On clear nights, when the fish are aplenty in the nets and he can take a break from steering, S Apparao thinks of his little house in Srikakulam on the northern coast of Andhra Pradesh. Two lamps, one in the cabin and another on the mast of his 15-metre boat, Parshuram, light up a tiny circle of the sea as it rolls under him.

The gentle motion that now rocks him to sleep had nearly thrown him off board the first time he had been out to sea as a boy, then 10 years old, fishing near Visakhapatnam in his home state. He remembers setting out with his father before dawn, with the sun rising in the waters ahead of the boat, from the East. These days, as a 46-year-old, he looks towards the land for the sunrise. On the small radio in the cabin, the voices of other fishermen in Marathi or Malayalam alert him to where he is on the Arabian Sea.

In the late 1980s, as fishing in the Bay of Bengal intensified, the waters were left with too many fishermen and too few fish. Thousands of men from Andhra Pradesh’s coastal districts of Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and Visakhapatnam then began to travel to the busy fishing harbours of Gujarat, working as tandels (skippers) and khalasis (crewmen) on mechanised fishing boats owned by local kharwa merchants.

Only a fraction of Gujaratis eat fish but in the 1960s the state’s enterprising sea-faring castes had spotted opportunity early and shifted from traditional maritime trade – which was losing out to modern shipping – and moved to fishing. Today, Gujarat’s boats account for a quarter of the country’s marine fish catch and over 8,000 registered boats pass through the state’s busiest harbour, Veraval, alone.

A boat enters the Veraval harbour, India's busiest, with over 8,000 registered boats passing through it. Photo credit: Nikhil Roshan

Over the years, deep-sea fishermen from Andhra Pradesh have replaced those from Valsad and Kerala as workers on these boats – partly because they are content with lower wages. Though there is no official count, anecdotal estimates put the number of migrants at 25,000 every season. They earn up to three times as much in Gujarat as they do fishing in small traditional canoes back home. A tandel like Apparao, with over 10 years of experience, makes Rs 21,000 every month and a khalasi is paid about half that sum. The highlight, they said, is the steady salary, paid in lumpsum at the start of the fishing season.

“Fishing is a gamble,” said Apparao, standing outside his home in Srikurmam Machilesam village in July 2016. “You don’t know if you will catch anything on a given day.” He was home for four months since fishing in the Arabian Sea comes to a halt in the monsoon. Nearly a decade of work in Gujarat had allowed him to save enough to rebuild his mud house with brick and cement. He wanted to complete another floor for his son by next year. Apparao himself only studied till the fifth grade but he said that most of the migrants over 40 had never gone to school.

In Gujarat, the money is steady but the work is punishing: an average fishing trip is nearly 20 days long and the men – nine to a cabin the length of a small car – have no rest hours. The hunt for a big catch takes them as far south as Karnataka and Kerala, which doesn’t win them any friends among local fishermen. Fishing boats are supposed to restrict activity to waters within 5 nautical miles – 9 km – of their state territory, but there is no law to enforce this.

“We’re in trouble if we ever run out of fuel in these areas,” said M Sandiyya, a khalasi also from Machilesam. “The local fishermen don’t allow us to dock our boats on shore and sometimes they even confiscate our catch.”

Back at the Veraval harbour, the boats dock for just a day or two to restock fuel, ice and rations. During the eight months they spend in Gujarat, the men wake up every morning on a boat.

When the boats return, the fish is packed in crates and sent to the processing units nearby after a price is negotiated with their agents on the docks. Photo Credit: Nikhil Roshan

Veraval lies three hours south of Porbandar on Gujarat’s 1,600-km-long coastline. On streets that smell of fish and damp wood, almost everybody is employed in the fishing industry, but the town is better known on Gujarat’s cultural map for a few shabby hotels that house pilgrims to the Somnath temple 7 km away.

Once every week, the Dwarka Express travels 52 hours and nearly 3,000 km from Puri – mostly ferrying migrant workers from Odisha and Andhra Pradesh to industrial centres in Gujarat – stopping at the Veraval railway station to drop off fishermen like Apparao. In earlier times, the port saw visitors from even more distant lands. Merchants from West Asia and the Arabian Peninsula came in ships to trade in horses, textiles and dates. A few old merchant buildings crumbling in the sea air – one houses the customs department – hint at a history that has been forgotten by the town’s residents, barring a few old Muslim sailors.

Besides being the country’s biggest fishing harbour, the town has a thriving boat manufacturing industry, a large number of ice factories and over 100 fish processing units, most of which export to Europe and China. One such unit is managed by Kenny Thomas, whose company Jinny Marine is one of the larger exporters approved by the European Union. Inside its sterilised factory, over 300 local women clean, sort and pack squid and shrimp into neat, impeccably labelled containers headed for supermarkets in Spain and Portugal. “Women are preferred because they can do this sort of work faster and more efficiently,” said Thomas. Nimble hands, he explained with a shrug, for customers that wouldn’t want any grazed calamari on their plates.

