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A Sea of Fury: a brief history of four decades of struggle of the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF)


08 / 2011

In this paper, I attempt to present the ongoing resistance of the marine fishworkers to protect the stretch of land adjoining the sea, as it is this stretch of land along with the waters that stretch beyond that are their source of food, of work, of leisure, of community building, of relating with their people and their past, and of their imagination of themselves and the world.

The documented literature on fisherfolk movements in India have so far elaborated their perception of the sea and marine resources, efforts and results of the unionizing of fishworkers, and perceptions towards the technological changes introduced by the state to the fisheries sector since the 1950’s when mechanization was introduced following an Indo-Norwegian project. Studies have elaborated on the consequences of these on inequities in income and sustainability of marine resources. Some work has also been done on the need for reforms in the fisheries sector akin to agricultural land reforms.

This paper deals with the transformation of the Indian coastline since the 1970’s and the response of fisher communities to this transformation. I have attempted to present the nature of the transformation and what this means for the fishworker community in general and therefore their reasons for resisting this change. This period of transformation that I speak about in this paper coincides with the 40 year old National Fishworker Forum, a federation of state level trade unions, the first being Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and now with members from all the maritime states of India.

Coastal lands- The zone of transition

This is the cusp between land and sea. It is the zone of continued natural transition, of creation of beaches and their breakdown- constantly in a state of flux. This is called an Ecotone. It is very visually appealing with its sand dunes, expansive beaches and rocky promontories jutting into the waters. This meeting place of several physical and chemical characteristics makes it a rich site for the thriving of plant and animal species diversity. This ecotone supports huge colonies of corals, sea grass beds and tracts of mangrove forests that are the spawning and breeding grounds of a myriad number of species. This zone is also open to catastrophic natural events like tidal surges and cyclones.

The importance of this zone to the human population is reflected in that two-thirds of world’s largest cities are located here, more than half the world’s population lives on the coast, two-thirds of global fish catch and nearly half of the global tourism earnings comes from here. Globally, fisheries is only second to the IT sector in foreign exchange earnings. The fishing waters are zero investment productive areas. Of the entire potential marine fish catch in India, 58% is to be found in the 0-50m depth area from the shoreline. Upto 75% of India’s fish catch comes from the coasts.

India’s 8000 kilometre coastline is one of the most biodiverse and unique ecosystems in the world, the East coast being distinctly different from the west and an altogether different coastline in the islands of the Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep. Gujarat has the longest coastline of 1700 kms and vast intertidal areas stretching to several tens of kilometers. For a country like India, this ecotone that brings together terrestrial, marine and human built environments together, is very significant.

Fishers- Life on the edge

Worldwide, 28.5 million people, men and women, were estimated to be working in fishing and aquaculture in 1990, more than double the numbers who were employed in the sector in 1970. As per the last Marine Fisheries Census in 2005 in India, there were 3,202 marine fishing villages and 756,212 households—a total of 3.52 million people—along mainland India’s coastline of 6002 km. Nearly half of this population (over 1.6 million people) is engaged in active fishing and fishery-related activities. The maximum number of marine fishing villages are in Orissa (641), followed by Tamil Nadu (581), Andhra Pradesh (498), Maharashtra (406) and West Bengal (346).

With many self-innovated craft and gear combinations, they practice what is a highly skilled profession. The fishing sector is a driver of the rural economy in the coastal states. This was evident in the post tsunami period when the fishing had stopped and this has a chain reaction on the entire economy of the tsunami hit states. The sights we see on the coast reflect how we, those inland, live. The coasts receive all our muck and waste through rivers. Due to a number of factors, mostly environmental, the catch per unit effort for both traditional artisanal and mechanized fishing is on the decline. John Kurien, an expert on fisheries management, refers to fishing as the last profession because anyone can fish in the sea as the waters are an open access resource.

The fisher communities have unique social and cultural institutions that govern their life, and decision making. These are caste, kinship and clan specific. Some of the institutions in the Coromandel coast, the coast of north Kerala, Maharashtra and Gujarat have been studied as they still exist and determine management and use of coastal and marine space. But these are breaking down in other parts as they are governed by modern institutions of governance. In some parts of the coast such as in Tamil Nadu, many fishing hamlets still find no representation in the gram panchayats. Literacy rates are low in these regions, connectivity to the hinterland used to be poor in most areas. Irregular electricity and water supply is not uncommon. Women fishworkers who wade in waist polluted deep waters are the poorest, and the most susceptible to ill-health.

The marine fishworker community is not an organised vote bank. They are spread over 80 constituencies and amounting roughly to only upto 5% of the total population in each. Not a single coastal village is Hindi-speaking (the national language).

