A MATSYAFED pilot project helps a section of Kerala fishermen break free from the kerosene mafia and earn more. But there is a flipside.

At Puthiyappa harbour on Id day, K. Padmahasan is tinkering with his boat’s engine. Dead fish float about in the water.

Small groups of men sit around their card games in the shade of an outdoor hall overlooking the docked vessels.

Suddenly a roar rents the air and Padmahasan breaks into a smile. The engine is his “life,” he says.

Three years ago, the man was the first to be signed on in the district by the Kerala State Co-operative Federation for Fisheries Development Ltd. (Matsyafed) for a pilot project across Kerala.

Under the project, six diesel-powered inboard engines were introduced in Kozhikode (25 in State), as a lastditch effort by the federation to free the fishing community from the debt traps laid by the kerosene mafia. It was also a preventive measure

to save the industry from rising fuel costs and a defective public distribution system (PDS).

The Matsyafed’s study titled ‘Economics of Prevalent Fishing Units in Kozhikode’ had unveiled alarming statistics on the fisherman’s fuel expenses. Fuel ate up 66.45 per cent of the value of a fisherman’s catch annually, the study revealed. An ordinary fisherman spends Rs.3.13 lakh on kerosene and maintenance annually.

He requires 7 kilolitres of kerosene a year, almost all of which he buys on the black market.

Black market rates

On the black market, a litre of kerosene costs Rs.75 this year. Last year, it was Rs.40. Every fishing trip would require 50 litres of kerosene and two litres each of oil and petrol to mix with.

On the PDS, a fisherman gets 125 litres a month at a subsidised rate of Rs.12 per litre. But this hardly lasts three days, forcing them to turn to the mafia for fuel. A Government Order by the Fisheries Department on November 20, 2012, had acknowledged “huge irregularities in the present system of distribution of kerosene to fishermen through the PDS” in the State.

The diesel-powered inboard engines, Matsyafed found, would cut fuel costs by one-third and solve the scarcity of kerosene. A fishing run would cost just 10 litres in diesel. “There are over 2 lakh active fishermen in Kerala and 20,000 outboard engines operating on kerosene. If they convert to diesel, fuel scarcity can be solved to a large extent,” T.V. Ramesan, District Officer, Matsyafed, said. Padmahasan says he spends only Rs.33 for every Rs.100 spent by others operating kerosene engines.

No repairs

But there is a flipside. The Matsyafed did not even employ a local mechanic in the district to repair the engines.

“The engine develops problems frequently and the only mechanic available is in Alappuzha. Till he comes, our engines lie idle. It was a perfectly good plan to beat the kerosene mafia, but there was no backup. People saw this and refused to get roped in,” P. Sadanandan, one of the six volunteers, said.

They recount instances when the engine would fail mid-sea. “People would advise me to go back to the kerosene engine,” Padmahasan said.

Yet, undeterred by criticism, the State government is all set to import 100 more such units in the next three months for distribution.

The officials are hopeful of “a revolution of sorts.”

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