The 1,076 km long coastline of Tamil Nadu houses more than 600 fishing villages. An estimated 10 lakh people depend directly or indirectly on the resources from the sea, making it one of most important sectors in bringing financial resources to the state and the country.
However, the ambitious Sagarmala and Bharatmala projects are perceived as potential threats to the very existence of the fisherfolk, due to possible adverse impacts on biodiversity, resources and resultant corporatisation of the industry.
The introduction of the National Fisheries Policy, 2020, has only amplified the apprehensions of the community, which accuses the Union government of favouring the corporates in getting hold over the fishing industry. The unrelenting support of the state government on such policy issues has also caused dissatisfaction among the fishing community.
The increasing prices of diesel, the fuel used for fishing boats have only added to the agony of the community, shattered by the reduction in demand within and outside the country post the relaxation of the lockdown.
FISHERIES POLICY CREATES APPREHENSION
The coastline of Tamil Nadu spreads both in the eastern and western coast and is known for its rich biodiversity. The coast is also known for coastal habitats like mangroves, corals, seaweeds, seagrass beds, salt marshes, mudflats, and sand dunes. The state ranked third in marine fish production during 2017-18, while the foreign exchange earned stood at Rs 5,591 crore in 2018-19 from exports as per the State State Fisheries Policy note 2020-21.
The state government, led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) continues to claim its ardent support for the traditional fishing rights of the fishermen, but the policies of the Union government are alleged of being framed in favour of the corporates.
The National Fisheries Policy, 2020, has accommodated the marine fisheries, inland fisheries and aquaculture along with mariculture, which had separate policy documents until recently.
“The new policy fails to consider the livelihood issues of the fishing community and concentrates only on the commercial aspects, that too is weighed heavily in favour of the corporates,” alleged R Loganathan of the Tamil Nadu Fisherman Workers’ Union.
“This policy would hand over the fishing industry to the corporates. The reduction in jurisdiction of the states to 12 nautical miles will result in centralisation of power and the voice of the fishermen will diminish in the near future,” Loganathan added.
Also read: Tamil Nadu Fishermen Face Double Whammy as Fishing Ban Follows Lockdown
Licencing would be made mandatory to fish beyond the 12 nautical mile boundary, which would push the traditional fishermen away from the industry. The cost involved in obtaining the licences and further encouragement for mariculture will reduce their scope in fishing. Further, the entrance of large corporates would also result in large vessels depleting the resources at a very fast pace.
The fishing community across Tamil Nadu continue to oppose the policy, which they allege was pushed under the guise of the COVID-19 induced lockdown.
LOOMING THREAT OF THE SAGARMALA PROJECT
The Sagarmala project aims to set up new mega ports, modernising India's existing ports, developing Coastal Economic Zones (CEZs) and coastal economic units, enhancing port connectivity via road, rail, multi-modal logistics parks, pipelines & waterways and promoting coastal community development.
The project plans to exploit the 7,517 km long coastline and 14,500 km of potentially navigable waterways. “This project could lead to massive loss of the resources and damage to the ecosystem,” Loganathan claimed.
“The linking of inland waterways is highly dangerous as the sea water intrusion will endanger the river water and the groundwater table. The rivers in Tamil Nadu are rainfed and hence the linking could lead to salinisation of the river water, affecting agriculture directly,” he added.
The fisher folk have been alleging the Sagarmala project and Blue economy (based on exploitation of marine and coastal resources) of legitimising the encroachment of sea and the resources by the corporates. One such project, the establishment of transshipment container terminal in Kanyakumari has been stopped owing to concerted effort of the fisherfolk and farmers.
Also read: Fisherfolk Fear Corporatisation Through Maritime Fisheries Bill
While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be keen on executing the project, the incumbent AIADMK is against it. A large section of the fisherfolk had voted in favour of the AIADMK on previous occasions, but the party may witness a change of fortunes this time.
The apprehension of the community cannot be neglected as they were not engaged in any dialogues before implementing many schemes along the coastline including the dedicated shipping corridor.
LIVELIHOOD ISSUES REMAIN UNATTENDED
The increase in the price of diesel in the last six years has taken a severe toll on the fishermen. With reduced demand within the country and for exports, the community is staring at increased expenditure and reduction in income.
“The diesel price has increased by around Rs 20/ in the last one year. This effectively means that a fishing boat has to incur an additional expense of Rs 2 lakh per month for the 10,000 litres diesel consumed for the trips. With decreasing demand, we are facing severe financial constraints,” a fisherman from Chennai said.
The community has been demanding to bring diesel within the ambit of the GST, to lower the prices.
The community also alleges a history of neglect by the Union and state governments instead of executing big promises made during the elections. The welfare board setup for the fishermen is inactive and the state government distributed Rs 1,000 for three months through the cooperative societies during the lockdown. But, the lockdown was followed by the fishing ban.
The students from the fisherfolk community suffered a massive setback after the online and televised classes became the order of the day after the lockdown began. The lack of smartphones and inefficient televised classes forced them out of getting access to education. The reopening of schools, at least in the next academic year may not succeed in attracting all the students back to its fold.
A variety of factors, from policies of the Union government, ably supported by the AIADMK led state government have adversely affected the fishing community in the last four years. While, the BJP-AIADMK alliance suffered a literal rout in the 2019 general elections, the palpable discontent with the Union and state governments among fisherfolk is likely to be reflected in the polling scheduled for April 6.