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The coastline of West Bengal is spread over two districts: South 24-Parganas and East Midnapore. Fishing in West Bengal is also mainly focused on these two districts. About 100 km south of Kolkata in the Kakdwip subdivision of South 24 Parganas lies Sagar island. The island is located within a tidal creek and has a very low elevation. The fisherfolk of the island depends on the waters of Ganga Sagar – where the river Ganges meets the Bay of Bengal – for their livelihood.
During the fishing season which lasts from October to February, they set out in mechanized boats every six hours during the high tide. During this time, they barely sleep. Once they return from the waters, their family helps them dry the fish and fish meal tied to wires and laid on nets in their front yards respectively. They live in huts called “khutis” made of hogla leaves during these four months.
The fisherfolk do not own the title to the land where they set up khutis. They live there with permission from the local panchayat. In 2014, chief minister Mamata Banerjee had said that the seafront would be developed for tourism. “The local fishermen under Sagar Sangam Matsojibi Khuti Samabyay Samiti led an agitation against the move and delivered a petition with a set of demands to the chief minister,” says Abdar Mallik, secretary of Sagar Marine Matsya Khuti Cooperative Society. “The chief minister had assured them that they would not be evicted without being given an alternative piece of land,” he adds.
Trawlers have wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of small fishermen in Sagar Island and the marine environment. The bottom trawlers destroy the plants on the seafloor. They chose certain species of fish from the catch and throw out the rest of the dead fishes polluting the sea. The trawler nets are such that even if the mesh size is big when they are pulled, the mesh closes completely, trapping even the smallest of fishes.
Sea bottom trawling at the mouth of the sea is destroying marine ecology and eating into the catch of small fishermen. “Local small fishermen organizations have filed petitions to the state government to rein in the trawlers. But the trawlers always find a way around the laws,” says Mallik.
Several state and district-level organizations have been constituted to protect the interests of small-scale fishermen. The Dakhinbongo Matsojibi Forum and Sagar Marine Matsya Khuti Cooperative Society are two of the more influential organizations advocating for the rights of fisherfolk in West Bengal and Sagar respectively.
There are different categories of small-scale fishermen. Some have motorized boats; others use the dinghy or a small boat. They fish in the shallow seas, in the inland waters, estuaries, lakes, and reservoirs. All these fishermen cater to the local market. These small-scale fishermen supply 80 percent of the fish that is available in markets across Bengal. Bengal’s small-scale fisheries have an estimated annual turnover of Rs 500 crore.
Due to a lack of micro-financing opportunities from the government, the fishermen often take loans from either money lenders or middlemen to repair boats, nets, etc. If they take loans from the moneylender, they can sell off their catch and pay off their debt. But there is always a risk that an insufficient catch or falling market prices might end up landing them in the debt trap. So, they prefer taking a lump sum loan from the middlemen. In return, these middlemen are entitled to all their catches.
The deep-sea fishing ban was introduced in 2015 by the department of fisheries, to allow uninterrupted breeding and growth of fish. Every year, fishing activity is banned between April 15 and June 14 on the east coast. A special ban is imposed from 15 September to 24 October to allow for the undisturbed breeding of Hilsa. Hilsa fishing is labor and fuel-intensive. It needs different nets, bigger boats. The expenses can go up to two lakhs. Only gill nets are used to catch Hilsa.
“The Savings Cum Relief scheme was started by the Central government of India in the ’90s to compensate small fishermen for the losses incurred during the fishing ban period. According to the scheme, the central government, state government, and the beneficiary would contribute one-third of the total relief amount throughout the fishing period and get the returns during the non-fishing period,” says Pradip Chatterjee, president, Dakshinbanga Matsojibi Forum (DMF).
At present, the total amount is Rs. 4,500. “It was an occupational entitlement and the central government later made the scheme available only for the below poverty line (BPL) category i.e., only BPL fishermen will be entitled to benefit from the scheme,” says Chatterjee.
“The Dakhinbongo Matsojibi Forum opposed it as most fishermen are far from being rich,” he adds.
During the offseason, the fishermen do odd jobs, get employment in government schemes, work in construction or brick kilns. During the fishing season, one fisher folk can earn about Rs 10,000 a month. Off-season earnings vary between Rs 5,000 to 7,000.