The contested zone

The access to the sea- the fishing grounds, is from the coast. These lands are also integral to every fishing community as the primary processing of the fish catch and the maintenance of the artisanal craft and gear are done here. Boats are berthed on these beaches, repairing of nets, drying of fish and even selling are a common sight here.

Most importantly, the lands adjoining the sea-front, are critical for the housing of fishing communities. For these sea-faring families, reading the weather and the moods of the sea are critical to determine what their day at work will be like, far out at sea. The fisher-families from coastal areas like Kutch have their villages inland, but migrate several kilometers, with their families, to the sea front and stay in temporary shelters for months, and fish. A study done by colleagues shows that in Tamil Nadu, the average use of beach space for these activities is 3 times greater than the length of a coastal fishing village. But fisher families in most states have no individual land titles. So they are especially vulnerable to being displaced as the uses to which coastal lands are put to, increase.

This makes our coastline a highly contested space. Tourist facilities and private beach villas vie for this space due to their natural beauty. Vast stretches of these lands have been generously leased to Port Trusts and harbours for trade. Large industries and power plants have been located on the coast since the 1960’s.

The struggle to resist the privatisation and pollution of the coast took place alongside the resistance to the impacts of technological advancements in the fisheries sector itself. The process of improvements in fishing craft in the form of mechanisation led to conflicts between the artisanal fishers and mechanised and trawl boat operators. Though seperate fishing zones were demarkated in some states, in practice, transgressions were aplenty. The ensuing clashes turned violent on several occasions in the 70’s in different places in South India, causing artisanal fishers to form groups and seek remedy through regulation. Many such groups came together in Chennai to demand for a regulation in fisheries for environmental and livelihood reasons. They called themselves the National Forum of Catamaran and Country Boat Fishermen’s Rights and Marine Wealth. Their first Chairman was Mathany Saldanha, a Goan school teacher who was leading the fishworkers of the state against the polluting factory of Zuari Chemicals and several hotels on Goa’s tourist beaches.

For about a decade, this organisation built itself up part by part in each of the maritime states, bringing small groups of artisanal fishworkers under a national federation of independent trade unions, called the National Fishworker Forum (NFF). State units of the Forum, formally established in 1978, carried out investigations that pointed to destructive fishing practices and also pollution impacts in the Damodar valley command area, in Balasore and Ganjam, in Chennai and Navi Mumbai.

In the summer of 1989, NFF organised a coastal yatra of one group that marched from West Bengal to Kanyakumari and another group from Kutch, Gujarat to Kanyakumari. The slogan was ‘Protect water, protect life’. During the march, 500 major polluting units, illegal encroachments by industrial units, commercial aquaculture and displacement of coastal villages were mapped. When the marches reached Kanyakumari, the first words the non-tamilians learnt were ‘Kudankulam anumanilayam vende venda’ (We don’t want the Kudankulam nuclear power plant). Twenty one of the protestors received bullet injuries in clashes with the state police on May Day. A national protest against the appropriation of the coast began then. It was clear then that a mechanism was needed to protect the coast from unregulated development.

At the same time, another threat that the fishworkers feared was the opening up of the Indian waters to foreign fishing vessels. In 1989, 2600 licenses were issued to foreign fleets by the Narasimha Rao government, despite stormy debates in Parliament and a walkout by L. K Advani and A.B Vajpayee.

Coastal protection

In the following years, interesting developments took place as a result of which a framework for regulating the development of coastal lands emerged. In 1981, Mrs Indira Gandhi had written to all state governments on the importance of protecting beaches for environmental, social and aesthetic purposes. Beach Guidelines were issued by a newly formed Ministry of Environment in 1987. Following this, a notification was drafted under the Environment (Protection) Act by an animal-lover environment minister, a group of well-meaning bureaucrats and nature enthusiasts. The Coastal Regulation Zone Notification of 1991 drafted by them primarily sought to restrict the use of the coast by activities which did not require foreshore facilities. This notification was supported entirely by the artisanal fishworker groups as it gave them some legal tool with which to resist the privatisation and commercialisation of the coast. However, the protective clauses of the notification were subsequently watered down to a great extent.

When 70,000 hectares of fertile coastal agricultural lands that were being converted to aquaculture farms that poisoned coastal and marine areas on the east coast in the 1980’s, NFF approached the Supreme Court for relief. The Apex court banned industrial and intensive aquaculture under the clauses of the CRZ notification and ordered the demolition of these toxic ponds within 3 months. Except for some in Orissa, no farms were demolished. This order was nullified when a member of Parliament from Orissa, considered a progressive politician and a friend by the NFF introduced the Aquaculture Authority Bill in Parliament. The ponds were back, and this time they were legally permitted by a series of procedures.

