The State government’s decision to stop the distribution of subsidised kerosene permits to traditional fishermen whose canoe engines’ age has crossed 12 years is hailed as an effective step to curb a “middlemen’s mafia,” but it leaves many who brave the seas in a fix.

The 12-year cut-off was announced in a government order dated May 20 issued by the Fisheries Department — a move to prevent middlemen from procuring subsidised kerosene.

Under the Kerala Marine Fishermen Regulation Act, every outboard engine and canoe is first registered with the Fisheries Department. The registration certificate is then taken to the Civil Supplies Department for procuring the subsidised kerosene permit.

Fishermen who often find it difficult to make both ends meet mortgage their kerosene permit to ‘middlemen,’ which ultimately leads to a debt trap. The middlemen use these permits to procure subsidised kerosene and sell it back to fishermen in the black market. Thus, the fishermen find themselves in a vicious circle where their own permits are misused to get kerosene, which they are forced to buy paying exorbitant rates.

The May-20 order is supposed to be a second phase of a November 20, 2012, government order in which the government pointed out that there are “huge irregularities in the present system of distribution of kerosene to fishermen through the PDS” in the State.

The same order had also transferred the task of distribution of kerosene from the Civil Supplies Department to Matsyafed, an apex body of 666 primary-level fishermen’s cooperative societies.

“The 12-year cut-off is a considered decision on the part of the government to prevent fraudsters from buying kerosene at a subsidy and sell it in the black market. Besides, engines too have a life period of only so many years. So it is a good step,” T. Peter, president, Kerala Swathanthra Matsya Thozhilali Federation, said.

Government sources said that of about 20,000 engines brought for verification for procuring fresh kerosene permits across the State recently, 60 per cent are believed to be above 12 years old.

In Kozhikode district itself, after the May-20 order, the number of permits recommended for renewal came down by 30 per cent. Of the 2,092 kerosene engines cleared in a joint verification done by Matsyafed, Fisheries, and Civil Supplies Departments on November 18, 2012, only 1,378 later survived the 12-year cut-off mark.

But there is a flip side to this government move.

For traditional fishermen like Suleiman P., who goes out to sea from Beypore in a flimsy fibre canoe powered by a decade-old outboard engine, the May-20 order spells impending doom.

“The government is right. There is a black market. But there are many of us, genuine fishermen who work at the sea using old 8 horsepower engines. We cannot afford to buy a new one. We spend half our earnings on engine repairs. Instead of bringing out a blanket order like this, why cannot they determine the life span of each engine and stamp it on our kerosene permits? That means we will not be caught by surprise like this,” he said.

Radhakrishnan T. of Puthiyappa harbour puts it in a nutshell: “On one side, the black-marketeers squeeze us using our own kerosene permits, on the other, the government cracks down on us saying we are the kerosene mafia.”

He said the verification process of engines for renewal of kerosene permits is largely a “farce.”

“Middlemen come with engines, of which they have changed the chassis numbers to match the kerosene permits. The permits are those mortgaged by fishermen in dire straits. Such permits are pooled by middlemen and presented for verification. There are 20-year-old permits still alive. Mafia has become a parallel system. They are actually eating into the fishermen’s income,” he said.

Only 125 litres

The State government distributes 2,532 kilolitres of kerosene through the Public Distribution System (PDS) for fishing purposes. A total of 125 litres of kerosene is given per permit.

Kerosene is distributed to the fishermen at a subsidised rate of Rs.12 a litre. In the black market, a litre of kerosene costs up to Rs.75.

“For us, 125 litres of kerosene is only sufficient for three days. Is that enough to earn a livelihood? We are forced to buy from the black market,” K.K. Rajesh, a leader of a local action council for fishermen’s welfare.

T.V. Ramesan, District Manager, Matsyafed, Kozhikode, agrees that the monthly quota of 2,532 kilolitres may not be sufficient to meet the State’s fishing community’s requirement for subsidised kerosene.

“For one, the number of engines and permits has increased over the years. The more the permits, lesser will become the kerosene allotment per permit. Secondly, the engine capacity has increased to 40 HP, which means more fuel consumption. We hope the 12-year cap will ensure the cancellation of the bogus permits and lead to increase in individual allotment,” Mr. Ramesan explained.

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