Aiming to accelerate the development of the fisheries sector, the Indian government has released the draft National Fisheries Policy 2020 that intends to integrate all components – marine and inland, capture and culture, and post-harvest – in a single document and create an environment to increase investments in the sector, double exports, and incomes of fishers and fish farmers.

It tries to encompass elements of the “Blue Growth Initiative”, the Agriculture Export Policy 2018 and the targets set under the Sustainable Development Goals. The policy also looks at integrating the fisheries sector with other areas like agriculture, coastal development and ecotourism to meet the goals of “Blue Economy” while keeping the “socio-economic upliftment and economic prosperity of fishers and fish farmers” especially traditional and small-scale fishers.

Researchers and members of fisher rights unions have criticised the draft policy for being export-oriented, production-driven, and based on capital investments, which they fear would strip small scale fishers off their rights of access to commons, and also damage the environment in the long run. In addition, they say that the policy does not talk about women. It is silent on caste and class. Fishing communities in India are not homogenous. They have distinct social governance structures and traditional practices, depending on where they live on the coast. They are also organised into sectors, such as the mechanised and non-mechanised sectors.

In a press release, National Fishworkers Forum, a federation of trade unions of independent and small-scale fish workers stated that the policy is neither in favour of the fishing communities nor for protecting the oceans and the coast.

In recent years, fish production in India has had an average annual growth rate of 7%. The share of the fisheries sector was 1.03% of India’s Gross Domestic Product in 2017-’18, and the sector has been one of the major contributors of foreign exchange earnings as India is one of the leading seafood exporting nations in the world. The fisheries sector contributed Rs 1.75 trillion to India’s GDP during the financial year 2017–’18, and claims to support nearly 16 million fishers and fish farmers. The document says that India has more than 10% of the global biodiversity in fish and shellfish species, and the total fisheries potential of India has been estimated at 22.31 million metric tons in 2018. The draft policy attributes the rapid growth of seafood exports to “the boom in brackishwater aquaculture.”

Sunil Mohamed, retired principal scientist and former head of molluscan fisheries division at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in Kochi, explained that integrating all the sectors in one policy is a mistake. “The marine [fisheries] is not comparable to inland and capture and culture fisheries are completely different sectors,” he told Mongabay-India. “The sectors need to have separate policies, which they have had in the past, in various stages of drafting. This looks like they have borrowed some points from each and pasted them together to make a unifying policy. In the bargain, we may have lost several important aspects of each policy,” Mohamed said.

There is a National Marine Fisheries Policy 2017, which was notified by the central government in April 2017, a draft of the National Inland Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy 2019 which was released in February 2019, and a draft of National Mariculture Policy 2019 which was also released in 2019. In light of the National Fisheries Policy 2020 draft, it is unclear what will become of the rest.

In fact, there has been a lot of confusion around the draft national fisheries policy. It was first put online on the website of the union government’s department of fisheries on February 12. However, no final date for comments from stakeholders was mentioned. Subsequently, on June 16, 2020, the department of fisheries posted an update that senior officers of the department, in a meeting taken by the secretary of the department, discussed the draft national fisheries policy 2020. Since then, there has been no information about its present status. Queries sent to the central government’s fisheries department have remained unanswered so far.

Fishing boats docked in Dahanu. Credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay

Push for deep-sea fishing

The draft states that the marine sector is “dominated by the socio-economically backward artisanal and small scale fishers”, that there is “stagnation in the growth of marine capture fisheries,” and that it is “imperative to figure out alternative livelihood options.”

It suggests two initiatives for small scale fishers: to skill them in deep fishing, which includes exploring the areas beyond national jurisdiction and give a push to industrial fishing and deep-sea fishing for “high-value resources” like tuna, tuna-like species, oceanic squids in a “sustainable manner” and; to skill them in mariculture, the practice of cultivation of economically viable marine plants and animals in seawater. The policy sees massive potential for the country in mariculture, projecting an annual production of four to eight million tonnes.

The problem with this, according to Siddharth Chakravarty, who works at The Research Collective and analyses fisheries policies through the lens of labour, gender, and class, is that “the further you move away from the shore in terms of capture fisheries, and the more you try to enhance production in artificial ways through intensive culture fisheries, you automatically add two aspects to it. One is the need for upfront capital to be able to conduct and undertake these activities. The second is that you invariably use more intensive technologies.”

“So compared to a near-shore gill-netter, a long-liner is going to be much more intensive both capitally and ecologically. A mariculture pond that tries tuna ranching...for that cage you need infrastructure that is more capital-intensive and this will have an ecological impact as well,” he said.

He also pointed out that the government is largely basing fishery development on the fact that it needs to invest through entrepreneurs, and that investment will be matched by government support. “What it means for fishworkers is that it excludes them, because women, lower caste fishers and those involved in allied activities operate within a socio-economic system where livelihoods are not embedded in the cycle of investment, extraction and profit. So, in addition to the schemes being financially unviable, there is also a clash of cultures and outlooks in the way the state sees and the people perceive ‘development’,” he told Mongabay-India.

