- What impacts is COVID-19 (including measures put in place by the authorities) having on food systems, food security and the right to food ?
The government of India imposed a 21 day lockdown on the midnight of 23 March 2020 to control the spread of the SARS COV-2 virus. During the lockdown, fishing was completely halted: fishers were not allowed to venture out to the seas, and storage facilities, markets and processing plants were closed. This led to a complete loss of livelihood for millions of people who were directly or indirectly dependent on the fisheries sector.
According to the Fisheries Statistics of India 2018, the total number of persons engaged in fisheries activities are 16,096,975 million fisher families, including 10,526,758 million males and 5,570,217 million females. The share of the fisheries sector in India’s overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is about 1.03 percent as of 2017-18 and it contributed INR 1.75 trillion during 2017-18. It accounts for about 6.58 percent share of India’s agricultural GDP. According to the government’s own estimates, the sector provides livelihoods to about 16 million fishers and fish farmers at the primary level, and almost twice the number along the value chain.
Impacts on Fishers
India’s fishing sector was already dealing with challenges such as environmental degradation, climatic uncertainties and impacts of large scale development projects. These challenges were exacerbated due to the unplanned lockdown. The pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the small-scale and traditional fishers who were trying to protect themselves from imminent threats of displacement and defend their livelihood rights. Impacts could be seen across the sector for both, marine and inland fisheries on fishers, fish vendors, suppliers and transport workers, because of disruptions in fish supply chains. The report prepared by the ICAR- Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, Kochi on the 26th of April, 2020 estimated that the pandemic and the lockdown have resulted in large scale disruptions in the value chain of marine capture fisheries in India. Due to financial distress, households reduced their spending which in turn led to decreased consumer demand for fish.
The lockdown has also brought to public attention the plight of migrant fishworkers. In the last ten years, traditional fishers have migrated to large harbours in their own or other states in search of work. This is mainly because fish catches have decreased sharply in the last decade because of several reasons, like climate change and increase in infrastructure projects in the coasts. These migrant fishworkers were usually employed as crew in mechanised fleets or engaged in fish processing, net-making and boat-repair. Immediately after the imposition of the lockdowns, the migrant fishworkers were stranded just like other migrant workers in the country. For more than two months, they had to survive without any relief/assistance from the government. In many places they had to live in the cramped cabins of their boats. The Central Government did not intervene to give them better accommodations. These fishworkers even lacked basic necessities like water to wash their hands as advised by the government to prevent infection. After staying in such deplorable living conditions for almost two months the fishworkers were in no state of mind to restart fishing activities and were desperate to get back to their native villages.
The stranded fishworkers also faced severe nutritional deficits. In most areas, the government asked the boat owners to provide food and water to the stranded fishworkers. Although some boat owners provided the workers with food for the first few days, with their resources also depleting due to the halt in fishing activities, they could not continue to provide food for the workers. As the lockdowns extended, most boat owners refused to continue support to the workers, leaving workers completely without any financial support or food rations.
On 9 April, the Ministry of Home Affairs allowed fishing activities to be restarted under conditions of adequate physical distancing. However, the sector continued to face impacts of the pandemic, and national and area-based lockdowns. Although fish was declared as an essential commodity, it was almost impossible to supply fish to markets and consumers due to lack of transportation and closure of ice-storage facilities in most parts of the country (ice was not considered an essential item, making it difficult for fishers to get it for storage). The fishers had no other option but to dump their catch back into the sea since they were neither able to sell their catch, nor able to preserve it.
Stories of dumping catch were reported from many parts of the country. In Goa, seafood was dumped in the sea as fishers were unable to land fish due to closure of harbours. In Raigad district of Maharashtra, huge amounts of sea-food was thrown back to the sea. In Chennai fish storage facilities were already operating at full capacity and therefore fishers could not preserve their full fish catches. In areas where fishers managed to sell their catch, they had to settle for as little as half or one-fourth of the market price.
Export markets also saw a sharp decline during this period. Seventy percent of India’s seafood export earnings came from frozen shrimp. It was reported that there was a slump in demand for frozen shrimp from United States and Europe due to their own respective lockdowns. This negatively affected thousands of families working at the processing plants. Another concern has been the shortage of fish seed, fertiliser and inputs that would hamper production levels. India imported shrimp broodstock from the US that was stopped due to shortage in the industry, which will lead to 20-30 percent fall in shrimp production. Unavailability of fishworkers also affected production after lockdown restrictions were lifted from fisheries.
Women, especially single women, who constitute the majority of fish vendors (at markets, by the roadside, and by head loading for door-to-door sale), are among the hardest hit. Most of them could not access fish catch as landing centres were shut. Those who did succeed in getting some fish catch could not take it to the nearest markets due to lack of transportation. In most of the places, markets were not functioning as usual and vendors were not allowed to sell their fish in the markets. They also faced harassment from local authorities while trying to sell their fish in some states. There were reports of harassment of women fishworkers in Kerala where the police prevented them from selling fish at markets because of lack of clarity regarding their status as essential workers.
