Side by side, it is also essential to guarantee a proper distribution of fish and proportional and reasonable returns from the trade to the fisherman. This can be assured only if the fishermen are relieved of their indebtedness towards the middlemen and merchants who appropriate a major share and cause a large dent on the income of the fishermen”.

Another report from 1987 claims that fisheries cooperatives have been successfully addressing the issue of middlemen and debt. This is does not seem to be the case, whatsoever. Fisher groups report that out of the 22 cooperatives functional in Kutch, no loan or assistance has been granted in Kutch in the last 10 years. Banks also seem wary in giving loans to traditional fisher people. Fish workers allege that one of the key reasons they are unable to access loans is because they have no fixed assets, namely land to mortgage. This also points out to the contradiction that while land has its own value, it is the fishworkers’ labour that creates value, in traditional and small-scale fishing. Secondly, fishing is also perceived by banks to be a risky business.\

A report on the Kutch Seafood Producer Group states that fish catch is unpredictable on a day-to-day basis, but on an annual basis, there is a cyclic rise and fall of catch. Fishers say that the crest and the trough last for roughly 3-4 years and this fact is not taken into account in lending mechanism. Another issue that remains is that there is no equivalent to crop insurance for fish workers, leaving the community entirely dependent on the vagaries of nature and other external influences. With the rapid industrialization in Kutch, there are strong speculations over fishing grounds of being further degraded.

The fish trade of underlines the importance of state support. In the aftermath of the cyclone that hit Kutch in 1998 which resulted in great losses for the fishing community, the government gave out a spate of loans to the community. Fishworkers in Mundra, along with the organization, Setu Bhadreshwar and the Ujjas Mahila Sangathana and Yusuf Meherally Centre searched for alternative markets and mobilised the fisherfolk The effort enabled the fishworkers to negotiate with local merchants and pay off their debts. Over time, a marketing wing developed and a full-fledged producer group was established. The financial performance of the producer group has been quite successful, despite multiple challenges.

Traditional occupation are unique as opposed to other businesses, in terms of financial calculations that takes place. Both agriculture and fisheries are occupations that are rooted in the fabric of the communities that practice them. A loss or debt does not indicate that the individual or family will leave and transition to another occupation, rather they will go further and further into debt to be able to sustain their way of life and community. Because what is at stake is not just an occupation but the communities’ socio-cultural fabric.

As is evident from Kutch, there has not been a concerted attempt to help fishers extricate themselves from exploitative debt practices and it is only possible through state backed institutional credit mechanisms. These mechanisms need to flexible and should be based on patterns that match the cycle of fishing and give fishworkers’ time to regroup. The report of the commissioner of fisheries suggests the formation of a special national fisheries financing agency at to cater to the needs of the small rural fishermen, as in agriculture which is the need of the hour.

Meanwhile, as state mechanisms fail to guarantee fish worker’s rights and save their livelihoods, they remain trapped in feudal debt and lending systems that ensure their social and economic subjugation to the new class of fish traders and merchants.

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