Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Seeds of a New Social Movement

Coastal Tensions in Kerala:Four

Referring to the long-term consequences of the policies of globalization on the fishing community in Kerala, a scholar pointed out at the Congress of Kerala Development Studies in 1994, that the real impact of these policies would become evident in the next few years. The impact of these policies are now quite evident and during the monsoon season in 2006, when the fishing ban was imposed, the fishery sector in Kerala was seething with anger and frustration. It showed a new joint movement of local fisher-folk against the foreign-controlled fishery sector is now emerging. The WTO Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), which treats fishery as a sub-sector, had a tremendous impact on the lives of fisher-folk, both traditional artisans and the mechanized boat crew. This is a qualitatively changed scenario as it brings together both these segments on a joint platform against a new threat of global dimensions. This new situation can be seen in the activities of the Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) for fish workers and traditional artisans who have launched a series of action plans to fight the import of fish products from other countries also to prevent joint operations by Indian and foreign vessels in the Indian waters. However, this changed scenario is not being reflected in the policy perceptions of the State or Central Governments or the mainstream political parties.

The 1994 Kerala Development Congress, organized by the the CPM-controlled AKG Centre for Research and Studies, however, was an exception and it took important steps for analysis of the economic, social and political factors that hampered Kerala’s growth and made a sincere effort to find lasting solutions to the development crisis that faced the Kerala society in the pat two decades. Addressing the congress, veteran politician and twice chief minister of the State, EMS Namboodiripad, had said that “praise from scholars should not divert our attention from the intense economic crisis that we face. We are behind other states of India in respect of economic growth and a solution to this crisis brooks no delay. We can ignore our backwardness in respect of employment and production only at our own peril.” A decade later, in 2006, the AKG Centre organized a second congress as a follow-up, but its deliberations are yet to be reflected in the policy decisions of the newly elected Left Democratic Front Government which assumed power in May 2006. The Finance minister of Kerala, Dr T M Thomas Isaac, an expert on the coastal economic life of Kerala, has announced special efforts to revive the fisheries sector with an allocation of Rs 3000 crore in his maiden budget, announced on June 23 , 2006.

In both the congresses, one of the areas which received the attention of the scholars and policy-makers was the islands of poverty in the kerala society, the hills and coastal villages. In the hills, especially in districts like Wayanad, the past few years have witnessed an unprecedented decline in agricultural operations and a spate of farmer suicides. Recent studies by independent scholars as well as the official machinery have come to the conclusion that the decline in farm profitability and consequent debt trap posed by the import of cheaper agricultural products, the rise in input costs, and the dependence on global market forces have been the root cause of the farmers’ misery. Most of the major agricultural products of the State like coconut, spices and rubber are prone to the international market fluctuations and are dependent on them. According to the Economic Review of Kerala, 2005, the recent Indo-Sri Lankan Free Trade Agreement allowing free import of pepper, and the South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA) among the SAARC countries have had a negative impact on the agricultural sector, especially in rubber, palm oil, pepper and marine products.

While the serious situation in the farm sector got the attention of the policy-makers and administrators thanks to the spate of suicides and media attention on the nationwide impact of these policies, the fisher people who had faced a similar situation in the coastal villages were largely ignored. While the farmers have their influential political and trade organizations, which kept their grievances in national attention, the fisher people had no such organized lobby and they were trapped in the clutches of obscurantist and communal outfits as seen in the Kerala coastal villages in the past few decades. Instead of fighting a common enemy, the fisher people were fighting among themselves leaving the sea wealth to be plundered by local middlemen and the global marine industry.

But the coastal social relations are now undergoing a tremendous transformation, mainly because of the impact of the globalization policies have been going on. The age-old enmity between the traditional fisher-folk and the workers in the mechanized boats, which was the main conflict in the coastal region ever since the late sixties, is giving way to new contradictions. The mechanized boats crew and the traditional artisans are now coming together, to fight the impact of the new forces entering the competition.

The recent incidents in the costal villages following the blanket fishing ban, enforced as part of the trawling ban during the monsoon season, is a case in point: The unprecedented 62-day ban on monsoon trawling in the coastal regions of Kerala, that came to an end only on the Independence Day, witnessed an atmosphere of gloom, frustration and anger in the fishermen villages. As, for the first time, the traditional fishermen in their engine-fitted country boats were also included in the ban as a result of a Supreme Court order in July 2006, much of the coastal belt was on the brink of a violent resistance forcing the authorities to enforce the prohibitory orders in many parts of the coastal region. The fish workers from both the mechanized segments as well as the traditional fishermen, both of whom had to face the consequences of the ban, have declared their intention to defy the ban. They observed a day of hartal in the coastal belt in the first week of August.

The change in economic and social relations in the fishery sector was evident right from the early days of the implementation of globalization policies, as the mechanized boats lobby and the traditional fisher-folk have been conducting joint agitations to protect their rights. But unlike the agricultural sector where the impact of globalization has been widely discussed and policy measures taken, the case of the fisheries, which is considered a sub sector in agriculture, have been largely ignored.

Take for instance, the question of trawling ban. The ban was first enforced in Kerala, along with other southern states, in 1988 when studies proved the depletion of fish resources owing to trawling by mechanized boats. There was stiff resistance in the initial days from mechanized segment, but in the past decade the ban was imposed varying from 30 to 62 days. The artisanal fisher-folk in their small vessels were allowed to venture out into the sea. This year’s ban was the longest, as at the end of a 45-day ban imposed by the State, the Supreme Court ordered its extension by another 17 days on the basis of a petition flied by a group in Goa. The traditional vessels were also included in the ban. The government machinery strictly enforced the ban with prohibitory orders in many beaches.

