India’s mechanised marine fishing sector employs thousands of fish workers, who, for ten months in a year, migrate from the country’s eastern and interior regions to the west coast. They work on the boats and at the harbour, doing a variety of jobs — labour-intensive work such as loading and unloading the fish, hauling nets, ferrying fish stocks from trucks to the auction site, crushing ice, making ice and transporting stocks.
They have poor working conditions, no representation in any unions, and are often invisibilised and ostracised. The nation-wide lockdown on 24th March left many stranded on boats at sea and the harbour, abandoned by their employers, and ignored by the governments. This essay threads a timeline of what the fish workers had to go through during the lockdown. Apathy is the main protagonist of this piece.
Akshay Oram came to the Vasco harbour in Goa for the first time in 2017. “My father went first to work on the boats. I followed him, wanting him to come back. ‘You go home, I’ll do the work,’ I said to him,” says the 20 year old from Jharsuguda, Odisha.
“That’s how I ended up working on the boats,” he says. “I had just finished my 12th grade and wanted to study further, but we had money problems at home. So I didn’t really have a choice.” Oram was good with people, and soon became manager of two purse seiners, handling a crew of 30 workers.
“When the lockdown happened, we were at sea. We came about three days later. Everyone was told to stay where they were. I had a room at the jetty itself, with five other people. We didn’t know what was happening and were eager to go home. Then fishing started again.”
On 15th April, about three weeks into the nationwide lockdown, the ministry of home affairs issued a set of guidelines, allowing certain sectors to function, one of which was marine fishing. This news brought with it a fair bit of confusion in the mechanised fishing sector. On the west coast, a number of boat owners could not resume fishing because of a lack of market, supply chain, and most importantly, the workers. “Our workers do not want to work. They want to go home,” said Nithin Kumar, president of Dakshina Kannada Trawler Association in Mangalore, Karnataka in an initial conversation, echoing the sentiment of several others in Gujarat and Maharashtra.
However, in some areas, fishing resumed. “We were happy when the government announced the resumption of fishing activity,” said Sydney Furtado, boat owner at Vasco harbour. “Our workers were also fine with it because that is what they are used to,” he said.
In another scenario, a crew did not want to go fishing, but the boat owner did. “A group of workers from West Bengal left their boat when the boat owner decided to take it fishing in Malpe harbour when they refused to go into the sea,” said Vineetha Venugopal, a researcher at Dakshin Foundation, a marine conservation non-profit that has been coordinating relief efforts for stranded fish workers since the lockdown. “They had to seek refuge in another boat and arrange for their own rations,” she said.
The situation turned grim when the deaths of two fish workers stranded at Veraval, Gujarat was reported. Veravel had nearly 4000 fish workers from Andhra Pradesh stranded at the harbour.
“Majority of the migrant fish workers work as labour on mechanised or large motorised fishing boats or as allied labour at fishing jetties. Their situation even before the lockdown has been one of marginalised and deliberately invisibilized existence, to maintain the cheapening labour to reap profit,” says Savita Vijayakumar, a political ecologist based in Goa, who had been helping coordinate repatriation of fish workers.
“The lockdown put them in very precarious positions; many were not paid wages, many couldn’t afford to keep their accommodation—all of them became stranded in some way. In the shelters provided, toilet to person ratio meant exposure to unhygienic conditions, photos of meals revealed shocking lapses in basic food quality as well as the quantity being served,” she said.
After the deaths were reported, the Andhra Pradesh government organised transport for the workers stranded at the harbour. Fifty-five buses were arranged for the 4000 workers towards the end of April.
“A group of Andhra Pradesh workers paid INR 6000 each to go from Malpe to Srikakulam,” says Venugopal. “They were so desperate that they had to borrow money from their boat owners, falling further into debt,” she said.
A group of five fish workers, fed up with the confusion over permits and money, bought bicycles and cycled from Kasimedu harbour in Tamil Nadu to Poornabandha in Odisha, a journey of approximately 11,00 kilometers, made over eleven days. “We were initially going to take a bus,” Roopanga Behera told me. He was one of the five riding. “But it was so confusing about the permits! We just decided to use the money and buy cycles instead—five of us on four cycles. We had some food ration. We rode through the night, rested during the day,” he says.
“I was paid INR 7500, less than the usual INR 10,000. And spent INR 5000 out of it on the journey,” he said.
