The perils of modernisation
NEW DELHI - The international solidarity of the working class is no more than a nostalgic memory for the Left today.
It was, therefore, quite a pleasant surprise when we heard that joint protests by the Indian and
Dutch public have compelled the Netherlands Government to suspend the supply to India of shrimp trawlers which posed a threat to the livelihood of the traditional fishermen along India's 5,600-kilometre coastline.
Earlier, the National Forum for Catamaran and Countryboat Fishermen's Rights and Marine Wealth - an organisation representing 13 traditional fishermen's unions In India along With the India Committee of the Netherlands - an organisation which had been working among the Dutch workers to evoke solidarity with Indian working class movements - had protested against the Dutch Government's decision to give loans to the Indian Government to enable the latter to buy mechanised shrimp trawlers.
They pointed out that introduction of such mechanised trawlers for fishing had been adversely affecting the 6.5 million traditional fishermen who account for about 60% of India's total fish production, These trawlers are, encroaching upon the shallow waters of the sea which were traditionally the preserve of the gill [....] nets, handline and similar other indigenous fishing systems.
The controversy over mechanised trawlers is a part of the general debate all over the Third
World about the advantages of modernisation over traditional skills. In India, fishing after agriculture, is the most important segment of our rural economy. "There is rice in the fields and fish in the water" - this traditional Thai proverb epitomised the rural self-sufficiency that prevailed in the past, not only in Thailand, but many other Asian countries, including India.
But modernisation in the form of mechanised boats with capacity to increase the catch in a shorter time has often led to the ouster Of traditional fishermen who find it difficult to compete with the machines.
It has to be admitted at the same time, however, that improved devices are necessary to tap the
seafood of the Indian Ocean and increase this important source of protein both for domestic consumption and exports. How do we reconcile the need for modernisation with the requirements of the traditional fishermen?
A resume of the history of modernisation in Indian fishing reveals the dichotomy between professed policies and their implementation. In the 1950s, the development of fish preservation techniques, like the production and widespread use of ice, and growing urban markets, led to the introduction of mechanised boats, nylon nets and other advanced kinds of fishing gear. This gave rise to a new breed of urban-based, large-scale traders, financiers and businessmen engaged in handling, icing, packing, storing, transporting and marketing the increased supplies of fish. These middlemen siphoned off for themselves a large part of the transactions, widening the gap between high prices at the consumers' end and low prices paid to the small fishermen.
During the 1960s and 1970s, tbe development process in the Indian fishing industry came to be marked by market-oriented, profit-inspired and elite-dominated trends. Entrepreneurs with high investments and a high level of dependence on commercial energy moved into the scene. Exports went up from a mere 15 million kilograms in 1965-66 to 63 milliOn kilograms in 1977-78. The number of mechanised boats in operation during this period were about 7,000. Although the operational cost of a country boat was estimated at one-fourth that of a mechanised one, more and more mechanised boats began to appear, the hike in oil prices notwithstanding.
While the sUccess story of India's fishing industry and exports has been well documented, less documented are its grave socio-economic implications. During all these years, the small traditional fishermen have been pauperised. More ominous have been the adverse effects on the fish ecology. The shallow waters form one vast nursery of small fish where they lay eggs. But when the trawlers go to catch prawns in the shallow waters, they drag heavy weights in the sea bed to squeeze out the prawns. During this continuous dragging operation all the eggs and small fish are squeezed and killed, reducing the sea bed to a barren sandy desert. The dragging of weights also raises the sediments causing turbidity of waters, which, along with the noise, drives away and deflects the new fish shoals from deeper waters which want to enter the coast for feeding and spawning.
An analysis of the figures released by the Goa Directorate of Fisheries would indicate how fast fishing in that area is reaching the saturation point. In 1964-65, the catch by traditional fishermen was 16,000 tons and the mechanised catch was negligible, there being only four Government trawlers. Export was just five tons.
In 1968-69, after five years of mechanisation, the traditional catch remained steady at 17,000 tons, the mechanised catch rose to 1,500 tons by 31 trawlers and prawn export increased to 95 tons. In 1973-74, the traditional catch was down to 15,000 tons the mechanised catch rose to 3,000 tons, the number of trawlers shot up to 200 and prawn export soared to 663 tons.
Thus, dUring the decade of mechanisation from 1964 to 1974, while the population of Goa increased by about 20 per cent, the qUantity of fish available in the markets remained static. Prices soared fast. The Japanese, Europeans and Americans were supplied with the choicest Goa prawns, while the Goans themselves starved.
Towards the end of the 1970s, the availability of prawns in the shallow waters of Goas was shrinking. Leading exporters were complaining that they had reached the upper limit of exploitable shrimp resources and that any further increases in fishing effort would bring continuing diminishing returns.
Recognising both the disturbing effects on fish ecology and the growing impoverishment of the traditional fishermen who were being ousted from their reserves by mechanised trawlers, the Indian Government enacted the Fisheries Rule in 1974, which prohibited fishing with mechanised craft in the inland waters of creeks, rivers and the sea along the coast upto a depth of five fathoms (on an average about 2km from the shore).
Shrimp, prawn and other high-priced species are found in the inshore, the offshore and the deep sea. Since the trawlers have sufficient engine power (from 36 HP to 120 HP) to venture deep, they could move beyond 20 fathoms and more into the sea to catch shrimps and prawns. But the trawler owners find it more convenient and less risky to poach in the shallow waters. The Fisheries Rule is feebly enforced allowing trawler owners to encroach into the shallow waters with relative impunity.
The protest against the Indo-Dutch trawler deal should be viewed in the context. Development, as currently conceived and practised by our Government officials, tends to gravitate, through its own logic, towards interests and objectives irrelevant to those of rural development and of the great majority of the people. The joint pressure by Indian fishermen's unions and Dutch activists that compelled the Netherlands Government to have second thoughts on selling trawlers to India could be an important step in international efforts at reversing the trend of elite-oriented modernisation. In fact, as early as May 1978, representatives of small fishermen of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan gathered at a seminar in Bangkok and called for "progressive elimination of privately owned trawler boats and the issue of licences instead to genuine small fishermen's co-operatives." They also warned that such co-operatives "must strictly observe laws which set a limit in terms of the area of fishing, power capacity and gross tonnage so that inshore fisheries can be safe-guarded."
It is obvious that new policies are needed to redress this gross imbalance by re-allocating fishing zones between the traditional sector and the capitalist sector as well as by gradual training in modernisation of the traditional fishermen. These need to be combined with extensive development of the aqua culture potential now so grossly underutilised so that it can enhance the fishermen's income and provide substantial employment and livelihood to the growing army of landless agricultural labour.