Kolkata: In the wee hours of July 14, a fishing trawler called MV Haimabati was returning to Frasergunj port after catching fish in the Bay of Bengal area. However, rough weather near the Jambudweep island led to the capsizing of the trawler. Only two out of the 12 fishermen on board could survive, rescued by people from other trawlers. Nine fishermen who were sleeping in the lower deck died, while one is still missing.
Sukumar Dan, a fisherman, told NewsClick that such trips to the bay area are dangerous but lucrative considering the restrictions on inland fishing due to the lockdown. After a fishing trip, the owner of a trawler typically gets 40% of the money earned, while 60% is divided among the staff of 10-12 people on the trawler.
Aftermath of Cyclone Yaas
The livelihood of the fishing community of the region has suffered in the aftermath of cyclone Yaas, which hit the coast in May 2021.
According to Debasish Barman, general secretary of West Bengal Fishermen’s Association, due to the cyclone and the consequent high tide in four districts (East Medinipur, South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas, and Howrah), a total of 31 blocks have been affected and pisciculture practised across more than lakhs of bighas of water bodies has been hampered.
Barman said fish worth an estimated Rs 300- 400 crore was swept away by the cyclone. The intrusion of saline water into water bodies spanning over 50,000 bighas has worsened the plight of the fishing community. About 3,500 small fishing boats have been destroyed and more than 400 big fishing nets were swept away, along with five trawlers in the havoc wreaked by the cyclone.
Over the past one year, at least six incidents of trawlers capsizing have been reported in which 32 fishermen have lost their lives. Twelve fishermen lost their lives in other incidents, including getting mauled to death by tigers in the area.
The Fishing Sector
In the past 10 years, fishermen from the lower castes in West Bengal have been ousted from the fishing bodies, say several experts. Under the 34-year -rule of the Left Front, the state was known to among the topmost in inland fishing. However, with the ousting of traditional fishing communities in Bengal, states like Maharashtra seem to be taking a lead in fish production.
In West Bengal, over 27 lakh 67 thousand fishermen are now staring at livelihood threat as cooperative laws are being loosened, in violation of the West Bengal Fisheries Act, 1984, say experts. Fishermen allege that this is an attempt to open up the sector to the “inexperienced” persons affiliated to the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC). There seems to be an attempt to open the sector to the corporates as well, they feel.
Until 2010, there were 1,292 fishermen’s cooperatives in the state comprising traditional fisherman communities and 20 Central cooperatives of fishermen, which are now in dire straits.
As far as the state-level cooperatives are concerned, there are allegations that contracts are being awarded to individuals posing as cooperatives instead of traditional cooperative societies.
According to Mangal Pramanik, an inland fisherman, a “fight” is going on in the state in which traditional fishing communities like Majhi, Malo, Bauri, and Parmanik are losing ground to influential outsiders, who are “all ruling party hooligans''.
Experts blame neoliberal policies being followed by the TMC government as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government for facilitating the ouster of the traditional fishing communities. As a result, fisherfolk are being forced to work as agrarian or construction workers, and some have been even forced to move to other states, such as Kerala, in search of employment.
Ram Das, president of the Fishermen’s Federation and All India Fishers and Fisheries Workers' Federation (AIFFWF), South 24 Parganas, alleged: “Trawlers are being looted regularly in connivance with the pirates and goons of the ruling party of the state. Most of these hooligans have created free zones for their operations in both North and South 24 Parganas districts and in the vast belt of Sundarbans.”
Das said the recently imposed regulations had also harmed the fishing community and that the submerging of agricultural land into coastal pisciculture , with former fisherman and owners of small boats now engaged as labourers of the pisciculture farms, had complicated matters.
He claims most of these farms has been started by the TMC strongmen, especially in the coastal areas of Medinipore district and in South 24 Parganas Minakhan area. The AIFFWF has coined the slogan ‘water bodies for fishnet owners’ to support the fishing community in their struggle.
Speaking with NewsClick, AIFFWF state president Tushar Ghosh alleged that BJP and TMC governments at the Centre and state, respectively, were promoting “anti-fishermen” policies and are responsible for redistributing water bodies among their own party strongmen as well as disbanding the cooperatives.
Many fishermen and fishery workers pointed out that production of fish in the state had been rapidly falling due to the policies of the government. They said whenever fishermen have tried to raise their voices against the unfair redistribution of the water bodies, the administration and the police have acted as one against fishermen and “false complaints” have been registered against them.