Lockdown: A Mixed Bag For Kerala’s Fishermen
Munnambam mini harbourPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

Lockdown: A Mixed Bag For Kerala’s Fishermen

Some boat owners have found good quality catch while others stay locked down in other states

While the country has opened its economy as lockdown relaxations set in, the fishermen community and those dependent on fishing in Kerala have another lockdown in place - the trawl net ban.

The trawl net ban is traditionally imposed by the Kerala government with the onset of the monsoon.

This is to allow marine resources to recover. But this year, thanks to the fishing ban during lockdown and now the trawl net ban, in essence, the fishing industry will have had no activity for four straight months.

While this may, on the face of it, seem to be a big negative for fishermen, it is in fact a mixed bag.

The Lede spoke to stakeholders in this ground report from Munambam.

Cash Cycles Stuck Overnight

“We are facing all the difficulties that are caused by the sudden halting of a running business,” says Biju AP of BBB Marines based in Munambam. He is speaking of the effect of lockdown on the fishing industry there.

“The lockdown has affected the fisheries industry much like most other sectors of the economy,” says Biju. “For us, the sudden halt meant that our cash cycles have got stuck. We are still facing all the difficulties that this brought.”

“In a way, we are now used to such sudden halts,” says Biju. “The floods, and before that other things (referring to demonetisation), all of it means that we are by now accustomed to carrying on. But the most affected are the boat owners who have invested money. A majority of the owners have invested money availed through loans. For that matter even the Tharakans avail loans to run their business.”

Tharakans refers to commission agents who control most activities of the fishing industry by financing them and in return taking a share of the catch. They also recover the money itself later.

“The lockdown doesn’t mean an exemption from paying interests on loans. For those who have availed loans from banks at least there is moratorium. But most of the boat owners and Tharakans take money from money lenders to complete business transactions. It is these people who are most affected in the present scenario,” he says.

“Workers have suffered from lack of work as the boats are not going into the seas. But they haven’t suffered the kind of loss that we have suffered. I am not saying that their problems are any lesser. But their problems are limited to the loss of livelihood and wage for the lockdown period. They haven’t had cash outflow of the kind that we have suffered from. In these three months, people like me have, one way or the other, had to pay back the interest. Having to do this at a time when there is no income coming our way is a terrible situation to be in,” adds Biju.

In the mini-harbour, where many of the boats are docked, there remain a few thousand migrant labourers at the very least.

While no one has an exact number, the figure given by labour union leaders, Tharakans, boat owners and migrant labourers themselves all hover around 2500-3000.

The Migrant Distress

Sunil Das hailing from Kolkata is one of the many migrant labourers employed in Munambam and says he had faced no difficulties during the lockdown.

“I don't have any problem. Whoever wants to go shall go, I am not going,” he says, when asked if he would be returning home during the upcoming trawl net ban.

But not all migrant labourers are in the same situation as Sunil, whose boat owner has taken care of his needs.

Sunil Das, a migrant fisherman
Sunil Das, a migrant fishermanPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

“Maybe 40% of the migrants here have no issues but a many of us do have problems,” says Shathrughana Das hailing from Kolkata.

“Those who are working in boats owned by locals are being taken care of. Not the others.”

Shathrughana Das
Shathrughana DasPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

“Many labourers here are staying with others who lend them money as well to meet daily needs,” he says.

Shathrughana hails from a fishermen family and his father had once owned fishing boats before debts saw him migrating to Kerala in 2013. Shathrughana says that although the boat he was working in is not venturing into the seas anymore, he has found work in another boat for now.

This, he says, has allowed him to earn and has put him in a better condition as compared to others when the ban on venturing into the seas was lifted.

“The ban on venturing into the seas was lifted in the third week of May,” says Gireesh AK, a CITU leader based in Munambam. “For a few days there were restrictions with only odd or even numbered boats being allowed into the seas. This stayed for a few days. Within a week of the relaxations setting in, another stoppage followed. The rough seas forced us to stop fishing just as the boats had begun going regularly.”

While the migrant workers found work for a few days, a majority of boats did not venture into the seas for other reasons.

Boats in Munnambam
Boats in MunnambamPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

The Anchored Boats: Open Secrets

The migrant workers from Odisha, Assam and West Bengal are not the traditional labour of the fishing industry in Munambam.

The fishing industry here has begun employing these workers only in the past 7-8 years. Before that, the only outsiders in Munambam, locals say, were the sailors and labourers from Colachel near Kanyakumari.

“The fishermen of Colachel in essence, keep the harbour running now,” says Gireesh AK.

“Almost 80% of the boats that run here, are in one way or the other, owned or run by Colachel people. Even the local Tharakans and boat owners give them a share of ownership in lieu of the responsibilities they take. First of all, local seafarers no longer take the kind of risks these people are willing to take. Nor do they stay in the seas for more than two days. This is partly the reason why Colachel people have a hold here. They were also the reason behind the over-exploitation that was prevalent.

Many Tharakans also trust them for these very reasons and many of them have done very well because of them. Back in Colachel, to be a Sranku (captain) in Munambam is like a government job. But they cannot own boats here by themselves so usually it is some kind of partnership or benami ownership. The sranku is also the one who takes absolute responsibility of the boat and the other sailors and fishermen on board.”

It is these part-owned boats which have resulted in problems for the migrants workers.

“Once the lockdown was announced, all the Colachel people left for their home,” says Gireesh.

“The migrant workers hailing from far couldn’t go back and they stayed on in the boats. Community kitchens provided them with food till the lockdown was in force. But once going into the seas was allowed, those working in Colachel-owned boats found themselves in trouble. The owners and those handling the boats were all in Colachel whereas the migrant workers were stuck here. So even when boats started to venture into the seas, more than half of the boats remain in the harbour as those heading them are not here.”

