Imperialist Globalisation of the Indian Seas
and the Fishworkers' Struggles

Souparna Lahiri

'Huge steel doors are dragged along the ocean floor, holding open the trawl net. The net itself has a thick, steel bottom cable at its opening. The doors and the cable dig into the seabed, plowing a metre or more into the ocean bottom, smashing coral, crushing bottom-dwelling life and digging up or tearing down absolutely everything in their path'.

This is how the deep sea fishing armadas - the industrial monsters - are churning up the peace and tranquility of the Indian seas. These monsters, a part of the 25,000 redundant industrial fishing fleet, lying idle in the harbours of North America and Europe, are destroying the life and livelihood of 12 million fisherfolk in India and the sustainability of its marine resources.

In the guise of its Deep Sea Fishing Policy to harvest an untapped potential of 1.2 million tonnes of marine fish from the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and in the garb of technology transfer, boosting of marine exports and tongue-licking foreign exchange earnings, the Government of India has surrendered to the global fisheries capital who are evolving ways and means to maintain their losing hegemony over world fish supplies. The Government of India has invited the migrating global fishing fleets to the Indian seas providing easy access to the port facilities and supplying them with fuel at an international market price of Rs. 2/- per litre when the Indian fishworkers have to dish out Rs. 8/- for one litre of diesel.

These factory vessels, with highly capital intensive and specialised technology of fish extraction, have foreign crews on board. Only deck hands and cooks are Indians. The processing, grading and packing of fish products are done on board and the fish catch, instead of being landed on Indian shores are sold and transferred on high seas. The holding companies enjoy tax holidays, exemption from customs and other related duties and can repatriate their foreign exchange earnings in full. They can continue with their looting spree, unchecked, they can create havoc with our marine resources and marine ecology, uncontrolled and unregulated, they can destroy the livelihood of 7.5 million fishworkers and pauperise another 5 million fisherfolk - all for a paltry tribute of 12 per cent of their total earnings to the Indian government.

The Indian ruling class, while abdicating its responsibility towards a sustainable fisheries management, has in fact, created conditions for the elimination of community control of fisheries. The right to the sea and fishing, which has been traditionally enjoyed by our fishworkers, is being turned over to the private merchant capital and trans-national corporations (TNCs) on a platter.

In March 1997, though the Government of India decided to rescind its Deep Sea Fishing Policy in principle, after a long drawn struggle by the National Fishworkers' Forum (NFF) and the National Fisheries Action Committee Against Joint Ventures (NFACAJV), the Ministry of Food Processing refused to accept the demand of cancellation of licences to all foreign vessels and joint ventures and the charter policy. An assurance to terminate the operation of bull trawlers, phasing out of charter vessels and freezing and non-renewal of licenses for deep sea fishing was given to the leaders of NFF and NFACAJV instead.

Why this invasion?

Imperialist fisheries capital's interest in the Indian EEZ stems out of the depletion of global marine resources. The United Nation Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has been warning of the effects of over-fishing since the stagnation of the world fish catch in 1989. It is of the opinion that of the 15 major fishing regions, productivity has fallen in all but two; the western and eastern Indian Ocean. Atlantic fisheries have seen the biggest slump of between 11 and 53 per cent from peak years. The Mediterranean and parts of the Pacific have also registered huge losses. In contrast, the average annual growth rate for the two Indian Ocean zones has been 5.5 per cent from 1988, with peak catches still rising.

The tendency of the world capital to invest on industrial fisheries, bull trawlers, factory ships and huge purse-seiners during the '60s, '70s and '80s for reaping quick profits led to a large-scale plundering of seas and its resources. The annual marine catch started declining during the last decade and stagnated around 85 million tonnes. FAO estimated that the annual operating costs in 1989 of the world's fishing fleet as a whole were in the order of US$ 22 billion greater than the total revenues with no account being taken of capital costs. Distant water fishing vessels were in particularly bad shape. Their capacities were built up over the years with massive state subsidies which promoted easy entry into this sector.

