Shaik Navab Jani, 32, is busy cooking rice and fish on a 15-metre mid-sized mechanised fishing trawler anchored at the harbour in Veraval. The coastal town in Gujarat is considered to be one of the biggest fishing and seafood hubs in western India with more than 8,000 registered fishing boats and dozens of processing factories exporting frozen fish. Jani, even as he cooks, is also arguing on his mobile phone with his “seth” (employer) for the full salary which was committed to him and his other mates. The seth, he claims, has cut ₹8,000 from his consolidated salary for eight months. “You cannot cut my salary as you had promised the full amount,” he wails in broken Hindi, immediately switching to Telugu to translate for his fellow travellers huddled near the boat on a jetty. “The seth and the tandel (captain) promised ₹80,000 for the season,” he tells his mates, who also appear angry and dejected. The negotiations go back and forth, in a curious mix of Hindi, Gujarati and Telugu.
Jani is one of several thousand single migrants, addressed as “Madrasis” here, who have journeyed from Vizianagaram, Srikakulam and Visakhapatnam on the east coast to Veraval 2,000 km away to work on mechanised fishing trawlers from August to March every year. Away from their families for eight months of the year, the rough seas are their home, a home they revere and fear.
“Our problem is with payment. They promise ₹10,000 per month when we come and then reduce it when it’s time for us to leave. It’s unfair,” says Jani, quickly adding, “Our seth is god for us. We have no other problem here. They give us free food, good basmati rice and fresh fish. They even let us take 10-15 kg dried fish back home when we leave. But the payment is a problem as at the end of season, the seth tries to cut the salary under the pretext of low catch.”
Life in a boat
No official figures are available but roughly 15,000 fishermen from Andhra Pradesh are hired by the Gujarati seafaring Kharva community in Veraval each season. Locals prefer day-long fishing, venturing out before dawn and returning as dusk settles in, in small boats. The fishermen from Andhra come in handy for the long haul, for deep-sea trips that sometimes last a week. The migrants have been mainstays of the fishing industry here for more than two decades now.
Each boat carries 8-10 persons. The tandel gets paid ₹15,000 to ₹20,000 a month while khalasis (sailors) are paid ₹7,000-₹10,000 a month plus free food. Typically, in a month they are 20-25 days out at sea. After each week-long trip in which they venture as far as Goa, Karnataka and even Kerala, they unload tonnes of catch at the jetty and prepare the boat — loading it with ice, diesel and ration — the very next day for the next trip. There’s no home to go to for recuperation; they live on boats even when the boats are anchored at the harbour. “For eight months, the boat is our home, as we do everything in it,” says 35-year-old tandel Rayithi Erraiah from Srikakulam district, who has worked in Veraval for two decades.
Locally built traditional fishing trawlers are around 15-20 metres long, powered by engines of 75-100 horsepower, and fitted with a radio transmitter and navigational instruments like GPS and echo-location fish finders. On every boat, cabins are constructed at the back of the deck. These cabins, just about 8x6 ft big, house eight men at a time, along with the navigation equipment and the fishers’ luggage, safety kits and even small TVs and DVD players.
Erraiah says the low income from fishing in traditional boats in his home State forced him and thousands of others to migrate to Gujarat. As tandel, he is the literally the man in the middle between the seth and the khalasis, who are hired through word of mouth or, as is often the case with the likes of Erraiah, from the vicinity of the native village. As per the informal system, the seth pays a lump sum of ₹7-8 lakh to the tandel, who then pays the khalasis for the entire season in advance. At the end of the season, there is a final stocktaking — if the catch is good and the seth is pleased, there are bonuses to be had, but there’s no guaranteeing them.
The push and pull factors
Several migrants in Veraval complain about the low wages but at the same time, they insist that back home they don’t even get one-third of what they earn in Gujarat. Jangaya, 44, from Kunjurvanipeta near Arasavilli in Srikakulam, has been coming to Veraval for 15 years. A tandel, he gets around ₹18,000 per month. “There’s no income from fishing on the Andhra coast,” he says. The shortage of skilled manpower for fishing in Veraval is perennial, and the Andhra fishermen plug the gap.
According to the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF), poverty remains a major factor driving migration. Last year, the ICSF carried out a detailed study, ‘Migrant Fishers from Andhra Pradesh in the Gujarat Marine Fishing Industry’, which found that of the 1,60,000 fisher families in Andhra Pradesh, 97% are below the official poverty line.
