As a child, Bablu Shah of Ratanpur village near the coastal tourist town of New Digha in West Bengal would spend his time strolling in the agricultural fields with his friends and return home to a sumptuous meal of fish cooked from the fresh catch his father – a fisherman – would bring.

Three decades later, his children are living a completely different experience. The agricultural fields have been replaced by concrete hotels and tourism has replaced fishing as the major livelihood source in the area.

“My family pursued fishing as a livelihood for generations,” he said. “During my father’s time, there used to be 25 fishing boats in our village, now there are hardly four to five boats.”

Workers sort the fish at an auction site in West Bengal. Credit: Tazeen Qureshy.

The story of Bablu Shah, now 41-years-old, resonates with most fisherfolk living in the area. With the rise in tourism activities in the last few decades, coupled with factors like frequent natural disasters, the community is looking beyond its traditional income sources to sustain themselves.

Double-edged sword

Over the past decade, Digha has emerged as a tourist hotspot for a weekend getaway. In New Digha, for instance, tourism has replaced fishing as the primary source of livelihood. A 2015 study in the town highlights that the locals are getting economic benefits from tourism-related activities such as hospitality sector, transport, local eateries and souvenir shops. Some have been migrated out.

“The fishing community had a double source of income,” said Shah, who runs an eatery shack on the New Digha beach. “After fishing, a small-scale fisherman usually looks for other options like working at a local store for additional income. Now, the dependence is mostly on tourism-related activities. Though the income is stable, things had drastically changed during the Covid-19 pandemic when there was complete lockdown.”

The encouraging tourist footfall has also prompted the state to announce a slew of developmental projects along the coast.

One of the pet projects of the state government is the Digha-Mandarmoni marine drive, which is expected to connect the four major sea beaches in the area – Digha, Tajpur, Shankarpur and Mandarmoni and give a major boost to the tourism sector in the region. However, reports allege that the land for the project was forcibly acquired from the fisherfolk, threatening their livelihood.

Besides, the development activities along the coast have also added environmental concerns. A 2020 study which analysed the erosion and accretion trends confirmed that “urbanisation due to tourism leads to immense pressure on this coastal area more than other coastal processes”.

Fishing trawlers sail from Digha Mohana in West Bengal. Credit: Tazeen Qureshy.

Climate change affects catch

In old Digha, approximately 30 km from the tourist site of the developed new town, lies a fishing auction site, one of the oldest in eastern India. Alok Mondal, who participates in the auction for a private entity, explains the entire process.

“The auction site becomes lively from 3.30 in the morning,” he said. “The fishing trawlers arrive at the harbour and the catch is sorted. The price is set as per the size and weight of the catch. The bidding starts and can continue till 11 in the morning, or late in the afternoon till the trawlers keep coming in. Since the market starts early, the trawlers coming early fetch higher prices.”

Despite a bustling market, the fishing industry in Digha is facing the impact of climate change. The coast was battered by two major cyclonic storms Amphan in 2020 and and Yaas in 2021. Climate change is making those storms far more frequent and devastating.

“Frequent natural disasters have led to reduced number of fishing days and hence, less catch,” said Debasis Shyamal, National Council Member, National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers. “Apart from the regular fishing ban, we are not able to enter the sea for as many as 50 days due to erratic weather patterns. The small-scale and traditional fishermen are among the worst affected.”

A usual day at a fish auction site in Digha in West Bengal. Credit: Tazeen Qureshy.

The erratic weather conditions especially the unseasonal rainfall pattern, has also hit the dry fish industry, which is not getting the required number of consecutive sunlit days for drying the fish.

Involving local communities

Several studies in the past have highlighted the positive role of local communities in protection of ecology. Experts in the field have also suggested a similar collaboration in the region.

The fisherfolk, on the other hand, have time and again pitched for government incentives to better their socio-economic status.

Last month, Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, a registered body of small scale fishworkers, wrote a letter to the administration demanding temporary hut structures along the beach for the fishermen to rest.

The letter also highlighted how the fishing boats were getting damaged while taking in and bringing it out of the sea, due to the boulders placed along the shores, and demanded sloping a patch for easy movement of the boats.

“India has a vast coastline which makes the fishing industry a major source of livelihood for millions of people,” said Shyamal, who is also a part of the Forum. “When we are under existential crisis, it is the duty of the government to look into our problems and address them. We can’t be ignored.”

Tazeen Qureshy is an independent journalist based in Odisha, reporting on rural issues, climate and environment, gender, education, health and sports. She holds a master’s degree in convergent journalism from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. her Twitter handle is @TazeenQureshy.

This article was first published on Environment of India.