April 23, 2020

COVID-19: Exemption of fisheries from lockdown ambits brings little hope to Odisha’s marine fishers

With no livelihood opportunity, marine fishers of Odisha suffer the most under lockdown due to COVID-19 outbreak. © Basudev Mahapatra

Marine fishers of Odisha foresee a worse that the present miserable life ahead despite exemption of fishery activities from the purviews of lockdown restrictions in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak, which has been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“Fishermen of the coastal villages are living a miserable life. And, with no opportunities to earn out of either fishing or wage labour, marine fishing community of the state is bound to face more hardship in coming days,” B. Chittama, noted leader of Odisha’s marine fisherwomen claimed.

Chittama, who leads the federation of about 150 groups of marine fisherwomen of Odisha called Samudram, lives in Arjipalli, a fishermen village on the Bay of Bengal coast, near Gopalpur of Odisha’s Ganjam district. “All our villagers have been sitting idle since the Janata curfew of March 22, followed by lockdown in the state from March 23. With no out any economic activity or income opportunity, most of us have no money to meet our daily needs like vegetables and groceries. Some have even incurred loans to make a survival.”

Insufficient relief from government

As the government provided 3 months’ advance ration under public distribution system (PDS) and Rs. 1000 each to all the beneficiaries for food and social security, the PDS card holders received rice and money to survive, for now. “What about those families who do not have a PDS card?” – asked 56-year-old Buli Dei from Arakhkuda village located between Bay of Bengal and the Chilika lake.

“At least 300 families from our village have been debarred from the list of beneficiaries under National Food Security Act. In absence of any support they are living under a lot of hardships. Thousands of such families live miserably in hundreds of fishing villages whose primary source of livelihood is marine fishing,” said Buli expressing her concern.

Even though the government of Odisha has announced special packages for welfare of wage labourers, construction workers, street venders etc. to benefit 1.64 crore people of the state's current population over 4.7 crore, the fishermen of the state feature nowhere in the list.

 “The fisher folks also survive on whatever they earn from daily fishing. It is quite similar to daily wage earners. Without fishing they have no other livelihood source. They should be considered for support against the loss of their livelihood,” urged Chittama highlighting the plights of fishermen during the lockdown across coastal villages of Odisha.

According to Prasanna Kumar Behera, President of Odisha Traditional Fish Workers’ Union, while the National Fish Workers Forum has appealed to the government of India to extend necessary survival support to fishermen, the issues have also been brought to the notice of Odisha government urging necessary action.

Exemption brings little hope

Although, the governments of India and Odisha have exempted fisheries and related operations from the purviews of lockdown in the wake of COVID-19, none in the sector sees any difference due to that.

Fishermen couldn’t go for fishing during the peak season due to first phase of the lockdown. Now the second phase of the lockdown coincided with beginning of the monsoon ban on marine fishing, imposed every year for conservation of marine fish species during the breeding season. The no fishing days have extended placing the marine fishing communities at utmost vulnerability, Behera noted.

“However, this monsoon ban shouldn’t affect livelihood of traditional fishermen as motorised and non-motorised boats upto 8.5 metre length are allowed for fishing activities in the territorial waters, within 12 nautical miles, about 22 KMs, off the Odisha coast,” Er. Smruti Ranjan Pradhan, Odisha’s Director of Fisheries, said. “The government has also allowed all associated activities like transportation, selling etc. during the second phase lockdown but by abiding to the basic safety and social distancing norms,” he added.

On the ground, realities are different from what is perceived and expected by the government with regard to fishing and the livelihood of coastal fisher population. While ensuring use of masks and sanitisers still remain an issue for the traditional fisher folks, selling their catch to traders is a bigger problem for the fisher folks, said Sumanta Kumar Biswal, president of Paradeep based Odisha Marine Fish Producers’ Association (OMFPA).

“We stopped fishing operations since March 22 fearing crowd at fishing base if operation continued. The initial catch that reached the base were sold at throwaway price as traders and buyers couldn’t come due to lockdown. So the trawler operators and fishermen had to face heavy loss,” he told.

Seafood processors, hotels and restaurants who procure a substantial chunk of marine fish catch are all closed during lockdown. Ice factories are also not operating to supply sufficient amount of ice for storage. Fisherwomen, who usually go to villages to sell fishes, are not allowed to enter any village because of the COVID-19 fear. So, distress sell has become the norm at all fishing bases. For example, on April 19, Pomfret category fishes were sold by fishermen at Rs.20 per Kg, cited Mangaraj Panda of United Artists’ Association, a Ganjam based non-profit, who also is advisor to the Samudram federation.

