Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Table 11.2 Distribution of the Volume and Value of Output in Kerala Fishers between Sectors and Classes 11969-1980)

Year Volume
(in thousand
Value of Output No. of Output Per Per Capila Output Per
(in Rs. million) Workers Worker (kg) Income of Worker (Rs.)
Total To
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
      Mechanised Sector        
1969-70 40 41.5 29.0 12.5 7765 5150 16 5344
1974-75 143 322.8 226.0 96.8 11260 12700 8597 28668
1979-80 115 468.4 327.9 140.5 17500 3880 8029 18737
      Non-mechanised Sector        
1969 - 70 303 165.5 66.2 99.3 90660 3340 1095 1826
1974-75 277 311.8 124.7 187.1 99105 2800 1888 3146
1979-80 190 271.4 108.6 162.8 106626 1780 1527 2545

The outcome of fisheries development was total polarisationof the sector into two-the commercial economy and the survival economy.

Clash of World Views

The conflict over living marine resources, as it is physically manifested in the sea in the Indian region, is largely between artisanal fishermen and the more commercialized operators. The levels of technology and the economic motives apart, one needs also to examine the implicit clash of 'world views' or value systems.

For the artisanal fishermen the sea is 'Kodalamma'-mother and goddess. For them her wealth is limitless and they accept her vicissitudinous moods of bloom and barrenness with equal aplomb. Respect for the ocean is inextricably linked to their intimate dependence on her for a livelihood. Only in her drying up would their existence be threatened.

Commercial operators on the other hand operate on the fundamental premise of nature being just another 'factor of production' which needs to be exploited and dominated to the fullest extent for their immediate and short-term gains. Even the concept of a 'caring dominance' (used in a creative, enhancing and protecting manners is totally alien and anathema to their rationale of activity.

The conflict over living marine resources is therefore at once a combination of conflicts between technological artefacts, economic motivations, and world views.

The social and ecological consequences of conflict

It has been indicated that the undeterred pursuit of profit provides the backdrop against which the causative factors for the conflicts over living marine resources, their harvesting and use are to be viewed. The prime consequences of the conflict-destruction of resource and marginalisation of those who labour-are therefore central to the logic of profit-making

Resource ruin

Although nation-states have established sovereignty over large zones of the ocean, viewed from the perspective of the individual fisherman, living marine resources are still common property. Common ownership of a resource in a society premised on private property tantamounts to a situation where no one is to be held responsible or accountable for its maintenance and conservation. The mentality of 'whatever I do not harvest will be raped by another' provides the basis for maximum 'exploitation' of the resource in the shortest possible time.

Examples of resource ruin of marine fishing all over the world indicate that it is often in the interests of short run private profiteering to 'kill the goose'. As Daniel Fife points out, 'freedom of access to a resource brings ruin to the resource and NOT ruin to the entrepreneurs'. For the entrepreneurs, if the ratio of profits from indiscriminate harvesting to the profits from regulated harvesting is large enough under given conditions of investment, it pays to act indiscriminately and invest the higher profits as fast as they come in. In short, it pays to ruin the resource! This logic is very evident in India. The south-western coast of India accounts for the richest stocks of demersal prawns and pelagic shoals of oil sardines and mackerels. This region also has the highest number of bottom trawlers and purse-seiners which provide evidence of resource ruin being caused by their excessive operations.

The decline and changes in the resource may be the result of changes in the total biomass due to excessive harvesting of young fish or spawners. Alternatively, there may be drastic changes in the prey-predator relationships wiping out some of the more commercially valuable species and allowing for a growth of hitherto insignificant (both in terms of volume and value) varieties of fishes.

Excessive bottom trawling of inshore waters-something which is inevitable in the pursuit of prawns-is tantamount to a continuous raking of the seabed causing murky and turbid waters; destruction of the abodes of young demersal fish and bottom dwelling spawners. The cumulative effects of this are suddenly manifested in terms of a decline in the fish catch. Sometimes unfavourable oceanographic factors such as water temperature, currents and salinity may precipitate the crisis making it difficult to discern between man-made and natural factors causing the decline. The facts, however, seem to indicate that an aquatic milieu subjected to constant harassment is more prone to drastic imbalances spurred by oceanographic factors.

In the major prawn fishing area of south-west India, between 1973 and 1979, the catch dropped from 45,477 tonnes to 14,582 tonnes and the catch per unit effort from 82 kg per hour to 20 kg per hour. Trade sources also point to a shift in the composition of the export mix of prawns over time from the large (naran, kazhandan) to the smaller varieties (karikad,, poovalan). The latter three factors (fall in total production, catch per unit effort and size) are globally accepted as indicators of over-fishing.

Purse-seining for pelagic fish in the inshore waters is an excessively over-efficient technique. The encircling of whole schools of fish, particularly spawners, with each operation of the net, can, in tropical waters, lead to a species 'genocide', the ecological consequences of which will have very far-reaching and adverse effects.