The State Government figures show that the trawling ban had an impact in augmenting fish wealth. In the peak of heavy trawling through the years, from 1977 to 1986, the annual fish landings in Kerala, on an average, has been showing a decline, to around 3.49 lakh tonnes. The ban was in place from 1988, and the figures for the period from 1988 to 1997 show that it had increased to 4.58 lakh tonnes, and from 1998 to 2005 it had further increased to 5.75 lakh tonnes.

But the gain from the increased fish wealth did not benefit the ordinary fisher-folk. The fishing sector is now dominated by huge vessels operated by Indian and foreign owners as part of the new international agreements. The annual Economic Review of the Government of Kerala for 2005, notes: “Subsidy reform in the fishery sub-sector forms part of the multilateral trade negotiations agreed at the fourth ministerial conference [of the WTO] at Doha. Significant work on relationship between fishery subsidies and over-fishing has been done by various international organizations in recent years… Most of them focused on marine capture fisheries rather than aquaculture.”

The problems posed by fishing bans and rich-country subsidies to the fishery sector are having a severe impact on the fishery sector as a whole. A large number of small and medium export processing firms in Kerala had been badly hit. This is the backdrop to the emerging unity among mechanized boat crew and traditional artisans. In fact, the traditional sector is now almost extinct; their negligible catch exclusively caters for the local market. The mechanized segment provides fish products for the export processing firms that operate in various parts of the State. According to recent figures, there are roughly 4300 mechanized fishing boats in Kerala while the number of inboard engine fitted canoes is only around 400. Their operations are mainly centred around nine fishing harbors along the coast, namely at Kochi, Vypeen, Mmunambam, Sakthikulangara, Neendakara (all in south Kerala), Beypore, Ponnani, Puthiyappa and Cheriya Azheekkal (in the north.) A recent report in The Hindu said that many boat-owners were in deep debt as the catch in the past year was lean .The Kerala State Fishing Boat Operators Association has estimated that each operator has to spend Rs 2.5 lakh to Rs 3 lakh on annual maintenance. Painting alone costs Rs 75,000 to Rs 90,000. With the new trade agreements covering marine resources, their financial stability is under heavy strain.

The second aspect is the new investment needed to compete in the international market following the new agreement on Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) conditions which forms part of the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) of the WTO. The SPS conditions have been harsh for the small and medium exporters. There have been bans imposed by rich countries like the European Union, Japan and the United States. The ban on shrimp from Bangladesh, Nile Perch from Uganda and some shipments from India are recent examples as pointed out by the Kerala Government’s Economic Review.

Though the ongoing agreements in the fishery sector are likely to hit the fisher community hard, the Central Government has entered into new agreements allowing imports of fish products into the country. The State Government itself expressed the view that provisions in the Indo-Thailand trade agreement, signed in New Delhi in August 2004, will adversely affect the fisheries sector in Kerala as it allows import of fish products. The Government of India will have to renegotiate the duty structure of fisheries products to save the fishing community, the official document said.

The Early Harvest Scheme in the Indo-Thailand Agreement envisages duty reduction of 82 items which include mango, marine products, and many industrial products. Among the marine products covered in the agreement are salmon, sardine, mackerel, and crab which are some of the most abundant fish items in the South Indian shores.

Experts have pointed out the serious nature of the global threat to our local fishery sector, because as per a 2001 estimate, the global subsidy for the fishing sector was as high as US $ 15 billion, most of which goes to the rich country fishermen. In order to achieve the safety standards in conformity with the European Union norms, the exporters will have to set up their own Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plants, which are capital intensive. The Economic Review pointed out that the installation cost of HACCP plants in India would vary from Rs. 10 million to Rs. 25 million. The annual maintenance cost itself would come to around Rs. 2 million, increasing pre-export handling charges by another Rs. 7 to Rs. 10 per kg of fish products. The Government document said that the State would have to move towards international standards for product hygiene in order to retain its existing market share in the overseas market. But the exporters involved in the marine sector said that the cost for such factories is much more and a number of exporting firms had faced ruin in recent years owing to rejections of shipments because of the strict standards set by importing countries.

The present situation calls for huge investment, while the fishery sector is facing a major setback with falling prices, cost escalation, intense competition and other problems. That explains the extreme levels of anger and unprecedented unity among all sections within the fishing community during the recent trawling ban season. In contrast with the past decades when the two important segments in the fishing sector were at loggerheads, this time both the fish workers unions and the boat owners associations claimed that the monsoon ban was totally unscientific and unrealistic, going against the interests of the local fishermen. But the scientific community and environmentalists generally take the view that the monsoon season trawling ban is a must to ensure sustainability of the fish resources. The ban was imposed following recommendations of the Dr K Balakrishnan Nair Committee which studied in the depletion of fish resources in the wake of inshore trawling. There have been a series of studies on the impact of trawling and the monsoon ban by administrators and scientists in the past decades. Recently the Kerala Government set up another expert committee headed by the State Fisheries Secretary, to study the impact of the ban. The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi, is the nodal scientific agency conducting the study.

The new scenario brings in some hopeful signs for the future too: Unlike in the past when a divisive and obscurantist ideology took control of the masses in the fisher villages, the new challenges force upon the people the problems of an external economic aggression and the need for a united front to face them. Such a united front calls for broad unity of the fisher people cutting across the caste and communal divisions, and it would be based on a rational and realistic agenda. It could be the basis for a secular and left of the centre political movement in the coastal regions. The state has only islands of communal strife, mainly in the coastal villages, because of the deep inroads made by the secular political and social ideology. That could be an example for future political and social movements in the coastal regions too.

(Originally published at

No comments: