Balaraman was just sixteen when he first ‘went to the sea’. Over the last three-and-a-half decades of his life as a fisherman, never has he stayed away from the ocean this long. “Even when the Indian Ocean Tsunami came in 2004, we kept away only for a couple of months. Now it has been around four months since we ventured into the sea. This is the longest I have stayed away,” says the 52-year-old fisherman from Kasimedu. Many businesses, traders, and vendors have been hit by the several spells of intensive and not-so-intensive lockdowns in the State, but none suffered as much as the fishermen.
In between these various spells, almost all other commercial activities got a breather of few days, to earn a few bucks or collect pending salaries. Thanks to the fishing ban that came into effect mid-April and lasted till the first week of June, those dependant on fishing were deprived of even that tiny window of relief. Later, even as they started limping back to normalcy, yet another lockdown has dealt a brutal blow. Visuals that went viral on Friday – of a fish vendor throwing tonnes of fresh catch into a dumpster in Villivakkam after the city corporation, in a late-evening move, banned trade during the lockdown period – encapsulates the pain they have been going through.
The anger, frustration, and hopelessness among the fishing communities across the Tamil coast is palpable. “I used to make at least Rs 500 a day,” says Kumar*, a fisherman from Kasimedu. “I have two daughters, studying in classes 10 and 7, and the money was enough to barely get by. My average daily expense would be around Rs 300. Now, the last few months have been like a nightmare.” Kumar has already pledged two of his wife’s gold chains for money. “Despite that, and after cutting back on our expenses, we have had to borrow Rs 40,000 till date to get by.” The State government has announced Rs 1,000 relief for ration card holders per month apart from groceries, and another Rs 1,000 through the welfare boards for fishermen.
But, that hardly helps. “How are we to make ends meet in the city with that money? During the lockdown, cost of essentials have also been on a rise.” The association has approached the government seeking more support. “We are not sure if help will come our way.”
Chennai is just the starting point for a long chain of trouble that trails all the way till Thoothukudi. The lockdown in Chennai and its neighbouring districts has hurt fishermen in Cuddalore, Nagapattinam, Thanjavur, and Kancheepuram equally, for most of their catch is sold in the capital city. As we travel southward along the coast, it’s not the ban in Chennai that hurts them. It’s the disruption in international trade that has dealt a body blow to fishermen, traders large and small, and massive seafood exporters who were employing tens of labourers.
Big fish eat small fish
The sharp rise in Covid cases in India has made it an unpopular destination for seafood trade. Many countries that used to relish the shrimps, prawns, crabs, and cuttlefish from the waters of Indian Ocean, have now stopped buying fearing transmission of the deadly virus. The fact that the Chinese think the virus originated in the wet-market of Wuhan has not done any good for the seafood trade, internationally. The fishermen of Rameswaram, who enticed the palates of Japanese with the succulent shrimps caught off the Tamil coast, are now languishing at homes.
The seafood exporters, who sell fish and associated products to other countries, are at the top of the chain. Below them are the traders engaged to buy fish from boat owners. At the very bottom of this chain are the fishermen who work for these boat owners, and go to the sea in groups. The ban on sale has affected all of these people, though unequally. In Ramanathapuram, for instance, two of the four major seafood processing companies have slashed buying rates by a whopping 70 per cent. That means, shrimps, crabs, prawns, and cuttlefish that were being bought for Rs 500 per kilogram was being bought for a mere Rs 150 after the lockdown came into effect.
Now that there is no regular cargo movement, the trade has completely stopped. The companies are not buying fish anymore. Fishermen across the State are worried that once the business resumes, to improve their profits lost during the lockdown period, seafood companies may try to buy fish at dirt-cheap prices. A pattern of this fashion has already emerged. As all these fish products exported from Tamil Nadu can be deep-frozen and stored for months, many exporters are holding on to tonnes of stock. However, they are yet to pay the fishermen for the procured commodities.
Speaking at a stakeholder meeting held at the Nagapattinam Collectorate recently, a Thoothukudi-based exporter openly said that he was not sure about paying “reasonable rates” to the fishermen and traders to whom he owes money. “We need to be given a minimum support price for our catch to ensure our livelihoods are intact,” says RMP Rajendra Nattar, a fisher-representative from Nagapattinam. But, Nattar knows it’s easier said than done. When normalcy returns, the big boat owners have no choice but to sell their catch to exporters for remunerative prices. It is always better than the going local market rate.