“Money is a big issue here,” says Anil Tharayath Varghese, secretariat at National Fishworkers Forum, who worked on the repatriation of migrant fish workers across the country. “If they earn INR 10,000, they usually have to send INR7-8000 back home. During the lockdown, many were not paid wages or not paid full wages. One boat owner in Tamil Nadu gave his crew INR 2-3000 each and left them. This money can last you for a few days, but for how long? Many ended up borrowing money just to get home, making them fall further in a debt trap,” he said.
Shramik trains began on 1st May. The trains were organised by the central government, specifically for stranded migrant workers. One could not simply catch the train at the station. The process required registration at the local panchayat office, after which one would expect an SMS or a call confirming the registration.
“We sent out a letter of request for lists of workers from all cooperative societies,” says Dr Sharmila Monteiro, director at the department of fisheries in Goa. “Once we received the list, we would hand it over to the District Collectorate, who would make the required arrangements for the train and be responsible for sending the messages across.”
The reality, however, was far from ideal. According to the fisheries department, out of a workforce of 10,000, they received only 1000 names, many with no mobile numbers. “Many societies did not send us any list,” says Monteiro. “Cutbona Jetty, for example, did not send any names,” she said.
At Vasco harbour, which houses approximately 3000 fish workers, I was told that the list with about 800 names was submitted to the fisheries department on 2nd June. “One of our boat owners had a meeting with the District Collectorate as well,” said Rohit Sancolkar, manager at the jetty who was collating lists. “We were told that they had only 1200 names in total, not enough for a stand-alone train, which needs 1600 in total. We did not hear about anything after that. And the workers were getting impatient as the fishing season was coming to a close and the fear of COVID-19 had spread across Vasco. Many already left on their own,” he said.
“Owners and employers have been less than willing to engage with the process, beyond a few examples we have seen, largely because the engagement of the fishers and the fish workers start at the fishing jetty gate, in August when they come back for the fishing season, and ends at the gate when they leave in June. So anything beyond that in the sense of getting lists and taking them to panchayats, etc., has not really been a part of the relationship,” said Chakravarty.
Another practical problem was the nature of their job. The fish workers when out at sea, are away for four to fifteen days or more at a time depending on the boat size, weather and catch and then come back for a couple of days, and go back again. “So they tend to miss out on the registration, miss the deadline and sometimes the SMS or calls,” explained Venugopal.
“When the shramik trains began to run the coastal route, we started collecting lists of the fish workers who needed repatriation. Now the problem here is that many of the fish workers had begun going to the sea, and phones are out of range at sea. Boat drivers will generally have a GPS phone with them that can be used for communicating to fisheries officials and boat owners. But it depends on boat owners, how proactive they are about communicating travel-related information with the workers. We had cases coming up that they would miss out seeing the SMS or receiving the call that was necessary for the registration,” she says.
A third problem was the notification about the shramik train itself. “The shramik train is like Schrodinger’s cat,” says Venugopal. “One could never be certain about it. The nodal officer would inform us about a train, and then it wouldn’t turn up, or take a different route entirely. This created a lot of confusion.”
“I think initially the state underestimated the numbers of workers that would need repatriation, but it still doesn’t answer for the complete lack of inter-state and inter-departmental coordination to arrange trains even after the numbers did reveal itself. Trains were often announced with short notice; civil society was left to scramble to pass the information as it was not publicised in the media or vernacular languages,” she says.
The situation was further exacerbated by cyclones and an unprecedented fishing ban order, described below.
On 18th May, Amphan hit the east coast. It barrelled through West Bengal, making landfall at South 24 Parganas, a region home to the maximum number of migrant fish workers. Houses were destroyed, saline water entered into agricultural fields, trees uprooted. Most of the asbestos roofs were gone. Workers from the region were stuck in different parts of the country, especially Kerala, eager to go home. But trains to West Bengal were stopped till 26th May.
A group of workers were stuck in Kollam, Kerala, abandoned by their owner,” says Varghese. “They were all from South 24 Parganas, desperate to get home. Due to a misunderstanding, or perhaps language barriers, they were unable to register themselves. They barged into the administrative office and were lathi-charged by the police. Local unions came to the rescue, gave them shelter for a few days, and the administration later helped them board the trains,” he explained.
