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Draft Marine Fisheries Bill | A netting trouble

The draft Marine Fisheries Bill has evoked a lot of criticism not only from the fishing community that claims it goes against its interests, but also from the States that believe there are provisions that will infringe on federalism

July 25, 2021 02:27 am | Updated 02:27 am IST

Up in arms: Fishing villages and harbours have been on the boil, and fishermen have been threatened to blockade ports if Parliament the Bill in its present form. Picture shows fishermen protesting over purse seine nets in Puducherry.

Up in arms: Fishing villages and harbours have been on the boil, and fishermen have been threatened to blockade ports if Parliament the Bill in its present form. Picture shows fishermen protesting over purse seine nets in Puducherry.

O n July 20, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi against moving the Indian Marine Fisheries Bill, 2021, in Parliament, contending that many of its provisions went against the interests of the local fishermen and certain clauses infringed upon the rights of the States.

Contending that the proposed Bill had many disturbing clauses, including criminalisation and imprisonment of fishermen, use of force against fishermen and levy of charges and huge penalties, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, which has a substantial coastline, pushed for a wider debate.

On July 22, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi Lok Sabha members Thol. Thirumavalavan and D. Ravikumar, elected from the coastal districts of Cuddalore and Villupuram, met Union Minister for Fisheries Parshottam Rupala in New Delhi and submitted a memorandum opposing various provisions of the Bill. “The Bill treats fishing as a criminal activity and fishermen as criminals. It provides for licences, imposes hefty fines and attempts to create a corpus fund with the fine amount. It also encroaches upon the rights of the State government,” contended Mr. Ravikumar, who convened a meeting of fishermen in Villupuram.

Fishermen’s threat

That news of the Bill spread like wildfire, and fishing villages and harbours in the State have been on the boil ever since. A black flag agitation was held. Fishermen have threatened to blockade ports if Parliament passed the Bill in its present form. “It does not take into consideration the traditional rights of fishermen who have been fishing where they find fish. It talks about fines even for fishermen with non-motorised traditional craft, and the prescribed fine amounts are quite heavy. There has been no consultation with stakeholders or the public whatsoever. The licences are to be obtained under the Merchant Shipping Act, and not the Tamil Nadu Marine Fishing Regulation Act, and the authority to impose fines would be given to the Central forces like the Coast Guard. Already if our boats pass by their craft, we are treated like criminals, asked to kneel down and raise our hands above our heads and threatened to be shot,” said K. Bharathi of the South Indian Fishermen Welfare Association.

This Bill, says Pradip Chatterjee, convener of the National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers, has been introduced in a hurry without any scope for stakeholder or public comments as it was done in the case of the Draft National Marine Fisheries (Regulation & Management) Bill, 2019. This Bill is far from the realities of Indian marine fisheries as all kinds of boats, including the mechanised fishing boats like trawlers and purse seiners, are designated as small-scale boats. It is a blatant betrayal of the small-scale fishing communities and an open attempt to subjugate the livelihood of small-scale fishers to the interests of mechanised boat owners.

The body has written to members of Parliament, requesting them to ensure that the passage of the Bill is deferred until these concerns are properly addressed, and stakeholder consultations are undertaken.

‘Adopt national policy’

The draft National Fisheries Policy has been published and is being finalised. The government should adopt the policy before finalising the Bill, opined V. Jayanand, a retired official of the Fisheries Department of Puducherry. “As in the case of all Acts, this one, too, would be dependent on the rules to be prescribed for its implementation. The rules, too, should be framed and publicised simultaneously,” he said.

A retired official of the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department explained that Indian citizens do not require any licence or letter of authority from the Central government to fish in the Exclusive Economic Zone as provided under Section 7(5) of the Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone and Other Maritime Zones Act, 1976. Accordingly, the regulation of fishing along the coast of Tamil Nadu has so far been legally undertaken by the State Fisheries Department under the Tamil Nadu Marine Fishing Regulation Act. “The Bill, in its present form, does not explicitly indicate its intent to protect the rights of all sections of Indian fishermen, including artisanal and traditional fishermen and fish workers, to provide them a secured livelihood, while protecting and safeguarding the marine environment and the natural resources,” he pointed out.

Minister to meet MPs

When questioned about the reservations about the Bill, Mr. Rupala told The Hindu on the phone from Delhi: “We are hearing everyone’s views. I have received the suggestions of the Chief Minister. Some of your [Tamil Nadu] fishermen brothers, too, met me. I am going to hold a meeting with all MPs from the coastal constituencies.” After deliberations, efforts would be made to explore how to incorporate their views in the Bill, he said. Asked whether the Union government would still table the Bill, he said: “It will be our effort [to table the Bill now]. We will see what comes out of this deliberations and decide.”