Alarmed by the gradual depletion of marine resources and destruction of marine ecology, the coastal countries and those around Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean have adopted strict maritime regime and fishing regulation laws. Trawling in the North Sea had been banned since the '50s; access to Mexican waters was restricted to foreign vessels from the early '60s and with the adoption of UN Convention on the Law of the Seas both the developed and developing countries have invoked separate maritime laws for Territorial Waters and Exclusive Economic Zones. Most of the rich fishing grounds have been turned into sanctuaries and protected areas. As a result, in 1994 there were 25,000 industrial fishing vessels lying idle in different ports of call.

A fishing vessel once built, has a fairly long economic life and little alternative use other than scrap metal. Redeployment to other less exploited fishing areas is therefore the only remaining solution. Countries like Canada, where fishing companies have been hit hard by the deteriorating fish catch and costly upkeep of high-tech industrial fleet, the government itself took keen interest in working out international deals to send the country's fishing armada - the very boats blamed for plundering the seas off the Atlantic coast - to distant, less regulated areas.

The liberal Indian offer came at the right time for these imperialist operators. The state has made the Indian EEZ one huge "open access regime" and the resource is up for grabs. Subsidised fuel, hundred per cent export with permission for trans-shipment at sea, no compulsions to dock in an Indian port, permission to use any foreign port as base of operation are the sops offered to these invading armadas.

High-tech Fishing Technology: Viability and Consequences

The traditional fishing community in India and particularly the artisanal fishworkers have been under varied pressure of marginalisation right from the dawn of industrial fishery development in India since the mid-sixties. The fishing community in India, with their traditional knowledge of the sea and its environment harvested the resources in a moderate scale. The craft and gear deployed were the most appropriate to suit the environment and these were developed by the fishworkers themselves over centuries of experience and skill. The catamarans, small canoes, big canoes, and different gears were all results of traditional innovations to meet the dynamics of tropical waters, multi-species, fish behaviour and seasonal changes. The fishworkers never overfish the resources which they recognise as their common property.

Trawling as a fishing technique had been known for 2-3 centuries. Surface and mid-water trawling using non-mechanised craft have long been in practice among traditional fishworkers. But, bottom trawling, used by the industrial fishing vessels, is regarded as a controversial and destructive technique by most of the maritime countries. Bottom trawling, as a technique, is a spin-off of the attempts evolved during World War II to remove mines from the sea bed. It scrapes the sea bed and brings up juvenile fish and fish eggs while simultaneously destroying natural formations which facilitate fish breeding. Trawlers indiscriminately haul up everything in their path.

Purse-seining is a highly sophisticated fishing technology developed in the west. It involves a huge encircling net capable of catching tonnes of shoal fishes like oil sardine and mackerel. Purse-seines have a much higher sweep, their mesh size is 18 mm and is capable of a fish haul up to 3 tonnes in a single day. Bottom trawling and purse-seining were both introduced in India in the '50s, mainly to haul high-priced prawns and low-priced shoal fishes respectively.

Purse-seining was introduced in the west coast of India, first, in Karnataka and then in Kerala. The artisanal fishworkers in Kerala depended largely on oil sardine and mackerel. The greater the catches of these shoal fishes, the better would be the economy of the fishworkers. The purse-seines are a labour saving device better suited for the western countries where labour is scarce. As a highly sophisticated technology capable of huge fish catch when compared to the traditional gears, the purse-seines pose a real threat to the traditional sector when the fish landings of this sector has already shown a 50 per cent decline during the eighties.

Industrial fishing on a large scale, involving foreign vessels, is not a new phenomenon. Way back in 1970, the Government of India itself encouraged and established a Deep Sea Fleet based in Visakhapatnam on the east coast. Starting with six vessels the strength of this fleet went up to 180 in 1990. These vessels are owned by 96 companies some of them being public sector undertakings also. Fifty of these have been built in India and the rest are imported from Mexico, Australia, the Netherlands, USA, Japan, South Korea, etc. The reason behind this massive investment of Rs. 3,750 million is the same that has been dished out by the government for giving licences to joint ventures and charter vessels recently - to harvest the full potential of the Indian seas beyond the 50 m depth.