In fisher families it is mostly men who venture out to sea while women are responsible for selling the catch in the markets. They are often the sole income earners of their households and do not have any other sources of income. In addition to their very important role in the fisheries sector, women are care-givers and are responsible for managing household income of the family. The loss in daily income made it extremely difficult for women to manage household expenses, which directly impacted the food security of fisher families.
Inadequate Relief Measures by the Government
Every year there is a two-month annual fishing ban that commences in April on the east coast and in June on the west coast. But this year, restrictions on fishing due to the COVID-19 lockdowns added to the no-fishing days. Fishers lost 20 days of active fishing due to the lockdown on the east coast in addition to the annual bans.
The government considered including the initial 21 days lockdown in the annual ban time, which would mean that fishers would be able to start fishing early. This reduction in the annual fishing ban from 61 days to 47 days was claimed to be in lieu of lost fishing days, but it most likely also helped absolve the government from any responsibilities related to financial compensation. This amendment to the annual fishing ban is only for 2020, and it does little to solve current problems. The lifting of restrictions on mechanised and motorised fishing has actually exacerbated the struggles of India’s small-scale (non-mechanised) fishers and migrant workers, who are the most vulnerable sections of India’s diverse fishing population. Not only has this increased competition and unnecessarily risked fishers’ lives during rough seas in order to supply to non-existent markets, it has also increased the likelihood of indebted fisher migrants being forced into bonded labour. These unfavourable aspects undermine the potential benefits of the ban, the decades of negotiations that led to its past achievements, as well as the protection it offers to India’s dwindling marine resources.
An economic package was announced by the Finance Minister on the 15th of May, 2020, estimated at Rs. 200,000 million to be allocated for the fisheries sector through Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana (PMMSY). This was mainly funds that were supposed to be announced during the annual budget session but were now announced in the stimulus package. This scheme, which will run for a period of five years from 2020-21 to 2024-25, seeks to develop marine and inland fisheries and to fill critical gaps in the fisheries value chain. Out of this, Rs. 110,000 million will be allocated for activities in marine, inland fisheries and aquaculture and Rs. 90,000 million for infrastructure, including fishing harbours, cold chain, markets, etc., which are expected to lead to additional fish production of 7 million tonnes over 5 years, employment to over 5.5 million persons, and doubling of exports to Rs. 1,000,000 million.
However in the report of the Standing Committee on Agriculture (2019-2020), while analysing the ‘Demand for Grants (2020-21)’, the Expenditure Finance Committee (EFC) had approved the PMMSY at a total cost of Rs. 200,500 million comprising of (a) Central share of Rs. 94,070 million; (ii) State share of Rs. 48,800 millions, and; (c) beneficiary share of Rs. 57,630 million for its implementation over a period of 5 years with effect from 2020-21 to 2024-25 in all States/Union Territories. But the Standing Committee recommendations were bypassed and the allocation of funds was directed more towards infrastructure development and industrialised fishing. This would also have serious repercussions on the livelihoods of fishers.
The PMMSY also replaced the CSS ‘Blue Revolution: Integrated Development and Management of Fisheries’ which included the National Scheme on Welfare of Fishermen, relief for the fishermen, provision of Housing for the fishermen, other basic amenities like drinking water facility, construction of community hall with sanitation, water supply and electrification facility, group accident Insurance for active fisherman in convergence with PMSBY and grant in aid to the National Federation of Fishers Cooperatives Ltd. (FISHCOPFED). Many organisations like the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF) have expressed their concerns regarding PMMSY touted by the Government as a relief measure, when in reality it will actually destroy livelihood of small-scale fishers.
However, some states have tried to address the concerns of fishers by bringing new sets of laws and regulations in the context of COVID-19. For example, The state government in Odisha has tried to facilitate continuation of fish sales while enforcing physical distancing measures by drawing circles on the ground at markets. The Kerala government has provided a sum of INR 2000 ($26) every month which is a meagre amount and free food ration to fishers. The Andhra Pradesh government has attempted to set the minimum price for shrimp at INR 180 ($2.4) per kilogram. But the traders have refused to purchase shrimp at this rate. Hence, in spite of policies existing on paper, it has not been able to bring relief to the small-scale fisher communities.
In the middle of the pandemic, the Government introduced the Draft National Fisheries Policy 2020, that claims to integrate all components, including marine and inland, capture and culture, and post-harvest in a single document, and create an environment to increase investments in the sector, double exports, and incomes of fishers and fish farmers. The policy is export-oriented, production-driven, and based on capital investments, which will strip small scale fishers of their rights of access to commons, and also damage the environment in the long run. In addition, the policy does not address the needs of women and is silent on the existing inequalities of caste and class. It does not recognise the fact that the fishing communities in India are not homogenous. They have distinct social governance structures and traditional practices and cultures, depending on where they live on the coast. The policy is neither in favour of small-scale fishing communities, nor for protecting oceans and the coast. The policy facilitates capture fisheries and production in artificial ways through intensive culture fisheries. There are two other aspects in the policy that need to be examined. One is the need for upfront capital to be able to conduct and undertake these activities, and the second is introduction of more intensive technologies. These will usher in new private actors–corporations–into the sector, which will further marginalise and eliminate small scale fishers and people engaged in the sector.