“We get the best catch in a year in the first two months after the fishing ban ends, for the fish stocks would have rejuvenated. And yet this year, we are struggling for money,” says Nattar. Further down in Rameswaram, the fishermen are battling a crisis of different nature. Those who ventured out to the sea recently realised the fish stocks have actually depleted and not rejuvenated. “It has gone down by 40 per cent,” says Martin*. “We think it could be because of the change in ocean currents, induced by Cyclone Amphan.” The hunt for elusive schools of fish has become further costlier now, thanks to the Centre’s decision to hike fuel prices.
A day’s fishing trip costs around Rs 1 lakh, say boat owners. This includes Rs 50,000 spent on fuel, loading labour charges, ice loading charges, food, water, and rations of fishermen going to the sea, and other miscellaneous expenses. That apart, 25 per cent of the catch is allotted for 10 fishermen on the boat. “The boat owner has the responsibility to ensure the livelihood of fishermen who work for him, so that he returns the next day,” says K Anandavelu, a boat owner from Akkaraipettai.
The difficulties in selling fish is as much as catching them. The bargain a fisherman can strike with the mid-level trader who comes to procure stock for export companies will determine the success of his venture. “We can hold on to our catch only for a day or two. By then, we have to sell them to traders who retail it locally or to those who sell it, in turn, to export companies,” says S Mohandas of Akkaraipettai. “If the trader does not offer a good price, we are ruined. Our losses mount. We are then forced to dump the catch in the sea.”
At the end of all this comes the boat maintenance costs. Usually, the boats are given for repair during the ban period. Now that they have been idle for an extended duration, the fishermen are worried that costs could escalate. “The nets have been torn apart by rats, engines have been idle, and the belt chains hae gathered rust,” says Kumar. He has no idea where the money would come from. It’s the chicken or egg conundrum -- the boat needs money to be fixed, he needs the boat to make money.
Fishermen across the State have been demanding loans under the Kisan Credit Card Scheme of the Centre. While it was launched for farmers, it was recently extended to include fishermen. However, in many districts, the loan amounts were not released due to the lockdown, allege fishermen. In Nagapattinam alone, there are 2,000 applications filed of which 1,000 are for mechanised boats. Not many of these applications have been cleared, they say.
“We need to get out there to make money, to overcome the losses we have been suffering over the last few months. But, without loans, we are having to pawn of the jewellery of our women and children. Or, we are at the mercy of loan sharks,” says K Arutchezhiyan, the leader of Pazhayar Registered Boat Owners Association. “Those who cannot settle for either of these options go to sea on faulty boats.” What happens to them if the boat conks is a mere two-column accident report on newspapers. Those like Kumar and Arutchezhiyan are stranded in this sea of financial troubles, with a mere Rs 2,000 aid to row to safety. Will they make it to the shore with that, or will the government throw in more life-support, only time will tell.
Sinking deep in despair
Apart from crippling their business for about three months, the lockdown has also spawned add-on woes for fishermen and boat owners
International embargo hits tail-end fishermen
Exporters are not able to sell the catch in international market as most countries have stopped importing fish from India over the fear of Covid. As a result, the prices of catch have plummeted. This has hurt seafood processing companies, and in the process, the small fishermen who sell to these companies
Fishing ban period another blow for industry
Owing to relaxations made in the different phases of lockdown, most other traders could get a breather. However, the fishing ban remained even though fisherfolk from across the State clamoured for it to be shortened. Coupled with lockdown, this had led marginalised fishermen into a debt trap
Rising petrol & diesel prices burn hole in fishers’ pockets
Riddled with problems already cornering from all sides, boat owners have another coming on their way. The drastic rise in the prices of petrol and fuel has eaten into their already rotting business. On Saturday, the fuel prices were increased for straight 14th day. In Chennai, petrol price shot to Rs 82.87, diesel to Rs 75.29
Long idle period triggers chicken or egg conundrum
The almost three month-long stalemate, which includes the fishing ban period, has shown a rusting effect on boats and nets. Fishermen and boat owners need money to fix the rusted engine of the boat, but on the other hand, they need to take the boat to the sea in order make a good catch to make some money
Mid-level traders turning sharks using crisis
The fishermen depend on mid-level traders, who come to procure catch for export companies, for good pricing of their catch. They can’t hold on to the catch for more than one or two days, as they would begin rotting. These traders, using it as an opportunity, force the fishermen to accept a low procurement prices
(Reporting by Antony Fernando, Nirupama Viswanathan, Lalitha Ranjani and Godson Wisely Dass)
(Written by Gokul Chandrasekar)