In this industrious town, there is little by way of entertainment. The Gujarati business classes have little time for anything but work and the aartis at the famous temple next door. Most conversations begin with the salutation “Jai Somnath”, even among the Andhra fishermen when they are in Veraval.

The closest movie theatre is nearly two hours away in Junagadh. For the fishermen who have grown up on a diet of Chiranjeevi and Nagarjuna blockbusters – Srikakulam has at least seven theatres, all packed through the day – the tiny 10-inch television-cum-DVD-player in the cabins on the boats is as essential a piece of equipment as Garmin GPS systems or fish-finders.

Inside the fish processing units, the workers are almost all women. Photo Credit: Nikhil Roshan

Srikakulam is a bustling coastal town nearly three hours north-east of Vishakhapatnam. Here, Mylapalli Trinada Rao has tried to draw the government’s attention to a darker side of the migrant’s experience. Last year, Rao, a stocky, affable director of the state Fishermen Cooperatives Federation, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a list of over 60 names of fishermen from the district who had drowned in Gujarat, Goa and Odisha since 1990.

The number may not seem alarming in a country where industrial accidents and farmer suicides are all too common, but Rao pointed out that not one body has been returned to the families; nor have they received the compensation promised by state laws. He did not expect a reply from the prime minister but claimed that there has been no action from the fisheries departments of any state.

In the Srikakulam villages from where the fishermen travel to Gujarat, some of the men spoke a little Hindi and Gujarati but the women knew only Telugu. They had never talked to their husbands’ employers in Veraval. Apparao remembered the time when one of his crewmen fell into the sea and was later found tangled in the nets. “It was too late when we brought him up,” he said. “We packed the body with ice in the fish hold and turned back towards Veraval.” But in that instance, the seth sent the body back to the village with another khalasi.

Apparao’s seth, Tulsibhai Gohel, is president of Veraval’s boat owners’ association, the Kharwa Sanyukta Machhimar Boat Association. It is the only grouping resembling a union but designed to service capital rather than labour. Gohel is a lean, light-eyed and respected president who, like other investors in the trade, owns about half a dozen boats. Apparao said his seth is a good man, one of the few who gives his crew a bonus every year and does not grudge it when they return with a meagre catch.

One afternoon in July, Gohel was finishing a meeting with local officials in Veraval to launch a Swachh Bharat drive at the boat jetty. Dressed in a formal shirt and derby leather shoes, he was driven in his Toyota Innova to a modest association office, where, seated on a faded cushion on the floor, he oversaw the settlement of a few minor disputes. There was no mention of the workers in the matters that came up for discussion. When asked how he dealt with cases of men drowning at sea, Gohel said, “There are very few because we don’t let the men carry alcohol on the boats. All the accidents happen at the harbour when the boats are back. The men sometimes drink at night and fall into the water between the parked boats.”

Apparao agrees. (He stopped drinking a few years ago when he realised he was draining his savings while on vacation in Srikakulam.) But others in his village denied that the deaths were caused by drinking alone. “How many deaths can you have at the harbour,” said Sandiyya. Marine fishing laws require all boats to be equipped with lifejackets, buoys and even portable toilets. Few boats in Veraval have lifejackets and for toilets the men sit precariously on the narrow bulwark, hold on to the rigging and point their motions outward as the sea pitches the boat from side to side.

In Veraval, the sun-bleached marine police station sits on a deserted beach outside the town. Inside, Constable CD Rawal thumbed through a large register to find the information on deaths at sea this year. There were two: a Bhagwan-bhai from a village in Valsad and Ramlu Badi of Dagalu in Srikakulam, as they appeared in the careless handwriting of a station officer. There was no other information. In Srikakulam, all attempts to find Dagalu were futile: people said there is no such village.

The harbour area in Veraval town. Photo Credit: Nikhil Roshan

One morning at the start of June, with the sun rising over Veraval bundur, the Parashuram set out on another long trip down the western coast, packed with over 7 tonnes of ice and enough ration for Apparao and his crew. This was the last trip of the season. The radio crackled with greetings of “Jai Somnath” between the other boats sailing out. From his cabin window, Apparao could see the giant temple on the edge of the coastline. They would pass Mumbai in a day or two. The sea was a lot rougher because of the strong monsoon winds and the men held on to the ropes. Normally, they could stand on their feet as the sea tossed the boat and still haul in the nets and sort the fish, but the men had not been home in eight months. No accidents on this final trip.

When Apparao returned to Machilesam, there would be a feast for their guardian deity, Polamamba-mata. Last year, it had been his village’s turn to host the panchayat. Most of the other tandels did nothing but eat and drink for the four months they were home. Not him. There were debts to settle and work that needed to be done – starting with that first-floor bedroom.

The engine roared under him as he turned the boat southward in the direction of the other boats. The screen of his fish-finder glowed with numbers and broad strokes of blue. Somewhere in there was that prize catch.

S Apparao on board the 'Parashuram' at the Veraval harbour. Photo Credit: Nikhil Roshan

The reporting for this article was conducted as part of a research project for the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers.