Keep the coasts clear for artisanal fishermen

India’s vibrant coastline is home to the intricate profession of artisanal fishing, and some of the world’s worst land grabs and environmental violations in recent years. On World Fisheries Day, Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli suggest a practical road forward to protect fishing communities and the land they have depended on, leaving hardly a footprint, for centuries.



Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli

Artisanal fishers had never forseen this fate. They find themselves in the most coveted landscape today; millions of acres at the cusp of land and the sea–the coast. They’ve been here for long, with their nets and minimalist huts. It is the best place for them to watch the waves before bringing out their boats, to gauge if the sea goddess will bless them with a bumper catch. The beaches are the take-off and landing sites of their modest vessels made of just wood or fibreglass. Machinery and automation is little, in most cases, non existant. They return with a catch that almost always lands up in the plate of an urban foodie. The mothers and wives among them travel long distances to markets in buses and local trains to sell them at better prices. The kids stay back in the shanty villages, often with no schools. Fishing villages are also known for their lack of water supply, electricity and sanitation facilities.

These places, far away from most state capitals and that were falling off the map in popular imagination are at the centre of much conflict these days. It appears that no state government can do without them. The coasts are the most preferred sites for nuclear power, thermal power and SEZ projects because of transport facilities via the sea and the availability of water for cooling hot turbines. These are beside the usual ports, oil pipelines, tourism and prime residential real estate that have always claimed to be water front or foreshore projects. Investments of many millions ride on the coasts.

The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) put out a map last year plotting all the proposed projects on the coast. The dots leave no room for villages. A research report by Dakshin Foundation found that on an average every fishing village uses about 3 kms beyond its boundary for parking boats, net repairs and other livelihood functions. According to the Marine Census data and that of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) there are more than 3200 marine fishing villages situated at the edges of the Indian peninsula. Doing the math, one wonders if there’s a road ahead at all. Most groups mentioned above and several hundred others affiliated and supporting the National Fishworker Forum (NFF), a four decade old non-partisan trade union of artisanal fishers, have made tremendous efforts to advocate for better policy for artisanal fisheries and rule of law on the coasts.

A critical tool in their hands is the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification of 2011. It allows for the first time, since its first avataar in Mrs Indira Gandhi’s letter and the CRZ 1991, members of fishing communities to officially play a role in planning and enforcement of the Coastal Zone Management Plans (CZMPs). Like any other piece of Indian law and its own predecessor, this one too is full of vague terms and rhetoric and is not bound to any positive outcomes to guide implementation. However, the clause instituting the District Level Coastal Committee (DLCC) carries the promise of enforcement simply because it takes the first official step in viewing artisanal fishers as partners of the government in regulating landuse on the coast.

The document, the CZMP, is the most crucial one to enforce regulations on a landscape that is constantly physically changing due to erosion, beach formation and not to mention the inevitable cyclones and storm surges. It might seem like a technical appendage of the law but it carries within it the possibility of longterm livelihood and food security for close to a million coastal families, and an offer of progress at a pace and scale that is driven by them. It is the only document that can determine justice from wrong, good politics from parasitic development.

It has been 20 months since the DLCC clause appeared in the notification. Since then, most governments have only reached the stage of writing letters to the coastal district collectors to set up District Level Coastal Committees (DLCC). The CZMPs were to be ready by 30th September 2013 as per the last amendment to the CRZ notification in August this year. Not a single government has completed it so far.

This World Fisheries Day on 21st November 2013, the best way for us to doff the hat for this community of artisanal fishers, the ones who bring food to our plates with the gentlest footprint on nature, is to get DLCCs up and running and let them be the drafters of the CZMPs. This will be the most fitting tribute to one of the most intricate and complex professions of the world.



November 25, 2013 | Namati