NFF commissioned a survey in 1998 to map the CRZ violations along the east and west coast; 1836 gross violations were submitted to Ministry of Environment and Forests in charge of CRZ implementation. What came back in quick succession from the Ministry were five amendments mostly to deregulate the coast further and legitimize the violations.

As if to give evidence of its complete apathy for this community, several nuclear power installations are proposed or have been located on the coast. Bhavnagar, Jaitapur, Kalpakkam, Kakinada and Koodankulam. The Gulf of Kutch is marked to meet 70% of India’s oil requirement in next 40 years. The corals of the Gulf of Mannar are mined for cement, the mangroves of Pichavaram may have to be cut to allow for tourist facilities. There are proposals to open up uninhabited islands of the Andaman Sea for tourism. The 20 year infrastructure plan for Gujarat is to have a port every 20 kms, to export out material from five land locked states that it has entered into agreements with. Fishworkers in resistance against port projects have been killed in Gangavaram and in Umbergaon. The first two casualties in the Nandigram struggle in West Bengal, Bharat Mandal and Pushpen Mandal were part of NFF too. The SEZ that has been proposed here was to occupy 25 km of the coastal zone.

Who will survive this contest?

After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, hard engineering measures to stonewall the coasts are underway. These are known to make irreversible alterations to the coastal and beach ecology. Vast beaches, many of them turtles nesting grounds, have been taken up for the creation of shelter belts through casurina plantations. These are known to fall during cyclones. They are of little protection as compared to natural defense offered by sand dunes and mangroves. Since these cannot be planted or created everywhere, they must be protected where they exist.

One of the most dangerous steps that was attempted was movement of the fishworkers away from the coast. In the pretext of their security from a tsunami like situation, efforts were made to relocate them upto 20 km inland from the sea. A Government Order in Tamil Nadu, which sought to systematically resettle tsunami victims away from the coast was issued and had to be withdrawn when pressure was brought to bear on the state. In states like Kerala, with a densely populated coastline, the efforts, post tsunami should have prioritized housing rights on the coast over all other uses. This would have meant systematically decongesting the coast of activities that did not require foreshore facilities.

Despite all the limitations that the CRZ notification had, the fishworkers are sympathetic to this law. The law was amended more than 20 times in a span of fewer years. Each change brought it closer to becoming unimplementable and allowed for large scale commercial take over of the coasts. But the notification did carry a rudimentary acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of the sea, the coast and the fishworker.

Following the tsunami, many attempts were made to review and redraft a new law for the coast. The fishworkers in the states of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Orissa and Kerala took to the streets ever since the process for the new notification began as it was the most blatant form of regulatory capture. The new draft Coastal Management Zone notification that was put forward was essentially based on a 2005 report of a committee chaired by Dr M.S.Swaminathan. The report of this committee and subsequent internal drafts of the MoEF were discussed essentially with industry representatives and state governments. Ironically, even the authorities set up at national and state level for the implementation of the CRZ notification were not spoken to. It was after much protest that the MoEF decided to give a “consultative” ear to civil society organizations in 2007. The draft CMZ notification dated 1st May 2008 was opened for public comments on 13th May 2008 for a sixty day period. Following substantial protests even from state governments, the period for comments has extended.

It was only after May 2009 when Jairam Ramesh was made in charge of the Ministry of Environment that the deadlock between the government and the fisher groups could be altered. The Ministry organised a series of public consultations based on a draft notification and came up with a new draft after these discussions. This was not allowed to be passed as a notification as NFF maintained that the draft was not true to what the public discussions brought up. In December 2010, the Minister invited NFF representatives for a decisive round of negotiations. The idea was clearly to find common points so that a notification could be hammered out. After intense negotiations, the CRZ 2011 notification was introduced in January. Though this too is barely acceptable as a legal framework to the fisher communities, the attempt since then has been to work with the officials of the Ministry and come up with additional regulatory clauses that will give greater protection to the coast than what the CRZ 2011 offers.

It has been twenty years since coastal regulation came into force. The regulatory framework has so far not been able to stop the transformation of the coast into an ulcerated zone. This new phase where the fishworker unions and the government are in negotiation may hold the promise of a more precautionary based regulation of the coast. At least, that is the hope.

Key words

traditional fishing, fisherman, fishermen’s organization, trade union, civil society

, India


Environmental and social movements in India and Colombia


This article is available in French: Une mer de fureur : une brève histoire de la lutte du Forum National des Pêcheurs (NFF)

Manju Menon is a researcher who has been investigating and writing on the conflicts between environment and development in India. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi. She can be contacted at: manjumenon1975(@)

Read also Rohan D. MATHEWS, Fishworkers Movement in Kerala, India


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