Travelling along the southeastern coast of India, one sees unutilised fishing boats docked along the open harbours. They are emptied just like the Bay of Bengal is emptied of fish. The reduction of fishes is due to a few tangible factors. Overfishing due to the mechanising of fishing, and the increasing depletion of a mature fish population which would allow sustainable reproduction. This is set in the background of a declining environmental habitat for the fishes, as severe pollution from surrounding factories and rising water surface temperature has disturbed the biodiversity and ruined the much needed plankton. These factors have dramatically reduced the yield of fishermen and pushed them harder to raise their nets with a bigger haul. Consequently, this creates a negative loop with further reductions in yield and forcing more fishermen to make up for the lost yield by turning to fish for a larger variety of fishes.
The lack of fish and the shrinkage in size has plummeted the market price, thus minimising the profit margin and negatively affecting the finances of fishermen households as living wages of fishermen have diminished. Furthermore, the economic development over the past decade has not been beneficial to the fishing industry. A local fisherman, Kumaran (43), explains that inflation has not followed the same patterns for the fishing industry as for other industries and forms of commerce, e.g. the price of gold has gone up eightfold whilst for fish only fivefold in the past 20 years.
Many of the problems the fishermen are facing in the region go beyond their power. Efforts from the government’s side to tackle the problem of overfishing are there, but are few and rarely enforced. At the beginning of 2019, the government banned the use of trawlers (trawlers are medium-sized ships with nets that sweep the ocean floors) as a measure to stop the depletion of the ocean floors (Hemalatha, 2019). The director of the Bay of Bengal Programme Inter-Governmental Organisation, Yugraj Yadava, explains
“It was agreed that there is a need to reduce the number of trawlers for two main reasons. One that there is excess catch and two to reduce the damage on the ocean bed and to the ecology that bottom trawlers cause” (ibid.). Yet, there are still many trawlers sweeping the ocean floors of the vast Bengal bay (ibid.). The enforcement of the ban lacks proper scrutinising measures, thus making the ban purposeless.
Another example of Indian government efforts is the enforcement of annual fishing bans as an effort to help the fish population recover. The annual 61-day ban along the coast of Tamil Nadu “has aided in the recovery of habitat and regeneration of stock through recruitment” (Amali Infantina et al., 2020:1), yet the fishermen are left to dry on the vast shore. Minimal governmental substitutes are given, and not without struggle. “[T]he ban relief amount was revised from Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 [approximately 26 USD to 67 USD] per ration card for 60 days. It was also observed that the ban relief amount is usually disbursed only after the ban period in late June. Infantina et al. (2017) recommended that the ban relief amount needed to be enhanced from Rs 2,000 per family to Rs 9,000 [approximately 26 USD to 120 USD] (@ Rs 200 [2,6 USD] * 45 days) at the suggestions of the fishers.” ((ibid.:6) But the relief efforts are not enough to compensate for the accumulated economic generation the fishing industry produces, “2.04 million man-days were lost during the closed season accounting for a total labour income loss of Rs 1638.2 million [21,8 million USD] to the mechanised fishing sector for the entire Tamil Nadu” (ibid.:5). To put it simply, no sustainable solution has been given to compensate for the reduction in profits and minimized household income.
The financial despair has forced the fishermen to employ somewhat questionable measures. Essentially, some of the fishermen have resorted to fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters (Palk Strait) as the schools of fish are greater and more diverse there than in the Indian waters. The fishermen are exposing themselves to criminal conduct as they are fishing outside of Indian maritime borders. If caught the fishermen can be imprisoned for three months. Despite the risks of getting caught, the fishermen still feel that they have to fish there as there is no other choice for them to make their livelihood. The household income is often single-sourced and highly reliant on the man, often a fisherman, putting families in desperate financial situations.
Kudumbam, a local NGO, has increased its efforts to help the fishing community in diversifying their sources of income. Central to this plan: WOMEN! The organisation has established micro-loan programs, called joint liability groups (JLG), where women have the ability to identify possible business ventures the women (themselves) deem to be financially viable. The JLG follows a communal focused model, where common responsibility of the loans allows a sense of financial stability and minimizes the perception of the debt burden. Moreover, it has opened banks to be more entrusting in women’s financial abilities and capabilities.
In a small village outside Tharangambadi, formerly known as Tranquebar, we meet a group of women. Women who are married to fishermen and have first-hand experience in the decline of fish, as wallets become thinner and dinner tables have become smaller. More importantly, these women are participating in the JLG and explain how the micro-loans have allowed them to venture outside of the sale of fish and find other income sources. It is common to see the women open their own petty shops, buy animals like cows, chickens, goats, small pieces of land for framing or even renovate houses/homes for rental. These efforts have resulted in some financial relief, as the household now has more than one source of income. It has made life slightly better as they now have the ability to think long term and find other treasures on dry land instead of depending on the fruits of the ocean.
The addition of the micro-loans have helped and given the communities as a small leverage, unfortunately, it does not solve the whole problem they are facing.