A 1992 FAO "Study On Deep Sea Fisheries Development In India" by M. Giudecelli, a consultant, shows that:

i) Total availability of fish in the EEZ beyond 50 m depth can be estimated around 1.34 million tonnes. This is pure theory however, and in the reality of commercial fisheries the situation certainly is much different and less promising;

ii) A substantial proportion of the non-exploited resources is of no, of reduced, commercial value. This portion does not offer development opportunities for reasons linked to its composition, small sizes, dispersed concentrations, difficult access and lack of foreseeable market.

iii) Even if the real catch of these trawlers had been twice as large, which is probably not the case, and if its value had been higher, their financial returns would still have been insufficient to make feasible permanent operations of this type;

iv) Since no attention was paid to the management of the shrimp resource, it became rapidly overfished in the Sandheads ground with the inescapable consequence of rapidly declining Catch Per Unit Efforts (CPUE). The Deep Sea Fleet's (DSF) average yearly landings, from 25 to 35 tonnes prior to 1985, decreased progressively down to less than 9 tonnes in 1991.

v) Around 100 vessels are lying idle and only 20 vessels are operating on profit and there is a debt burden of 100 crores which the DSF owes to the financial institutions.

Subsequent to the Deep Sea Fishing policy, the Government of India started issuing licenses to joint venture vessels. Already 170 licenses for 800 vessels have been issued. The licensees are all Indian big business willing to exploit the already depleted fish stock in collaboration with the imperialist capital. These joint ventures involve large industrial houses like Tata and Mahindra and Mahindra, ITC, Hindustan Lever, Dunlop, having companies like INDFISH Ltd., Fortune International Ltd., Inchita Fisheries Ltd., etc. working as their fronts in India on the one hand and Multinational Giants like US-based Consolidated Sea Food Corporation, Chevanne Merceron Ballery, A M Produkte of Germany and Mitsubishi Corporation on the other. Many of the vessels originate in Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Latvia and Russia.

The introduction of trawling and purse-seining technologies, borrowed from the western imperialists, was motivated to increase fish haul through better exploitation of the marine resources. The western economies, characterised by scarcity of labour and rich uni-species fish potential, wanted these high technology fishing gears to harness their resources. But the scientists and bureaucrats in India, who advocated these gears for Indian coastal waters on which thousands of fishworkers subsist and earn their livelihood never bothered about the damages these technologies could inflict. A country like India cannot afford to apply capital intensive labour saving devices for development. The multi-species fisheries in the tropical waters need diverse gears for their optimal exploitation.

During the last two decade the deep sea species suffered a more drastic fall of more than 30 per cent compared to less than 20 per cent of inshore species. This decline has been most severe in the case of important commercial species like prawns, cat fishes, soles, etc. Facts and figures indicate that all these species went through a period of overfishing. The productivity of the catch in the deep sea is computed at 0.93 tonnes/sq. km compared with 10.75 tonnes/sq. km in the inshore sea. That is why even the government of India data indicate that 98 per cent of the annual marine produce catch accrues to the artisanal and small mechanised sector. Only the remaining fraction goes to the deep-sea ventures.

Thus, the low productivity of the Indian EEZ beyond 50 m depth, coupled with lack of scientific knowledge of its marine resources and behavioural pattern of the fishstock in different seasons induce the industrial vessels meant for deep sea fishing to poach in the inshore waters. All over the Indian coastline this encroachment of the foreign vessels into the fishing area meant for traditional and small mechanised craft has generated conflict situations and heavy losses to the traditional fishworkers in terms of depleting fish catch and destruction of fishing craft and gear.

The shrimp trawlers, whether they operate in the deep sea or in inshore waters, display a flagrant disregard towards conservation of marine resources. A 1990 study by the Bay of Bengal Project showed that while some commercially valuable fish species are landed, the rest of the by-catch (species other than shrimp) is simply thrown overboard, wasting a huge amount of protein-rich fish in the deep seas. Shrimp trawl by-catch consists of more than 85 species which belong to more than 45 families of finfish and shellfish. According to the 1992 FAO study, the total by-catch of trawlers operating in Indian seas amounts to a staggering 1.3 million tonnes per year. And they are simply dumped into the seas. More than 50 per cent of all by-catch are immature fish or fish that had no chance of spawning even once. A part of the by-catch which is regarded fit for animal feed is processed, canned and sold to western markets as nutrients for cats and dogs!

