Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Economics Of Impoverishment

Coastal Tensions in Kerala: Three

While one the one hand, the secular democratic politics withdrew from the social life of the fisher villages leaving the field for communal outfits, the Government was pursuing an economic policy that resulted in a steady impoverishment of the artisanal sections of the fisher-folk. These policies came to have an impact on the life of the fisher people all over the south-western coast, following the efforts for mechanization and modernization of the fishing activities. John Fernandez, a promising leader of the Kerala Matsya Thozhilali Federation who died a few years ago, had described these policies as “trawlerization”, meant for the unchecked exploitation of coastal shrimp, which only resulted in the ever more marginalization and pauperization of the fish workers and the destruction of coastal habitats.

As the huge and mechanized trawlers came to dominate the coastal scene from the mid-sixties as part of a conscious Government policy, the traditional fishermen, whose small vessels were unable to compete with them, were pushed into sidelines and their owners into penury. The seeds of discontent in the coastal society were sown by this shift in technology without making a proper assessment of the impact of these policies on the poorer sections. As a new class of entrepreneurs—money-lender cum boat-owners-- took over the economic control of the beaches, tensions started mounting and clashes started everywhere between the new class of mechanized boat-workers and the traditional artisanal fish workers. Later on, as the miseries of this impoverished class of people became more acute, it became a fertile field for the spread of a communal and divisive ideology and the communal organizations played up on their worries.

The major shift in fishery policy came about in the mid-sixties: till then the traditional fish workers were the only people employed in this sector all over south India, and the economic inter-relations of the various people employed in the fishing activity, from the boat-owners to the workers to the vendors, were based on a system of shares, with all sections entitled to have a definite share in the proceeds and all having a specific role in decision-making. For example, in a12-man boat that usually is owned jointly by two or three people-- most of them generally working as part of the crew-- the workers had the rights for a one-third share in the proceeds. But in the sixties came the Indo-Norwegian project, with emphasis on a capital intensive fishing technology. The project implemented in the south-western and south-eastern coasts was a three party agreement signed by the United Nations, Norway and the Government of India. It was first implemented in the Travancore-Kochi coasts during 1959-63, followed by implementation in the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu coasts during 1963-73.

This project was based on a model quite successful in the Scandinavian fishing countries like Norway and Sweden, and stressed on a western style industrial fishery development strategy, which eventually proved to be disastrous for the traditional fishermen in the south Indian coastal villages. It was a shift from the traditional ways of fishing to a capital intensive industry, focused on exports of the proceeds and it led to a situation of over-exploitation and the speedy depletion of marine resources.

That soon launched the first series of physical clashes with the boat-workers on the one side and the traditional artisans on the other, and organized violence became the norm in the south Indian fishing villages. A senior activist of the Matsya Thozhilali Federation in Ernakulam recalled that first of the clashes were reported in Mandapam—Tuticorin area in Tamil Nadu in the mid-seventies. In Tuticorin as many as 110 trawlers were set on fire and 16 fishermen killed in these clashes. The violence spread to the Kerala beaches in late seventies and protest against the impact of the new economic policies being imposed on the fishery sector was led by Church leaders like Fr Paul Arakkal, who became one of the leading figures of the Kerala State Swatantra Matsya Thozhilali Federation in the eighties. A south Indian conference of the fishermen representatives from Goa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala formed a National Forum for Catamaran and Country-boat Fishermen’s Rights and Marine Wealth, which was followed by many other independent organizations which took up the cause of the fisher-folk in the clash of interests between the industrial entrepreneurs and the traditional artisans in the fishery sector.

The shift in the fishery policy was a conscious one, as from the mid-60s the Government was emphasizing on the introduction of new technologies. The state support and subsidies were chiefly made available for investments in mechanized boats and the latest technology in fish processing, while support for traditional artisanal fisheries were practically withdrawn. The result was a massive increase in the boat fleet operating with modern nets which were extremely efficient that soon the marine wealth was practically destroyed because of the fishing practices which gave no thought to the protection of species, regeneration and environmental degradation.

The policy had a number of long-term impacts. First, the over-exploitation led to a decrease in marine wealth. The sharp and sudden decline in fish landing was noticed from the seventies. Till the mid seventies, there was an increase in fish landings, but later on there was a steady decline in the prawn landings, and the total fish catch also started to fluctuate. Those who suffered the most were the artisanal fisher-folk, who experienced a decline of as much as 50 per cent productivity in the period from 1969-70 to 1979-80, and their share in the total catch decreased sharply. In spite of the introduction of trawling ban from mid-eighties, the over-fishing continued unchecked with new entrants like foreign trawlers into the Indian waters. By the end of 2000, situation had become much more difficult with a substantial decline in the total catch, indicating that exploitation had far exceeded the maximum sustainable limit. A new dimension to this turn of events is that the traditional rivals, the boat-owners and the artisanal fisher-folk, have now formed joint action councils to fight against the entry of foreign operators into the fishery sector and the import of fishery products envisaged as part of the World Trade Organization agreements. Recently the Fisheries Coordination Committee (FCC), a joint action council of fish-workers, at a meeting in Kochi, drew up an agitation programme against the official move to import fish items from Thailand into India. The decision is to stop ships carrying fish cargo from entering the harbour and also prevent foreign fishing vessels, on joint deep sea fishing ventures, entering the harbour or the waters off the southern shore.