Export market uncertainties affected most of the seafood processing facilities. Countries stopped seafood export and import in the wake of COVID-19. “Our farmers didn’t raise prawn stocking which they should have done in the end of February or beginning of March because of lack of export opportunities. This has affected millions of people associated with the seafood industry,” Ramesh Mahapatra, Chairman of Magnum Sea Foods, a Bhubaneswar based seafood exporter, told.

Highlighting why exemption of fisheries and related activities from lockdown restrictions may not help fishing communities and businesses much, Mahapatra said that logistics, manpower and market situation in the wake of COVID-19 stand as major obstacles. “Even though government allowed processing plants to operate, getting labourers and the workers back at the plant have not been possible. While availing essential logistics and manpower is an issue, export market is also down. Cumulatively they all hamper the fishing industry and are going to affect the fishing communities badly,” he emphasised.

Longer fishing hiatus

Fisher villages around Olive Ridley marine turtle nesting sites face a longer fishing hiatus every year. They usually have to restrict their fishing activities since the month of November when mating season of the turtles begins. Restrictions continue for seven months till the month of May when the tiny turtle hatchlings emerge out of the nests in the coastal sands and venture into the sea to start their life as a marine species.

Under this ban for protection of the marine turtles during their breeding activities, trawlers and mechanised larger fishing boats are restricted to fish within 20 kilometers off the coasts that act as hosts to annual mass nesting activities by lakhs of Olive Ridley sea turtles. Beaches around Rushikulya, Devi and Dhamra River Mouths are Odisha’s known hosts of turtle mass nesting activities. So, hundreds of villages around these nesting sites restrict their fishing activities from November every year. Before the ban for turtle safety ends, the two-month long monsoon ban for conservation of fish population enters from April 15.

“Ultimately, fishing activity in villages around turtle mass nesting sites halts for a period of almost 8 months in a year. This, probably, is the longest annual hiatus in marine fishing,” Mangaraj Panda told. Rest of the year, from June 15 till the end of October, being the monsoon season, a number of low pressure days, extreme rainy days and cyclonic storms often result in a series of no fishing days for these fisher folks. This makes fishing an unviable economic activity forcing community youth to migrate to distant places or other states in search of work.

Long-term impact on fishing business

OMFPA president Biswal foresees many long term impacts of the lockdown on fishing communities and businesses. Welcoming the two month ban on marine fishing for conservation of fish species for sustainable fishery, his primary concern was on annual maintenance of boats and trawlers. “Usually, we consume these two months for our annual maintenance works and get ready for fishing by the end of the ban. But, this time due to the lockdown, we neither get the required manpower nor necessary equipment and spare parts are available to do all those works in time,” he told.

“This may delay fishing activities even after the lockdown is over, because we can’t venture into the sea without the annual maintenance works,” Biswal said expressing his worries.

At the community level, economic backbone of the fisher folks has already broken due to the lockdown disrupting fishing activities during the peak season. “They don’t have money to repair their boats and nets to quick start fishing after the monsoon ban which would push them to further financial hardships in the coming days,” Narayan Haldar, a fisherman from Kharinasi in Kendrapada district apprehended.

According to A. Kaleya, 45, of Ganjam’s Nolia Nuagaon, such a state of financial misery is bound to threaten food and nutrition security in the fishermen community. It may lead to more distress migration of youth and families in the coastal villages.

Solutions sought

Highlighting the gravity of the situation, Biswal urged that the government should make available both technical manpower and spare parts for maintenance of trawlers and mechanized boats before the end of the monsoon ban.

“We understand that government has declared lockdown for the benefit of people, to stop the lethal COVID-19 from spreading. However, it needs to ensure that no body dies hungry in a state of lockdown,” Arjun Behera, 60, of Arakhkuda village said. Leaders of the community have sought the government to come to the rescue of fisher folks and create opportunities at the earliest to ensure their survival and recovery from the current state of life.

“We are undergoing a critical time now and we apprehend more difficult time post lockdown. The government needs to come forward and save us from all lockdown induced miseries,” Chittama urged.

An edited version of the piece first appeared on the FirstPost.com.

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