This huge by-catch actually affects the potential yield of the inshore waters, the fishing ground for traditional fishworkers. The immature fish, juvenile fish and fish eggs are future source of fish catch for these fishworkers and also rich protein source for the 300 million fish consumers in India. Along India's north east coast, annually, some 100,000 tonnes of by-catch is discarded by the industrial vessels. In contrast to this, the traditional sector produces 250,000 tonnes. In the east coast one would come across fishworkers, at different landings, lamenting the site of industrial vessels throwing tonnes of by-catch into the sea when their own boats remain empty.

Response of the Fishing Community

The struggle of the 12 million fisher people in India to protect the dwindling marine resources is more than a battle of mechanised boats against traditional boats and new technology vs. traditional community knowledge. For the fisher people who populate the coastal villages of India, it is a matter of survival against the onslaught of the imperialist and merchant-bureaucrat capital.

Since the inception of the mechanised trawlers in Indian seas, with particular reference to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the artisanal fishworkers have been at loggerheads with the trawlers. The sharp and sudden decline in living standards, the realisation that the resources of the sea are not infinite and the discovery of the ecological damage caused by trawling marked the beginning of a series of spontaneous clashes between artisanal fishworkers and trawlers. The late seventies witnessed regular violent clashes causing over 50 deaths. Hundreds were injured, trawlers burnt and country craft, nets, etc. were destroyed.

The situation concurrent with the introduction of trawlers was, thus a festering one characterised by the massive economic pressures they imposed on the traditional fishworkers and the inability of those in power and authority to resolve the issues in focus or at least take substantial interest regarding the issues involved.

The spontaneous momentum of struggles prepared the fisher people also to be able to articulate their basic demands. Fishworkers demanded a ban on night trawling, monsoon trawling and trawling within 10 km. from the shore. During the late seventies and early eighties the traditional fishworkers in the states of Goa, West Bengal, Orissa and Tamil Nadu were also up-in-arms against the trawlers. Trawlers along the West Bengal coast encroached into the fishing area of the traditional and small mechanised sector, very close to the delta of the Hooghly river and the mangrove region of the Sunderbans. As early as 1964, the Tamil Nadu Government issued an order protecting the artisanal fishworkers. The order gave them an exclusive 3 mile-area from the shore as a trawler free zone. But, these orders were never enforced and trawlers continued to operate very close to the shore. Initially confused and shocked by the mechanised giants on their livelihood, the agitating fishworkers in almost all the coastal states were beginning to feel the need for effective organisations of their own.

Kerala Swatantra Matsyajivi Thozhilali Federation (KSMTF) and Goan Fishermen's Union were the pioneering fishworkers organisations which articulated the demands and aspirations of the fisher people in India. In June 1978, the Goan Fishermen's Union convened a meeting of the fishworkers leaders from coastal states in Madras, which paved the way for the formation of the National Forum for Catamaran and Country-boat Fishermen's Rights and Marine Wealth. It was a representative body of 13 major regional fishworkers' unions. Since then, these are the unions which have spearheaded the struggle of the fishworkers against the government's fishery policy, the imperialist-sponsored technology of trawling and purse-seining and the plunder of the Indian seas by the joint venture and foreign factory vessels.

The National Forum, in July 1978 put forward a charter of demands to then Prime Minister Mr. Morarji Desai which included the demands for an exclusive zone of 20 km. of coastal waters for the traditional fishworkers, fixing of minimum mesh size of the nets, restricting the trawlers and purse-seiners and enactment of a Marine Regulation Bill. Since November 1978, all the state level unions initiated and organised relay fasts, picketing, dharnas and demonstrations throughout the coastal states as well as in Delhi.

This organised nation wide campaign finally forced the states of Goa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Orissa to pass Marine Fishing Regulation Acts. The restriction on mechanised trawling and purse-seining though, was not uniform, varying between 3 km. to 22 km.

The National Forum also put forward concrete ideas on appropriate forms of fishing technology. Effective protests were raised against the use of development aid and commercial investments in large scale fisheries development by FAO, the World Bank and the Paris Group of Investors. The fishworkers' unions also launched an international campaign against the export of seafood from India, which was one of the causes of the no holds bar overfishing in shallow waters and the consequent imperialist-led growth of the fisheries industry in India.