In less than three quinquenium starting from 1970, Kerala's fisheries witnessed their greatest rise and fall. The decade of the seventies witnessed the highest ever fish landing and prawn landing in Kerala 448,000 tonnes and 84,700 tonnes, respectively in 1973-and also experienced stagnation and the sharpest decline in the growth of the overall catch. In the post-1974-76 period the decline in fish landing was of the order of 6 per cent per annum. Oil sardines and mackerels, once the mainstay of the fisheries, plunged to an all time low level. From a peak of 250,000 tonnes in 1968 the combined harvest of oil sardines and mackerels touched a low of 112,000 tonnes in 1975 and reached a rock bottom of 87,000 tonnes in 1980. Fish production was 279,000 tonnes in 1980, the lowest since 1961 (see Figure 11.1).54

Exports of marine products from Kerala on the other hand increased from 22,792 to 31,637 tonnes in 1979 valued at Rs. 1,096 million. Prawns accounted for the highest share of the volume and value of exports. However, Kerala's share in the all-India marine exports declined.

Figure 11.1 Marine Fish Landings of Kerala State (1 950/5 1-1980/ 8 1)

Investment growth despite stagnation of production

This stagnation and decline in fish landing becomes more prominent when seen against the background of increased investment in mechanised boats-small trawlers (for harvesting prawns), and purse-seiners (for harvesting oil sardines). The total number of mechanised boats by 1979-80 was estimated at around 3,500, more than double the number at the beginning of the seventies. The increase in fishing power did not result in a commensurate increase in the fish catch.

Marginalisation of the fishworker

It has been seen how conflicts at sea disrupt the lives of the majority of fishermen-restricting their fishing, damaging their nets and so forth. While it may pay the capitalist to ruin the resource, it spells disaster for the fishworkers whose labour converts the marine resource into commodities with use or exchange value. The evidence of the growing marginalisation of the majority of fishworkers in the region is really the cumulative consequence of all this.

The condition across the eight maritime states of India covering a coastline of 5,650 km (dotted with nearly 2,000 fishing villages) is more difficult to summarise than the condition of Kerala. As indicated earlier, the 'impact' of what has come to be termed as 'fisheries development' has varied widely. In states like Gujarat and Maharashtra increases in the productivity of fishermen and the distribution of the enhanced income so derived has been marked with less inequality when compared to the other states. The predominant hold on the new technologies by the fishing communities themselves was an important factor for ensuring this. In the other states along the south-west coast (Goa, Karnataka and Kerala) and the two south-eastern states (Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh) the polarization between artisanal fishermen and commercial operators is marked and the differences in productivity and income are becoming wider. Along the east coast the fish catch of artisanal fishermen has dwindled by 50 per cent to 75 per cent, the decline clearly coinciding with the introduction of trawlers. Several fish species which once formed important seasonal fisheries are now extinct. In Orissa and West Bengal marine fisheries development is still in its early stages therefore the full consequences of this development cannot be easily assessed.

At the national level, over a million active fishermen harvest nearly 65 per cent of the marine fish landing accounting for 0.5 cent of the gross domestic product and 60 per cent of the foreign exchange earnings of over US $350 million. These aggregates may appear impressive, but at the level of the individual fisherman, and this is particularly true of states which have a greater export orientation, his standard of living has barely improved if it has not worsened. In Kerala the plight of fishermen is rather deplorable. According to official estimates, half the fishermen households earn less than US $100 per annum and only 3 per cent earn over US $300. Half of them had only a thatched hut on the fringes of the seashore. Drinking water facilities within the village is a luxury enjoyed only by one-third of them. These deplorable conditions are in a state which accounts for over one-third of India's fish landings and over half of its marine exports earnings.

Undoubtedly, fishermen have only received the crumbs of fisheries development and the dichotomy between fisheries development and fishermen's development has become too wide to be bridged. The upheaval and ferment among the artisanal fishermen of Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which is at once an ecological movement and a social movement, testifies to the fact that the 'superstructure' built in the name of development and modernisation has become too heavy and burdensome for those who still continue to be the 'foundation' of the fish economy of India.

Resolving Conflict: The Fishermon's Movement

From 1981 onwards an annual feature in kerala in the month of may has been the upsurge of artisanal fishermen demanding their fundamental rights to a livelihood and guarantee of a sustainable future which will not be jeopardised by social forces which have an eye on fish resources primarily for making quick profits. An efficient technology controlled by such interests becomes a destructive tool, they argue, alluding to what they consider to be the ecological degradation of Kerala's coastal waters due to unregulated and indiscriminate bottom trawling for prawns and excessive purse-seining for oil sardines and mackerels.

While their movement has not been without contradictions, the consistent demands of artisanal fishermen over the years have been a call to:

  1. Proclaim an exclusive economic zone for small scale fishermen.
  2. Ban all destructive fishing techniques.
  3. Systematic regulation and management of the living marine resources of Kerala.

Like all ideal conditions this is easier said than done. Often one comes across ill conceived demands, like a ban on fish exports, raised by well intentioned ecologists, and social activists as the panacea for all conflicts. However, as long as we admit that the conflict and the accompanying deprivation of nature and man is central to the logic of private profiteering, such panacea touches only the consequential level of the problem at hand.

