On April 28, a convoy of 55 buses carrying approximately 4,000 fishermen left from Gujarat’s Veraval harbour on a 50-hour journey to Andhra Pradesh. These fishers had been stranded on their boats for nearly five weeks due to the sudden announcement of the Covid-19 nationwide lockdown from March 25.

Unable to earn a living or travel back to their villages, they were living in cramped conditions on their boats with limited access to food and water. It took the deaths of two fishers and the extensive media coverage that followed for the governments of Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh to take action.

This was only one of many problems India’s estimated 16 million fishers have had to deal with since the lockdown started. The lockdown effectively paralysed the entire fisheries sector, leaving workers uncertain about how they would earn a living.

Fishers who had ventured out to sea before the lockdown returned to discover that they could not land or sell their catches and had to discard tonnes of high-value catch overboard or sell them at throwaway prices. Overnight, supply chains had collapsed, shutting down transport and cold storage facilities, causing tremendous wastage and significant losses.

As the lockdown progressed, thousands of fishworkers continued to be stranded in fishing harbours across India’s coastline. On April 29, another migrant fishworker died in Maharashtra’s Uttan Pali, unable to access medical help for a pre-existing condition. The slow process of sending migrant workers back began only in May.

Wasted time

“A lot of time is being wasted in registering with the governments of the host states [where people are stranded] as well as home states,” said TK Rehman, founder of the Traditional Fishworkers Union, who is working to ensure the return of stranded Andhra fishworkers. “Not all fishers are tech-savvy and they find it difficult to operate the government registration apps.”

Though boat owners in some places are trying to meet the basic needs of their crews, this is not the case everywhere. Rehman said that even though many boat owners want to send fishworkers back to fish after the lockdown, they were unwilling to care for them while they were stranded.

Even for the repatriated fish workers, reaching their home state has not ended the suffering. The shutdown of fishing activities means that these fishworkers have spent the past two months without any income. “If the restrictions continue, we won’t even be able to sell our catch to neighbouring villages,” said M Polisu, who made the bus journey from Gujarat to Andhra Pradesh and then went into quarantine. “We get many calls asking for information, but very little help. How am I going to feed my family?”

Stranded fishermen disembark in Dahanu on April 17. Credit: Reuters

Even in regular times, fishing communities have to deal with challenges such as environmental degradation, climate uncertainties, the impacts of large-scale developmental projects and a rapidly diminishing sense of cultural identity. The lockdown only worsened things, hurting not just active fishers but also everyone along the fisheries supply chain: fish vendors, fish processors, middlemen, traders, ice factory workers and more.

Too often, discussions on fisheries revolve around fishermen, taking the focus away from critical challenges faced by the women who constitute nearly half of the workforce. “Fisherwomen who mostly work as fish vendors or processors depend on fishing operations in order to dry or sell fish,” said Ujwala Patil, fisherwomen’s rights activist and member of the Maharashtra Macchimar Kruti Samiti. “In Mumbai, the women volunteered to shut down the crowded markets as they posed the risk of community transmission, but they are suffering greatly due to the resultant economic losses.”

These women also handle household responsibilities. “There is a shortage of food in many fishing villages in and around Mumbai,” said Patil. “Whatever temporary arrangement is being made will not last for too long. The government should intervene and ensure that these communities are provided for.”

Civil society response

While the situation is dire, the response from fishworker organisations and civil society has provided some relief. The fishworker movement in India has a history of ground-up advocacy for fisher rights. Organisations like the National Fishworkers Forum and the National Platform for Small Scale Fishworkers-Inland are spearheading the campaign with the help of NGOs, demanding measures to ensure fishworkers’ health, safety, and financial security. Crowdfunding campaigns have also been launched to aid small-scale fishworkers during the lockdown.

The Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying responded positively to the advocacy efforts, issuing directives to normalise fishing activities across the country. In several places, government authorities at the local level have also been immensely helpful, ensuring that aid reaches those in need. However, there is still a lot of ground left to cover.

Every year, the government enforces a 61-day monsoon fishing ban that prohibits mechanised fishing, to allow fish stocks to regenerate and to ensure safety for fishers from rough seas. However, the rule permits traditional non-motorised boats to continue fishing for subsistence,

On May 25, the ministry announced that the ban period would be reduced from 61 days to 47 days in order to help fishworkers to recoup the income they had lost during the lockdown period. However, this move could further jeopardise the interests of fishers by allowing operations during uncertain weather conditions and putting their lives at risk. In addition, the order comes at a time when most migrant fishworkers are already stressed due to the lockdown and keen to return home.

Instead of this socially and ecologically significant ban period being reduced, fisheries advocacy groups have been demanding a financial relief package of Rs 15,000 per month per fishworker household for three months to make up for the losses caused due the lockdown. However, following an initial order on March 30, there has been no communication regarding any compensation for fishworkers from the ministry.

Fishermen in Chennai during lockdown. Credit: Arun Sankar/AFP

The announcement mid-May of a Rs 20,000-crore economic stimulus package for the fisheries sector as part of the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana has also been met with disappointment from fishworkers’ representatives.

“The package is not in favour of fishers,” said T Peter, General Secretary of the National Fishworkers Forum. “Most of the things announced in it are a repetition of the Budget, focusing on investments in aquaculture and infrastructure to augment exports. There is nothing about Covid relief or immediate financial assistance to small-scale fishers, fisherwomen or migrant fishworkers affected due to the lockdown.”

These problems are indicative of deeper, systemic issues in the fisheries sector. The lockdown has exposed the poor conditions of migrant labourers in fisheries. It has also shown how excessive dependence on export markets makes fisheries highly vulnerable to global uncertainties.

The policies and development approaches for Indian fisheries continue to be centred around the “blue economy” paradigm, focusing on advancing technology and maximising revenue from the oceans. This production-centric outlook reduces a complex, diverse way of life to a mere resource extraction activity, blurring the human elements that put food on our plates. Moving forward, it is essential for policy makers to redefine growth to include human rights, equity and social justice in order to transition from the narrow focus on the blue economy towards the more holistic vision of “blue justice”.

Ishaan Khot and Kanishk Srinivasan are researchers with Dakshin Foundation. The views expressed here are personal.