Some of the workers have since found work in local owned boats but not all.

Today, those migrant workers left behind and struggling to make ends meet, want to return home.

“Take Us Home”

Santhosh Das, a migrant worker hailing from Kolkata says that in spite of the risks of COVID-19 and the fact that his own house back in Bengal has been badly damaged in the cyclone that wreaked havoc, he wants to return home as soon as possible.

“Railways is not arranging trains. We are unable to go home. Whenever trains start, I want to head back home. I don’t care if I am put under quarantine. People back home are also asking me to come home,” says Santhosh.

It is a feeling shared by many others in the migrant community.

“If I get Corona, my family wouldn’t even get to see my dead body. What is the point?” asks 37 year old Sudham Das.

Sudham has been working in Kerala for nine years now.

Sudham Das
Sudham DasPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

While the migrant workers want to return home, the local boat owners have other concerns and are urging their workers like Sunil Das to stay put.

The Local Boat Owners

“I understand their concerns and why they want to go back home,” says Sunil TT, a local who owns a boat.

Inspite of the short duration during which fishing was actually possible, Sunil says owners like him are doing fine for now.

“Since there was no fishing for two months straight, the catch has improved vastly.”

Sunil TT, a local boat owner
Sunil TT, a local boat ownerPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

“With not more than a quarter of the boats going into the seas because of the Colachel people being stuck at home, the boats that are going into the seas are returning with good catch. In my case, I have been able to recover from the debt that I had accumulated on the boat over the unfortunate lockdown.”

A boat could cost anywhere from Rs 70 lakh to Rs 1 crore. Whereas taking it to the seas for a day costs Sunil Rs 35,000 to Rs 50,000.

“I have just gotten over the debts. But what will we do if the migrant workers return home and are unable to come back when the trawl net ban is lifted by August is my worry,” says Sunil TT.

Vincy, who is the president of the Mini Habour Boat Owners Association has other concerns.

Unhappy With Government

“In the midst of this disaster, the government is trying to take away our source of income,” says Vincy.

The Kerala government has recently floated plans which would stop the practice of auctions. This move is welcomed by many dependent on traditional fishing, as they say the auction is where the Tharakans have come to have disproportional say.

The plans were put into action for those using traditional fishing vessels during the lockdown, to largely positive responses. Now with talks of a similar system being in the making for the larger engine run modern boats, Tharakans and larger boat owners like Vincy are worried.

“Government has given subsidies to traditional fishing so it is understandable if they want to tell fishers to sell all their catch to Matsyafed,” says Vincy.

Matsyafed, the Kerala State Co-operative Federation for Fisheries Development Ltd, is the apex federation of 654 primary fisherman co-operative societies spread over 10 districts of Kerala.

“But whatever big boats that are here are the result of the self-financing efforts of the Tharakans and boat owners. What right do they have to tell us where and how to sell?” Vincy asks.

Vincy himself, according to other smaller local boat owners, was once a sorter who picked fish which fell off the baskets or were left behind in boats. Today though, Vincy owns four large motorised boats and many other interests to keep the system running as is.

“Government is saying that all marine resources belong to the worker and that boat owners can only extract a boat rent,” says Vincy.

“We are going to organise a major protest if and when they go ahead with their plans. Everything in Kerala will be brought to a halt.”

Asked about the large number of boats which are no longer venturing into the seas despite the lifting of the ban, as they are said to be owned and run by Colachel people, Vincy says, “I don’t know about that. Maybe boat owners here might have given them partnerships for captaining the ship and heading the workers. Colachel people cannot own boats here. It will be in a local’s name only. I am not aware of any migrant worker suffering for food either. I am not saying there can’t be. But I am not aware of any.”

But not everyone sees it as simply.

“Even I could be a shadow partner of any number of boats here,” is how Gireesh AK, the labour leader put it about the Colachel dealings of the harbour. “Only that I wouldn’t know. Those who made me would.”

The reduced number of boats going into the seas, which is now obvious but reasoned as being due to the Colachel labour which went home, has commission agents also worried.

Insufficient Catch

“Though the catch per boat is good, the very low number of boats going now means that the total catch coming into the market is very low,” says Bineesh, a commission agent.

“Where 1000 boats went daily, today maybe 200 are going. The total catch of prawn for example, which used to be near 25,000 kg per day at this time of the year is now less than 3000 kg. So agents like us are not able to get large enough quantities in auction. Since the boats are returning within a day itself, the catch is of higher quality and we are getting better prices in the market. But the overall trading quantities remain low,” says Bineesh.

BineeshJeff Joseph

“The major market for marine products from here are Japan and Europe,” says Biju, Bineesh’s partner.

“But given the present situation due to Corona, those markets haven’t opened fully yet. It will be a good 6-8 months before things will return to a form of normalcy if all goes as is.”

Meanwhile, the government of Kerala has a lot to clean up in the fishing industry in Kerala if Munambam is any indication of the workings of the fisheries industry in the state.

Local boat owners like Sunil TT meanwhile look longingly at the migrant workers from the north as the next Colachel people.

“The younger generation in Colachel are all getting better educated. Soon, like Malayalis, they too will leave this risky job,” says Sunil TT.

“Maybe in 5-10 years’ time we will see these migrant workers captaining the boats here. If they learn the inner workings of fishing they could be the new Colachel people.”

That could be the window of opportunity awaiting the migrant workers in the post trawl net ban world. Those who stay back now may well herald a new phase in their migrant existence.

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