The second impact was the irreparable ecological degradation. The species reproduction was seriously affected showing a depletion of resources even from the mid-seventies. The Government of Kerala decided to introduce a trawling ban during monsoon--the reproduction season -- in 1981 but had to revoke the order within three days under pressure from the mechanized boat lobby. As the agitation became quite acute and violent, a 45-day fishing ban by trawlers has been introduced, which comes into force on June 15 every year.

The third impact was the pauperization of the traditional fisher-folk. Today, they are not an important stake-holder and many are reduced to the level of wage labourers. The tribal common ownership pattern has been the mainstay of beach life, but it has been replaced by a new class of forces who include the powerful boat-owners cum money lenders, trade unions, community organizations, middlemen and traders, political parties and communal organizations.

The destruction of an old social order based on the egalitarian principles of a traditional hunter –gatherer community into a class-based exploitative economy in the span of a few years has had a tremendous impact on the people who unwillingly became the victims of this transformation. They were rendered jobless, their traditional crafts made useless and the sea, whose wealth has been considered a common asset, has been made into a raw material for a private capitalist enterprise as the huge mechanized boats roamed the sea with their catch-all perseine nets (widely in use though officially banned) which left nothing behind, is a new kind of fishing that has been aptly described as the “rape of the sea.” It was a situation of total helplessness in the fishing villages, caused by acute competition, huge indebtedness and poverty but there was no effort on the part of the Government or any other agencies to help them survive, points out Dr K N Ganesh, who did a major study on the social and economic factors that led to the communal carnage in Maradu.

Many people left home looking for jobs in places like the Gulf, and the influx of the West Asian remittances soon added a new dimension to the social tensions. K V Devadas, who observed the changing life of the fisher people in Madappally, in the northern belt, asserts that while one section continued to live in agonizing poverty and destitution, a new class of newly rich came up among them whose exhibition of their riches added to the tensions. A visit to Maradu proves this point: new houses built in the beach mainly by the Gulf-returned sections were mostly of cement and concrete with granite and marble for flooring, even as their neigbhbours lived in slum-like dwellings. The existence of abject poverty side by side with a vulgar exhibitionism of riches added fuel to fire and this has been one of the major catalysts for communal tensions in a number of fishing villages from Chombala in the north to Thaikal in central Kerala. The same is the experience in the southern parts though the players and their communities differed but the script remained almost the same.

There were a series of violent clashes in various parts of south-western coast in the past four decades, and these clashes can be divided into two types: Clashes between the traditional fisher folk and the new class of speed boat crew which became quite common in the seventies and eighties; and clashes of a communal nature that took place between fisher-folk belonging to Hindus on one side and Muslims or Christians on the other, or between Christians and Muslims in the southern region. This second type of clashes became rampant and widespread mainly after the eighties. Some of the flash-points like Maradu, though, had a history of communal violence from the early sixties but these were occasional and rare incidents. At Naduvattom near Maradu, certain incidents of a communal nature had led to a police firing in 1958; in Madappally near Vatakara, clashes had taken place among fisher-folk over political disputes between Communists and Congress parties in late sixties and in Vatanappally in Trissur, there were some similar incidents two decades ago. In Thaikal near Cherthala in Alapuzha, clashes took place between Hindu and Christian fishermen which resulted in five deaths in 2002; Vizhinjam and Poonthura in the south are well known as sensitive areas with occasional outbursts between different communities. Maradu had seen two bursts of violence leaving more than a dozen from Hindu and Muslim communities dead. Minor clashes of a communal nature are quite common in the entire region, and the loss of human lives, properties like fishing boats, nets, houses, etc, which are often subjected to arson are incalculable. According to police sources, there are dozens of sensitive pockets in the coastal zone, making a comprehensive approach to tackle the problem very urgent.

But a solution to the problems has to be sought in the realm of economics and politics as the root cause of these tensions is deeply embedded there. Now a new dimension is being added to this already confused scenario with the globalization of competition: foreign trawlers are entering the Indian fishing zones as par t of global joint ventures and Indian markets are soon to be flooded with foreign fish products. That will be the next phase of an impoverishment process started in the seventies.
(Originally published at

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