A scheme ostensibly aimed at helping Indian fishermen is allowing foreign vessels to exploit the country's marine resources unchecked.

Many fishermen allege that the Central government's attitude towards fisheries in this country is defined by their physical distance from the shore, and that no one in Delhi has a clue about what is happening to and on India's seas. This might sound like harsh criticism at first, but working on the coast with people whose lives depend on it leaves you depressingly wiser.

Letter of Permit scheme

Globally, one fishery in four around the world has collapsed in the past 50 years because unsustainable fishing practices have depleted the catch everywhere. The relentless search for better catch has led to rampant illegal fishing across oceans. Predictably, this has meant a plunder of marine resources of countries like India by those who are technically advanced like Taiwan. Add to that the insatiable market for sashimi and sushi and we have a situation not very different from a gold rush.

Any government's reaction to such a situation should be to safeguard the interests of its citizens and restrict or end practices that might be detrimental to the interests of its fishermen. The government currently runs a scheme that actually manages to accomplish the exact opposite. The Letter of Permit (LoP) scheme initiated by the Union Ministry of Agriculture in 2002, started — like many things gone wrong — with good intentions. At least, ostensibly so.

The LoP scheme was supposed to help Indian fishermen who were believed to lack the skills and vessels for deep sea fishing. The scheme was aimed at facilitating Indian fishermen buy used deep sea fishing vessels from Taiwan and Thailand, and after having them registered in India, use these boats to fish in Indian waters. It allowed for a three year deferred payment system under which 10 per cent of the value of the vessel needed to be paid in order to obtain the licence. A proof of that payment along with Rs.10,000 was the Ministry's asking price for the permit; the Coast Guard was entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring the plan functioned according to the guidelines.

No records

It is important to remember that the LoP scheme was a significant departure from its predecessor charter scheme, under which fishermen could simply hire foreign vessels, fish with them in Indian waters and then return the vessels to their respective countries. The problems with the charter scheme were plenty. First, since the vessels were just hired and not registered in India, it was impossible to track how much they were catching and where the catch was being sold. In effect, this was akin to allowing foreigners to fish in Indian waters. As they never landed any of their catch at any port in India (most of it was transhipped at mid sea), monitoring exports was tough.

The Murari Committee recommendations in 1997 urged the Ministry of Agriculture to suspend all licences for these vessels. The Ministry found a way out by initiating the LoP scheme instead.

A close look at the way the scheme has functioned in the last decade makes it clear that nothing much has changed since the days of the charter scheme. Foreign vessels come to India, fake their registration papers, use shell companies, fish in Indian waters, export their catch by transhipping at mid sea and leave our seas and fishermen poorer year after year. Though Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is not a new phenomenon, this must be the first time a country's government is actually actively promoting it. Financially too, the scheme's performance is nothing to write home about. According to vessel owners interviewed by us, on an average, a vessel nets about 200-250 tonnes of tuna every season. The Ministry's latest records say that currently, 79 vessels are operational in Indian waters under the scheme of which 56 are tuna long liners and the remaining mid-water pelagic trawlers. Yellow fin tuna, which is the prize these vessels are after, sells at $10-15 (Rs.500 approximately) per kg in the international market. By a conservative estimate, from the tuna long liners alone, the catch would be worth Rs.630 crore every season. If this money were accruing to Indian fishermen, there is no evidence to show for it. Nor is it clear how much the export of tuna benefits the Indian exchequer, as there are no public records of the amount paid as export duties. All that is known is that the government of India earned a grand sum of around Rs.8,00,000 (which is not an annual but a one-time licensing fee). Since the scheme seems to have failed on every count, the logical questions that come to mind are who exactly is benefitting from this scheme? Are there vested interests? And despite these breaches and a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry that was initiated into the scheme in 2005, why has no action been taken so far?

The National Fishworkers' Forum (NFF) and the Association of India Fishery Industry (AIFI) have been relentlessly asking these questions for years now. A case the AIFI filed in the Hyderabad High Court is deliberating on the issue. Hopefully the Ministry of Agriculture will respond because we are all waiting.

(The writer is based in Bangalore and campaigns on marine conservation issues with Greenpeace India.)

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