‘Allow purse seine nets’

Fishermen in the State were divided during their protests in the past few days in some parts of the State — for and against the use of purse seine nets. In Cuddalore district, fishermen protested last week, demanding that they be allowed to use purse seine nets. Despite the ban, a section of fishermen continues to use it. “The government could instead permit the fishermen to use these nets for certain months in a year when the catch of the ‘mathi’ [sardines] variety is usually large. The market for this variety is huge in Kerala and Karnataka,” said Rajendran Nattar, a representative of the fishermen at Akkaraipettai. Nevertheless, for preserving the marine resources in the long run, the government must make sure that mechanised boats are fitted with engines of permissible horsepower, he said.

However, senior officials of the Department of Fisheries and Fishermen Welfare maintained that the purse seine nets could never be allowed in view of the ban. They also pointed out that only a section of the fishermen was demanding the use of purse seine, while the majority were against it. The majority of fishermen demanded that the use of the banned net be stopped because their catch was disturbed by the purse seine net users, officials said. “While this group is against the banned net, those illegally using purse seine allege that those not using it are using thick nets, which is another violation — the gap between the strands of the net is not 40 mm,” said an officer.

Lack of facilities

The absence of processing facilities in the State is another issue. “It is unfortunate that the fishers are still dependent on middlemen from Kerala and Thoothukudi, who decide the procurement cost to their advantage,” pointed out V. Ramachandiran, president of the Nagapattinam District Small and Tiny Industries Association. The fishermen of the Kasimedu fishing harbour, too, have been raising this issue. “We are forced to sell fish at very low prices to the two merchants who agree to purchase fish from here. They say they cannot give us higher prices since the cost of transport to Kerala is quite high,” said Varadhan, a fishermen community leader. Though the fishing harbour projects at Poompuhar, Arcottuthurai, Nambiyar Nagar and Vellapallam are welcome, the gap in the marketing of the marine produce has to be addressed, said representatives of fishermen welfare associations.

S.J. Gayes of Manappad, president of the Thoothukudi District Country Boat and Catamaran Fishermen Welfare Association, said some of the mechanised boats with imported high-power engines had not been registered with the Department of Fisheries, and they posed a serious threat to the country craft.

Sea erosion is a grievance of fishermen from Kanniyakumari district. The menace can be neutralised only by properly constructed groynes in all coastal hamlets on the stretch between Rajakkalmangalam and Neerodi, said Fr. Churchill, general secretary of South Asian Fishermen Fraternity.

Sand quarrying and mining of beach minerals by a public sector undertaking at Manavalakurichi in the district was among the prime reasons for the sea erosion, some fishermen said. They wanted the State government to stop the mining of beach minerals. As more than 1,000 mechanised boats are mostly involved in multi-day deep-sea fishing in this region, a control room should be opened at Irayumanthurai to transmit and receive satellite phone signals for alerting the fishermen out in the sea 600 nautical miles from the coast, Fr. Churchill said.

Treacherous harbour

Fishermen argued that the faulty design of the Thengapattanam fishing harbour and the Parakkaani check-dam resulted in the accumulation of sand at the nearby estuary, which led to accidents. A total of 27 fishermen lost their lives at the Thengapattanam harbour’s entry/exit points since 2014, including six deaths in the past year. “The harbour was designed without consultations with the local fishermen. The sea would be rough from Kanniyakumari to the west coast and it would be even more menacing during the monsoon,” said Sunil Sabariyar of Vallavilai, a coastal hamlet close to the Kanniyakumari-Kerala border.

Fishing near the Katchatheevu islet (ceded to Sri Lanka) is still a matter of discussion among fishermen. For livelihood, fishermen had to venture into the sea near Katchatheevu; the catch was good there, said P. Sesu Raja, a fisherman leader at Mandapam.

Though the deep-sea fishing scheme was inaugurated by the Prime Minister in September 2017 at Mandapam with the aim of resolving issues relating to cross-border fishing, U. Arulanandam of Pamban, who is Tamil Nadu’s representative of the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen, pointed out that so far the Department of Fisheries had built only 30 deep-sea fishing vessels for Pudukkottai, Nagapattinam and Ramanathapuram districts.

Enhancement of diesel subsidy, an increase in the financial assistance to the fishermen during the annual ban period to ₹10,000 and establishment of a fish landing centre at Rameswaram and a state-of-the-art storage facility are among the other demands of the fishermen. Senior officials of the Department of Fisheries said the government was working on welfare schemes, and some of them were likely to be announced in the Budget session of the Assembly.

( With inputs from L. Srikrishna in Rameswaram, R. Krishnamoorthy in Nagapattinam, P. Sudhakar in Kanniyakumari, S. Prasad in Cuddalore and Deepa H. Ramakrishnan in Chennai. )

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