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Fisherfolk across states unite to protest the proposed shipping corridor

December 4, 2018
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Fisherfolk across states unite to protest the proposed shipping corridor

Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu: When local fishing communities gathered in various locations along the coast on November 21 to celebrate the World Fisheries Day this year, they had come with an agenda — to create more noise over the proposed shipping traffic separation corridor for merchant vessels along the Indian coast which they claim would threaten the livelihoods of those in the fishing community. The news of the proposed 20 nautical mile (NM)-wide corridor along the western coast — from Gulf of Kutch down until Kanyakumari — came as a shock to the four million people along the coast in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu who subsist on fishing and related industries. The government had never approached them for a discussion before declaring the project. Activists say that proper stakeholder consultations on the proposed corridor are one of the primary demands put forth by the community.

T Peter, general secretary of the National Fishworkers’ Forum (NFF), first came to know about the proposed Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) through a news report on September 6. No fisherfolk groups were consulted before the Directorate General of Shipping (DGS) announced the plan to finalise the project and mark the corridor on the map. This aggravated the fisherfolk unions who have progressively grown stronger after various protests — especially in the south, where they successfully lobbied in Ennore creek and during Ockhi when they protested lax government action against fishermen lost and dead at sea during the cyclone.

A month after the NFF first came across the report on the proposed corridor, its executive committee held a meeting on October 7 to discuss the information they had gathered so far. To their dismay, it was not much. And what little of it there was disturbing enough. Starting 15 NM from the coast and ending only beyond 35 NM, this transit corridor would cut off access to much of the deep-sea fishing grounds above the continental shelf that attracts plenty of fish who feed and breed in these warm and sunlit waters. The continental shelf ends at around 35 NM from the coast near Kerala while it grows larger as we go up north, extending up to 90 NM from the Maharashtra coast.

Govt stand to push ‘development’

The DGS later clarified in a press release that the TSS lanes under consideration are located 90 NM west of Mangalore, Karnataka and proceed in South Westerly manner to end 40 NM off the coast of Kanyakumari in TN. The average distance from the coast as per the current plan would be 50 NM, the DGS clarified. This, however, hasn’t resolved the issues NFF has with the project, which is primarily the exclusion of fishing communities from deliberations on the project.

Though the DGS has assured a non-uniform corridor and preservation of rich fishing grounds, the union is still unhappy about being kept out of consultations despite having knowledge of their fishing grounds. On September 10, the NFF issued a memo to the DGS condemning the “unilateral move to protect the interests of commercial shipping companies by completely sidelining the livelihood interests of fishermen”. However, the absence of a response from the DGS led to the call for a nation-wide protest on October 30 by the NFF and its affiliated organisations.

The call for a protest got noticed, and on October 27, the NFF got an invitation from the shipping ministry asking for a meeting on the eve of the protest. “How could we (go and meet) when we were busy organising our nation-wide agitation,” exclaims Peter. An NFF delegation, however, accepted the invitation and on October 29, Peter found himself sitting across the Shipping and Water Resources Minister. “Nitin Gadkari was very angry. He accused us of not caring about development,” says Peter. “We clarified that this type of development would destroy our jobs and our communities and it was not acceptable.”

For representation purposes only. Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

With the government’s position on the corridor now clear, the NFF knew their protests the next day had to be big enough to grab the attention of the public as well as those in power. Along the eastern coast, in all harbours and ports, thousands of fisherfolk protested by their boats, demanding their right to be consulted before a decision of such magnitude was taken. Barely a week later, had the DGS released an official statement saying that the various associations of fisherfolk were misinformed as the details of the news report were not entirely accurate. “The proposed TSS is still in the conceptual stage, and stakeholder consultations are in progress. Before finalisation, the final proposal will again be put on the DGS website for information and also forwarded to the concerned government agencies and stakeholders,” the statement, released on November 5, stated.

Despite these assurances, the fisherfolk groups continue to be irked since they do not want to wait until the final draft to raise their manifold questions and worries. The proposed corridor would have a substantial impact on their lives because if implemented improperly, it would result in a large-scale loss of livelihoods and also increase the risks and liabilities fishing vessels face from collisions with ships — which the TSS ostensibly seeks to avoid. Apart from this, the smaller fishing vessels also run the risk of being captured by foreign governments as they venture further into international waters in a bid to avoid accidentally fishing inside the corridor.

Benefits to the fishing industry?

Jayasundaram T, a former deep-sea fisherman and a fisherfolk activist based in Kanyakumari, wants more clarity on how exactly the fishing vessels are supposed to figure out the boundaries of the corridor, and what happens when a vessel finds itself drifting into it. “Will they be penalised for it? What happens if there is a collision? I suspect the terms of the notification will ensure that both the shipping companies and the government are absolved of any liability; the fishing vessels will have to shoulder all the blame and there will be no hope for any compensation,” he says. Jayasundaram raised these concerns with the Additional Director from the Tamil Nadu fisheries department who met them a day before their protest. It appeared that the state didn’t have any knowledge about the corridor either, says Jayasundaram.

“We have put forth these demands and concerns to the official who told us they will be communicated to the centre. He also assured us that we will be consulted before any decision is finalised,” he says. What he expects, though, is the unequivocal support from the state government for the fisherfolk of Kanyakumari, like in Kerala. This belief stems from the understanding that the Kerala government will only accept the corridor if it starts beyond 36 NM from the state’s coastline, according to Peter who has been unofficially discussing the issue with state officials in Kerala. Backed by strong trade unions, Peter is confident of state support for their fight, no matter which government is in power.

“With our access to this zone potentially cut, we are worried that it might be misused, by leasing out these areas to international fishing companies or other private entities, without our knowledge,” says Jayasundaram.

For representation purposes only. Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The Research Collective, which has undertaken advocacy on the impact of “Blue Economy” on coastal communities, has said that consultations should be done publicly rather than informing fishing communities of the decisions merely through reports. “The most important points in the consultations involve formulating the rules of TSS. Is it an International Maritime Organisation designated zone or will India be using its own rules? In terms of any regulations, this will be important,” said Anil T Varghese of the Delhi-based forum, on behalf of the Research Collective.

“Also, its benefits to the fishing industry must be questioned. There is no way to come to a conclusion without an understanding of how densely used shipping lanes affect the ecology. One would imagine it would depend on how deep the waters under them are at the point of the TSS. In that sense, Maharashtra and Goa might be most affected due to the wider continental shelf. But it’s hard to speculate without any real data on any of this,” he concluded.

Fishing unions are not ready to let this one pass without a fight, which they see as part of their larger struggle for coastal rights. “The agitation has demonstrated our capacity. The government can try to bypass other communities like farmers but they can no longer do that with fisherfolk because we are united,” Peter says. Foremost in their minds is the need to protect the interests of self-employed fisherfolk whose contributions to food security and foreign exchange are not sufficiently appreciated by an indifferent government and a corporate nexus. Not only do they concern themselves with the “second soldiers” who guard our coastal waters but, having lived by and lived off the sea for generations, they also protect its ecology.

“No man can claim the sea. But at the same time, we need some guaranteed coastal rights in line with the forest rights accorded to tribals. We protect the seas just like they do the forests,” says Jayasundaram.

[Click here to read this story on NewsCentral24x7 where it was first published.]