Chikati Polisamma, 50, a resident of D. Machilesam in Etcherla mandal of Srikakulam district on the Andhra-Odisha border, has had her husband Korlayya leave every year for Veraval for a decade now; most of the 3,000-odd men of this village work there. Last August, their eldest son Hariappadu also headed for the Gujarat town after the graduate’s year-long search went in vain. “I have not given up hope and am ensuring that my two other sons are also well educated. They are in school,” she says.
Left to fend for herself, Polisamma soldiers on with her growing-up sons in their two-room tenement. Every morning, she goes to the shore to buy fish from the local fishers and travels around in shared autos selling them in the streets of Etcherla and its adjoining areas — public transport to the village was withdrawn a couple of years ago. Her earnings at the end of a long day are a meagre ₹100.
While they are gone
There are many Polisammas in this backward district, selling fresh or dried fish to make their daily ends meet and staying connected with their men on the other coast through occasional mobile-phone calls. There are often scares. “My husband Pakkala Lakshmi accidentally crossed the border area in Pakistan two years ago and was detained by the authorities. The fishing community in Gujarat finally managed to secure his release,” says Ramulamma of D. Machilesam village. The falling health of their men due to continuous exposure to sunlight and the elements at sea remains a matter of concern, but there’s wry humour too. “We are happy that they are deprived of booze during their stay in Gujarat,” points out Kondapalli Gavaramma from Srikurmam in Gara mandal, whose husband and two sons work there.
Of late, insurance has been made compulsory for all the fishermen but Pandodu’s family wasn’t so lucky. “My husband died of ill-health but we didn’t get any ex gratia or compensation as he had no insurance. My son Ramu is now in Veravel. I look after my grandson and earn a few bucks by selling dried fish,” says Guramma of Badiwadipeta village.
Andhra fishermen who’ve opted to venture out to Gujarat since the early 1990s say their own coast is a long-running saga of depleting catch. Though the Visakhapatnam fishing harbour is 100-200 km away, they are treated as outsiders there. With fishing at home no longer sustainable, there are some who still do not want to take the Gujarat route. But jobs are difficult to come by. “After finishing my intermediate in commerce, I went to Chennai to undergo a seamen’s course for six months by spending ₹1 lakh but have been looking for a job for the past two years. Consultants who act as placement agents for various merchant vessels are insisting on a payment of ₹50,000 towards service charges, a sum I’ve been unable to arrange,” says Barri Hari, 21, from Etcherla. Another youth, Gangala Laxman, from the same area, is making do as a tailor. “Our demand for ST status hasn’t been granted. I completed my BA and BEd in 2011-12 but haven’t been to get a job,” says the aspiring teacher who has attempted the District Selection Committee Test twice.
Then there are some like Chikati Appa Rao who turned their back on Veraval after a stint. He saw two of his crew members — fellow villagers — die in a freak mishap while jumping from one boat to another in 2002. “Now I am happy whenever I get some work and manage the family with meagre earnings at my native place,” he says.
Giving them their due
Veraval produced 2.8 lakh tonnes of marine fish in 2014-15, out of which 24,073 tonnes was exported, fetching ₹361 crore in export earnings. Asked why they hand out a raw deal to the Andhra migrants, boat and fish processing unit owners deny any exploitation and take pains to explain how food and medicines are never in short supply. “We pay them handsome salaries and provide them ration,” claims Tulsi Gohel, president of the Veraval Boat Owners’ Association, who operates a fleet of around a dozen boats and employs over 30 migrant fishers. “I agree that it’s hard work but they are paid accordingly. It’s unlike Myanmarese bonded labourers on Thai fishing vessels,” says Kenny Thomas, who owns the Jinny Marine processing units, drawing an eerie parallel. Thomas also claims that there has never been any complaint of labour abuse in Veraval.
Veraval’s fortunes in recent years have largely been built on the blood, sweat and tears of the Andhra migrants, and while they would feel short-changed every once in a while, the sobering reality is that this is their only escape from deprivation at home. This fishing season is at its end, and many are preparing for the journey home and relishing the prospect of being reunited with their families. But chances are that come August, most of them — and newer recruits from their villages — would be retracing the rehearsed route from one coast to the other for another season in the deep seas.