“There are over 20,000 fish workers from Sagar Island alone, working at harbours in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka,” said Milan Das, member of Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, the West Bengal branch of NFF. “Ever since the cyclone, I have been getting 50 to 500 calls every day, workers crying over the phone, wanting to come home.”
On 25th May, the central government ordered a reduction in the annual monsoon fishing ban. Every year, the central department of fisheries issues a “uniform ban on fishing by all fishing vessels in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).” It is considered a measure of safety for the fishermen since the high level of wind and wave action makes the waters dangerous for the vessels to operate.
Researchers say it is also a time of fish breeding and gives a chance for fish to spawn and replenish resources. The ban is limited to all mechanised vessels on the east and west coast, giving small scale fishers who fish in the near-shore waters a period of respite from competing with the larger mechanised vessels for the same resources. According to the initial order issued on 20th March 2020, the fishing ban dates were:
However, on 25th May, the central government issued an order reducing the number of ban days from 61 to 47, citing “the interests of the fishermen” as a reason for the amendment. The new ban dates were:
This meant, fishing would resume 15 days early on the east coast, days after Amphan battered the coast, and end 15 days late on the west coast, where workers were already scrambling to get home. Officials of Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute stated this was done to “protect livelihoods in the face of losses incurred during the lockdown period.”
Social researchers questioned this move. “The order to lift the ban was issued on the 25th of May. This just days after cyclone Amphan battered the east coast and coincided with the building up of cyclone Nisarga on the West Coast. In the wake of Amphan, one would have expected that the state would apply the precautionary principle, in pre-disaster preparedness and would invest time and effort to set in place early warning mechanisms.
Instead, by lifting the ban, the state displayed a shocking level of callousness towards the fishing communities and workers. The ban means you are not only passive about disaster management, but you are actively pushing people to the brink,” said Vijayakumar.
According to a report by the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, marine fisheries sector incurred monthly losses of ₹6,838 crores.
“The logic of lifting the ban to compensate for losses due to the lockdown is nothing but a high-risk gamble,” says Vijayakumar. “If indeed the goal was to make up for economic losses, then the question needs to be asked who has lost out, by how much and what can be done by the state to remedy. The levels of loss and corresponding distress are different across social class relations (caste, gender, region) within the sector. Marine capture fisheries cannot be seen as a homogenous unit of production but a system of production that capitalises on various levels of oppression within and from outside,” she said.
For migrant fish workers, this ensued further confusion.
“By 31st of May, my workers wanted to pack up and go home, because that is the usual pattern they follow,” says Simon Pereria, a boat owner in Vasco. “They refused to go back into the sea. They really just wanted to go home,” he said.
“The annual pattern of the fishing season ensures that everyone from labour agents, boat owners, to the workers themselves have a fixed time on when they would leave, as that would give them strength in numbers,” said Chakravarty. “The extension of the fishing season to 15th of June created a staggering effect, and the staggering effect meant that some boats which were smaller, or had been financially affected by the Covid-19 were unable to fish, and others could fish. So the whole group of having one demarcated date has fallen through, which means there is no clear picture from any of the jetties about what needs to be done,” he said.
Dr Monteiro, when asked about this, said, “There is no confusion at all. The boat owners that needed to wrap up their business on 1st June did, and those who wanted to continue continued.”
When asked if the department takes responsibility for fish workers in distress, such as unpaid wages, she said, “This is between the owner and the worker. We don’t get involved.” She later added, “The owners have been looking after the workers, giving them food and shelter and wages. There is no problem.”
Varghese estimates there are at least 1 lakh 70,000 migrant fish workers in the country who have needed repatriation to their home states. “And this is a conservative estimate,” he said. Since April, at least six deaths of stranded fish workers have been reported — two in Gujarat, two in Utan Pali, and two in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. After the monsoon, workers started trickling back. On 31st August, a Goan publication reported about a fish worker being tied down with a metal chain.
Varghese further continued, “I work with the small scale fish workers and their rights, so for me, this has been a strange dichotomy, and I could never have imagined that the mechanised sector has such a huge lot of migrant fish workers. I am stunned by their invisibilisation.”
“All disasters show us something critical,” says Jones Thomas Spartegus, pursuing a doctorate in disasters and fisher rights. “This pandemic lockdown disaster has shown us the informal workers of the mechanised sector. These are the children of the neo-liberal economy, of an export-oriented, commercial. Where the workers continue to be exploited for furthering profits.”