- How are communities, solidarity movements, constituencies reacting to these impacts?
In the wake of COVID-19, fisher/fishworker unions and organisations have extended all possible support to the small-scale fishers – including mobilising funds – while the state remained apathetic to the troubles of fisher communities. At the same time, they have been raising demands regarding relief for the fishers, both at the state and central levels. The NFF made concrete demands to the Department of Fisheries to compensate the loss of livelihoods for marine and Inland fishers and fishworkers. However, none of these have been addressed by the government.
When the government announced the PMMSY, the NFF immediately pointed out to the government that the beneficiary amount was only 28 percent of the sum-amount of the total scheme and it would not address the existing concerns and issues of fishers and fishworkers.
In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, fisher/fishworker unions and organisations came across several cases of stranded migrants. Several organisations have come together and provided food and water supplies to the migrant fishworkers and helped them to go back to their native villages. While the state had shown complete apathy to the problems faced by migrant fishworkers and placed the onus of providing relief on boat owners, it was the civil society organisations (CSOs) and unions who stepped up and provided relief to them. Migrant fishworkers also faced high levels of anxiety which was exacerbated by the inhumane living conditions for two months. Fishworker unions and organisations also tried to provide emotional and psychological support to the stranded fishworkers.
Traditional and small-scale fishers have been responsible for bringing protein in the form of fish to the homes of Indians, but faced hunger and malnutrition during the lockdown. The central Government had announced free distribution of 5 kgs of rice or wheat every month for every poor family as a measure to arrest hunger. But this measure was not sufficient for fisher families where the average family size was more than four people. Many fishers could not even avail this relief package because they did not have identification cards necessary for claiming relief. Several organisations and unions continue to demand for universalization of the Public Distribution System (PDS) that could guarantee food security for every marginalised community.
- Emerging public policy proposals and processes for building more equitable and resilient food systems and defending the right to food and nutrition.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fault-lines of the present system. The Fisheries sector saw major disruptions in the value chains which has led to the loss of incomes for thousands of fisher families. Therefore, the fishworker organisations and unions have now started to point out the importance and sustainability of localised value chains. They argue that localised food systems would have the capacity to sustain livelihoods of communities, thereby guaranteeing their food security.
The NFF raised several demands at the Janta Parliament which was organised by numerous people’s movements, social movements and CSOs to discuss urgent COVID related policy measures in the absence of a functioning Indian Parliament.
The following are the set of policy demands raised by NFF:
- There should be an economic package announced for the fishing community. They demanded that a monthly allowance of INR 15,000/- up to three months be provided in advance and this should be actually given to the fishers and those engaged in allied activities.
- They also demanded that this relief package should be developed for the sector in consultation with fish worker organisations and individuals in the following three stages:
- Short- term with a horizon period of 3 weeks until the end of the lockdown period, where there should be loan payment deferrals to a period of six months keeping in mind the ban period during the monsoon period too in the eastern and western coasts.
- Mid- term with a horizon period encompassing the ban period from 15 April to 14 June 2020 on the East coast and from 1 June to 3 July 2020 on the West coast.
- Long- term with a horizon period until the end of the next financial year on 31 March 2021 by revisiting the recommendations made by the Standing Committee on Agriculture in the budget session.
- The Draft Fisheries Policy 2020 should be immediately withdrawn and consultations should be resumed with the stakeholders
- The Draft policy should be translated in all the vernacular languages before any sort of consultations.
- The PMMSY Scheme should be reviewed keeping in mind the Standing Committee’s recommendations.
There have been similar policy demands by other fisher/fishworker groups and communities. Several of them have suggested that the government devise new ways of functioning of the sector. The entire process of fish landing and auctioning makes crowding inevitable. This would pose a severe health threats to thousands of fishers and fishworkers, but complete banning of these activities would threaten the livelihoods of the fishers, workers and vendors. Therefore, the government needs to urgently rethink how fish marketing is conducted. One way to do this would be to decentralise landing and auctioning that will enable more local handling of fishing activities, thereby limiting crowds and facilitating physical distancing.
In an opinion piece, John Kurien has laid down several policy suggestions that could be implemented in consultation with local fishing communities. He has recommended ways in which fishing can be conducted following physical distancing. He argues that with the decrease in demand, fishing can be restricted and this can be done in a way where it must be restricted at the level of each fishing village/centre by instituting a rotation system. A fraction of the fishers can go fishing every day and this can be arranged by a collective and transparent rota or lottery system. He also suggests that fishing should be restricted to a maximum of an 8-12 hour cycle, during the day. He argued that these restrictions would prove to be beneficial for the fishers as lower supply caused by the smaller harvest will ensure that the prices do not fall. Local fishing centre can also be linked to the local level community kitchen. This would ensure that local fish would be supplied for local consumption.