In mariculture, when somebody would make an investment in the coastal waters, they are inserting their private property into a common property rights regime. And it becomes an exclusive piece of investment that belongs to someone, and the fish in it are not a shared resource like other fishery resources are. “There is going to be a creation of exclusive zones, and a need to protect those zones, and there is going to be a social exclusion in addition to the capital exclusion and ecological exclusion,” Chakravarty warned.

Oyster culture in Sasihithlu, South Karnataka. The draft policy attributes the rapid growth of seafood exports in India to “the boom in brackishwater aquaculture.” Credit: Supriya Vohra

Privatising common resources

The inland fisheries include all rivers, canals, floodplain lakes, high altitude lakes, ponds, wetlands, tanks, reservoirs, brackish water, all saline and alkaline affected areas of the country. The policy aims to “enhance fishing” in all these areas, including high-altitude lakes in the North and Northeastern parts of India, and wetlands and reservoirs in protected areas. Pradip Chatterjee, convenor of National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers, said this means privatisation.

“Not privatisation as in going into private hands – the state is going to take these areas under their jurisdiction and then it is going to lease them out to private entrepreneurs or beneficiaries, who are then going to enhance fish production,” he said. “All these are public water bodies, and traditional fishers have been fishing in them since time immemorial. Why should it be leased? Commons are for the public. The traditional fishers and fish farmers are going to lose their natural rights over these water bodies – they will be turned into contract labourers,” Chatterjee told Mongabay-India.

He emphasised that the rivers and wetlands are already polluted and that fishworkers are barely earning a livelihood, which forces them to migrate and seek work in other states. “The tenure rights are not secure for the farmers in this sector as it is mainly verbal and there is no support from the government,” he said.

According to the draft policy, “aquaculture sector documented one of the highest growth rates in productions and providing livelihood and nutritional security in the country,” and “deserves greater attention in the form of incentives/concessions as in agriculture like income tax, power supply, loan facility, insurance covered, drought and flood relief and transportation.”

But aquaculture is also known for causing an immense amount of pollution in the form of eutrophication of water bodies ultimately leading to habitat destruction and also destroying livelihoods of those who invest in this fish farming method. While the draft policy talks about using “mitigation measures,” there is no indication of what those measures are.

In addition, “small fishers and allied workers who are not going to be able to invest in aquaculture as a beneficiary component by putting a certain percentage into that farm, it means that access to common property resources, to resources that are seasonal like ponds and dam waters where the fisheries department has been putting seeds and some capture fisheries happen, as they start becoming privatised or polluted areas, it will begin to exclude people,” Chakravarty added.

Shrimp farms in Baguran Jalpai, West Bengal. Credit: Kaelyn Maehara

Game fishing and ecotourism

The draft proposes to “implement dedicated programmes for developing fisheries sector in islands.” One of them is game fishing or recreational fishing, which according to Sahir Advani, junior adjunct fellow at Dakshin Foundation and postdoctoral research fellow, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at University of British Columbia, is “increasingly being recognised as a sustainable means to connect with aquatic ecosystems and as alternative livelihood options for small-scale fishing communities.”

“In the Andaman Islands, the game fishing industry brings in a lot of foreign revenue, provides employment opportunities to local communities, and has a low impact on marine ecosystems if the principles of catch and release with minimal stress to fish are followed. While an economic valuation of the game fishing sector in India remains to be undertaken, it will likely be beneficial to the local economy and is a good example of ecotourism, if done right, responsibly, and equitably” he told Mongabay-India.

No representation for women

In a webinar organised by the National Fishworkers Forum earlier in June, Jesu Rethinam, convener of Coastal Action Network and member of NFF said that “women are further invisibilised in the [draft] policy.”

She said that the policy aims at the rationale of schemes which has been envisioned in the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana. The PMMSY is a financial scheme of Rs 200 billion launched by the central government in May this year, to bring about the “Blue Revolution”. It was criticised for focusing on economic and technological growth as opposed to catering to the food security and livelihood needs of the fishers, given the exponential losses incurred by the fisheries sector during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There are women in many parts of the country who engage in capture fisheries in both marine, backwaters, estuaries and inland, there is no mention of them,” and wherever mentioned they “are mere claims with no progressive intent for the fishworkers,” she said.

Sustainability and livelihood

Chatterjee stressed that there is total neglect of the traditional knowledge of the fishworkers, in this proposed policy and there is nothing on their rights. “Development without rights will lead to eviction of fishworkers from their livelihood,” he said.

“Over the years we have created a narrative of poverty, of helplessness, of back-in-time, of small as being inferior, and therefore we are very successfully able to deploy all those words to then imply that there is a need for development,” said Chakravarty. “But when you go in and look at the scope of the document, the development is not actually directed towards people for whom the society’s sympathies at large have been evoked.”

Advani explained that India’s envisioning of the fisheries sector has for a long time been all about gaining returns from marine exports. “The language used in most policy documents focuses on resource exploitation rather than management,” he said.

He explained that fisheries sustainability can be considered in six dimensions – ecological, economic, social, technological, ethical, and institutional, and “Indian fisheries policies seem to be focused largely on economic and technological dimensions with short-term sustainability targets in mind.”

“There needs to be greater consideration of long-term sustainability and across the dimensions of social, ecological, ethical and institutional for Indian fisheries to become truly sustainable,” he said.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.