Between 1979 and 1984, the fishworkers unions continued their struggle demanding a central legislation on Marine Regulation, ban on night trawling, diversion of huge investments on trawling and purse-seining to the traditional sector, nationalisation of deep sea fishing and prawns export and withdrawal of the eviction process aimed against fishworkers from their areas of operation for the development of tourism.

In September 1983, the Forum changed its name to National Fishworkers' Forum (NFF) and in January 1984, the general body of NFF decided to register it under the Trade Union Act. Matanhy Saldanha, who held the position of national chairman right from the inception of the forum, handed over charge to the newly elected chairman, Thomas Kocherry. With Tom at its helm, the NFF and the fisher people in India entered a new era of struggle.

United They Stand

The Government of India's Deep Sea Fishing Policy, the pounding of Indian seas by the joint venture and chartered factory vessels and indiscriminate and unregulated exploitation of marine resources marked the ushering in of the era of economic reforms, liberalisation and globalisation.

The NFF, through its concerted campaign against the opening up of the seas to the imperialist operators, was able to convince all the stakeholders in the fishery sector including the mechanised boatowners, the marine fish exporters, the owners of fish processing units and the wholesale fish dealers, that the government-bureaucrat-imperialist capital nexus was going to ruin them all.

For the first time in the recent past, representatives of traditional fishworkers, small-scale mechanised fishing boat operators, fish traders, processors and exporters came together under the banner of National Fisheries Action Committee Against Joint Ventures and demanded that 'the government cancel all licences issued to the joint ventures and stop issuing licences for deep sea fishing'.

Right from the beginning of 1994 to March 1997, the NFACAJV has launched a series of historic struggles which shook the corridors of power. On November 23 and 24, 1994, the marine fishing industry of India spread across nine maritime states struck work and came to a virtual standstill. About one million people struck work at sea, processing plants and wholesale markets during this indefinite strike as a symbol of protest against the government policy of permitting joint ventures free access o the Indian EEZ. This was preceded by an all-India fisheries bandh in February and observation of 'Black Day' on July 20. On February 4, 1994, the NFF in collaboration with the organisations of small mechanised boatowners and wholesale fish merchants staged an all-India fisheries bandh and not one fishing boat, artisanal or mechanised, ventured into sea in any of the coastal states. The major wholesale and retail fish markets remained shut.

Since the overwhelming success of the November 1994 fisheries strike, the NFACAJV has resorted to repeated bandhs and harbour blockades. In August 1996, convenor Thomas Kocherry along with other national level leaders of the fishworkers' unions went on an indefinite hunger strike. In March 1997, the fishworkers resorted to a harbour blockade which was called off after a day at the request of the government and the leaders were called to Delhi for talks.

Even though the government of India has not cancelled all the licences issued, on paper, they have rescinded the Deep Sea Fishing Policy, frozen the process of licencing and assured NFACAJV that no licenses of joint venture and chartered vessels will be renewed before a fresh review is undertaken by the government. The government stand, even after these assurances, still smells of a continuing deal, however low-key it may be, with imperialist capital. But, the 12 million fisherfolk are watching and preparing its next strike. A united front of the fishworkers, exporters, fish processors and the wholesalers and retailers is a difficult proposition for the Indian ruling class to fool and play with.

John Kurien, the ideologue of the fishworkers movement in India, very aptly concludes in his paper 'Impact of Joint Ventures On the Fish Economy' when he says:

We are confronted in India with a situation where the artisanal fishworkers, the small mechanised boat operators and a section of the deep-sea fishing operators with some involvement in fishing, are all up in arms against the present joint venture policy of the government. It therefore stands to reason to conclude that this new policy is led and fuelled by motivations and considerations which are obviously made to favour a few but wrapped in the packaging of liberalisation and free market ideology which is being touted as the only path left to solve our problems. To permit this new policy on joint ventures in fisheries to proceed tantamount to allowing a handful of bureaucrats and politicians to usurp the custodianship role of the state and trade this intergenerational heritage of our marine resources to parties who are openly interested only in short-run profits. This is an affront on civil society at large. It must be opposed.

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