It is our contention here that in India the population at large would benefit from a more balanced and farsighted programme of access and use of living marine resources. Ideally, a radical change in the countries of the region to social systems which emphasise social profitability and ecological sustainability is the only long term solution. Short of this, within their own present political frameworks they can still act decisively on a few matters of priority as good 'second best alternatives'.

Aquarian Reform

Just as agrarian reforms are no more limited to the precincts of a socialist state, so also aquarian reforms on the sole grounds of economic and social rationality are a desirable step for any popular regime.

Aquarian reforms have two facets:

  1. Reserving the right to own fishing assets exclusively to those who are willing to fish themselves, no absentee 'sealords'.
  2. Placing the primary right and responsibility for management of the marine resources at the micro and mezzo levels to such a working fishing community.

These reforms are mutually reinforcing and will restrict the tendency to enjoy short-term gains at the expense of a long-term crisis. They will ensure greater distributive justice, participation and sustainability.

Social Control over Technology and Markets

The pursuit to raise productivity is essential, but in this process to adopt a technological artefact that alienates man and devastates nature is suicidal. Unfortunately, many of the post-independence fishing technologies of the South Asian countries are of this genre. Encouraging and hastening the development of technologies that are more suitable to the pattern of the tropical marine resource base and which draw on the vast storehouse of scientific knowledge of the fishworkers must be deemed a priority. A very successful beginning in this direction has been made by a genuine fishermen's organisation called the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies (SIFFS) located at the tip of the Indian peninsular in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala state. The development of beach landing marine plywood canoes using a technique called stitch and glue has replaced the rapidly diminishing 'dugout' canoes which are in short supply due to the depletion of large trees in the forests. Not only are the canoes fashioned in the likeness of the time-tested traditional canoe by craftsmen of the locality, they also offer the additional possibilities for carrying more nets and using an engine-both of which help to increase productivity. It is an artefact both appropriate to the local milieu and 'appropriable' by the fishermen who use it.

The nature of distribution of marine resources in tropical waters is tantamount to Mother Nature's inherent bias for a small-scale fishing technology in the South Asian region. Small is ecologically appropriate.

The excessive preoccupation with centralisation of activity on the grounds of 'economies of scale' is also anathema to the South Asian fishing scene. Given the fragmented and highly dispersed nature of the resource base, a more decentralised spatial organisation of the harvesting and processing activity particularly with respect to inshore fishery is desirable. Such an approach will foster widespread income and employment and also generate cheaper! shorter trade loops so that fisheries becomes more responsive to local food needs.

The fishery export sector of the South Asian countries is marked by mercantile control, narrow product range and end markets. The low valued added, low volume, high value, high profit sale of crustaceans and cephalopods to a handful of markets at the buyer's terms, is an apt description of the trade.

While foreign exchange earnings are crucial for the countries of the region, earning it by (over)-exploiting a natural resource without any form of social control over the process is hardly a desirable approach. Adopting a middle line between nationalisation of the sector and its anarchic development would augur well for a large sustained earning from the resource. Measures such as taxation of the trade income and exclusive use of these funds for socially controlled management of the harvesting and regulation of the growth of the processing sector must become integral facets of any true fisheries development plan.

Regenerating the Survival Economy

As pointed out earlier, in all the south asian countries prior to the advent of planned fisheries development, the fish economies were primarily composed of thousands of fishworkers eking out a survival and fish was a source of inexpensive but nutritious food for a limited population in the coastal hinterland.

'Under-paid, second-class citizens-that's fishermen' was the headlines of a reputed journal of the region. This is true despite decades of 'development and modernization'. this period fish as a food has also become a semi-luxury product beyond the reach of the vast majority of the needy in the region. Both these conditions need to be changed. Contrary to the earlier 'wisdom', it is not a totally export-oriented strategy which will benefit these masses. Evidence from the region shows that the exclusive pursuit of prawns for exports leads largely to profits for a few and the pauperisation of many.

Increased productivity through appropriate technological changes, backed by the suggested acquarian reform, linked to the expansion of the national/regional market for fish, is the only way to achieve the twin objectives of a decent livelihood for fish workers and nutritious food for the masses.

The livelihood and food perspective of fisheries development needs to be accorded a high priority in the planning process in the South Asian countries. A lot more lip-service to this perspective is also desirable since it is presently relegated to the realm of the 'unfashionable'.

As 'second best alternatives', to be implemented in social systems whose very logic will militate against their success, the above mentioned suggestions should not be viewed in isolation. The transition from conflict to harmony necessitates a holistic approach to remedial action. The experience from the region, particularly from India and more specifically from its conflict ridden south-west maritime states, indicates that initiatives for remedial action will necessarily require the active paticipation and pressure of those most affected by the conflict-the fishworkers. Their participation restricted merely to the political arena is hardly sufficient. It must extend to concretely demonstrating that an alternative path for the development of living marine resources is both desirable and possible. Herein lies the challenge posed by the conflict over living marine resources in India today.

Contents - Previous - Next