Reworking of norms necessary to make deep-sea fishing boat scheme viable for Palk Bay fishermen

The ₹1,600-crore scheme for the Palk Bay districts was launched in 2017 but has failed to take off

April 08, 2023 12:17 am | Updated April 13, 2023 05:40 pm IST - CHENNAI

Fishermen trying their luck in the Palk Bay at Pamban in Ramanathapuram district in Tamil Nadu. File photo

Fishermen trying their luck in the Palk Bay at Pamban in Ramanathapuram district in Tamil Nadu. File photo | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The number tells the story. As many as 55 deep sea fishing vessels have been handed over to the beneficiaries of a 2017 scheme — aimed at weaning fishermen off trawling — against the original target of 2,000 boats in three years. Tamil Nadu Minister for Fisheries Anitha R. Radhakrishnan disclosed the number in the Assembly a few days ago, giving an account of the progress of the ₹1,600-crore scheme for the Palk Bay districts.

When it was launched in July 2017, the scheme was billed as a solution to the festering India-Sri Lanka fisheries issue. “Another 24 boats are in various stages of construction,” the Minister said.

Of the total cost of the scheme, the Centre’s share is ₹800 crore; the State’s ₹320 crore; the beneficiaries’ contribution ₹160 crore; and loans by financial institutions ₹320 crore. The Union government framed this scheme exclusively for Tamil Nadu, as the fishermen of the Palk Bay districts were invariably caught by the Sri Lankan authorities for crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line illegally. Besides, trawling has run into opposition for being ecologically unsustainable.

“It has failed to take off, despite the passage of over five-and-a-half years,” acknowledges an official. Lack of interest among beneficiaries to make the transition, the “unaffordable cost” of the boats for deep sea fishing, the higher operational cost per voyage and the unwillingness of banks to lend are among the reasons cited.

Primary hurdle

The primary hurdle is the cost. Officials admit that the ₹80 lakh per boat, fixed six years ago, is inadequate now because of the increase in the prices of materials such as steel and fibreglass reinforced plastic over the years, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. “I need to spend ₹40 lakh over and above the sanctioned unit cost,” says P. Sesuraja, president of the All Mechanised Boat Fishermen Association. He says many fishermen who opted for the scheme with high expectations are “languishing in deep debt”.

In fact, the unit cost of a deep sea fishing boat under the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana, a Central government programme launched in 2020 for the fisheries sector in the entire country, has been fixed at ₹1.2 crore. There has been no progress despite the assurances by Central government representatives to the fishermen to have the unit cost re-examined.

The duration of voyage for deep sea fishing is around three weeks. This means the cost of operation and labour is higher. But it is 24 hours in the Palk Bay region. The indebtedness of sections of fishermen and their inability to repay their loans have left the banks cautious in lending to new beneficiaries.

Mr. Sesuraja wants the governments to waive the loans and increase the unit cost under the Tamil Nadu-specific scheme to ₹1.2 crore.

An expert says stringent enforcement of regulations like the restricted supply of subsidised diesel can help to cut down on the number of trawlers in the region. Marine cage farming can be promoted in a limited way. At the same time, an understanding may be reached with Sri Lanka on the transition period for the fishermen, the expert points out.

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