Inland Fishermen and Inland Fishing: A Study at Neelampeeroor Village (Alappuzha District) (Abstract)

R.V. Jose*

Kerala, which has a long coastline and a highly productive continental shelf, is a major producer and exporter of marine products in India. The State is richly endowed with large inland water resources such as rivers, tanks, ponds, reservoirs, brackish water lakes, backwaters and estuaries; however, a major part of the State’s growth potentialities in both the culture and capture inland fisheries still remain unexploited. In spite of a substantial increase in the number of its active inland fishermen, the percentage contribution of the State in the total annual inland fish production in the country has shown a declining trend.

With its unique wetlands ecosystem, the Kuttanad region could play a crucial role in the development of the inland fisheries sector of the State. With the Vembanad Lake spread over an area of 365 square km, numerous waterways, channels, ponds, river systems, large and vast stretches of rice fields (padasekharams), this region is an ideal habitat and breeding ground for a wide variety of fresh water and brackish water fish species. The region that accounts for nearly one-fourth of the total water area used for fish culture accommodates more than one-third of the inland fishermen households and active inland fishermen in the State. Despite its natural advantages, the inland fishing sector in Kuttanad is on the brink of a severe crisis. Owing to reclamations and encroachments, the area of the water bodies has substantially declined in recent years. Over-fishing, use of banned fishing gear, practices like water-poisoning, use of explosives and electrocution, erection of water barriers and the resultant degeneration of the ecosystem, water pollution due to discharge of household and industrial waste, and accumulation of pesticide and fertiliser residue in water bodies, have caused irreparable damage to aquatic life in this region. Some wild fish species have already become extinct and a few others are on the verge of extinction.

In Kuttanad, inland fishing is an age-old occupation. Most of the traditional fishermen belonged to a backward Hindu community called Dheevara. Traditionally, fishermen used indigenous fishing gear and adhered to fishing norms conventionally prescribed for sustaining inland fisheries and their productivity. Gradually, with large-scale reclamation of kayal lands for rice cultivation, the density of population in the Kuttanad region increased rapidly. Later as a result of the introduction of mechanisation in rice farming, people turned increasingly to inland fishing. These new entrants as well as the new generation of the traditional fishermen have exploited the fishery resources excessively.

Neelamperoor is an important inland fishing centre and a major fish market. At present, there are 96 inland fishermen households and 120 active inland fishermen in this village, the majority of them belonging to the traditional fishermen community. Local fishermen still use, in general, traditional fishing gear and crafts. However, in the place of cotton nets, they use either nylon nets or the recently introduced Vysali nets. Wide seasonal variations are observed in both the average daily catch and its consumption. For marketing local fishermen depend on the services of the tharakan who takes a commission on the value of the sales.

At present, inland fishermen households from the Dheevara community have become a small minority. Nearly, two–third of the fishermen households are of the Ezhava community, traditionally, a non-fishing community. The fishermen population forms more than eight per cent of the village population. Unlike in the village population, males are more than females among the inland fishermen. Birth and death rates are low and the household size is small. Although more than 95 per cent of the active fishermen in the village are literate, two-thirds of them had only a primary level education.

More than one-third of the fishermen lives in small and untidy huts without proper ventilation. About 60 per cent of their houses has not electricity connection. Modern amenities like television, telephone, electric fans, and refrigerators are available only to a small proportion of the fishermen households. As cooking fuel, they use firewood. Nearly, 80 per cent are full-time fishermen or full-time vendors. In the absence of alternative sources of income, the vast majority of the fishermen households depend exclusively on inland fishing which yield low and uncertain incomes and are subject to wide seasonal variations. Most fishermen households are in debt.

On an average, more than two-thirds of the annual earnings of a fishermen household is spent on food articles. Yet, the average daily food intake of the fishermen population lies far below the required levels in terms of both quantity and quality. Most of them live in filthy surroundings without proper sanitation facilities and use highly contaminated water for domestic purposes. Unhealthy habits like smoking, pan chewing and are common among them. They have become susceptible to several diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid and tuberculosis. Fishermen households spend a considerable portion of their income on medical treatments.

The inland fisheries sector of the Kuttanad region is ridden with several problems. Over the past few decades, the number of active fishermen in this region has increased substantially. Meanwhile, because of the massive reclamation of kayal lands for household, agricultural, and industrial purposes, available fishable areas have declined drastically. In their bid to maintain the size of the daily catch local fishermen work overtime and use large quantities of nets and other fishing gear. Owing to over-fishing, the productivity of the fishing grounds has decreased drastically. Although the use of fishing gear that lead to mass destruction and the premature catching of inland fish are legally banned, such practices continue.

The gradual but steady degeneration of the ecosystem of the Kuttanad region has become a severe threat to its aquatic life. In this respect, the role of Thanneermukkom Salt Water Barrier has been very crucial. During the summer months when shutters of the Bund are closed the low tidal effects cease and impurities are accumulated in the southern parts of the Vembanad Lake. Salinity in areas lying south of the Bund becomes too low for the growth of prawns and brackish water fish. Migration routes of prawns and fish are also disrupted by the Bund. Owing to the dumping of domestic sewage, discharges from factories and accumulation of fertiliser and insecticide residue flushed out from rice fields, the Vembanad Lake and the waterways have become highly polluted. The unprecedented outbreak and the sudden spread of the inland fish disease in the water bodies of the Kuttanad region during the early nineties caused mass mortality among almost all the species of wild inland fishes. In spite of its immense growth potential, the culture fisheries sector of the region remains largely unexploited. In addition to substantial decline in the availability of inland fish, fishermen of the study area also face many other severe problems such as inadequacy of capital, improper implementation of welfare schemes and exploitation by marketing middlemen.

In order to tackle the present crisis in the inland fisheries sector of the Kuttanad region, a two- way approach is required. On the one side, prompt and rigorous steps must be taken to protect and improve the aquatic wealth of the region and on the other, apt measures should be adopted to solve the problems involved in inland fishing. We suggest the following measures to preserve and enhance the inland fish wealth in the Kuttanad region.

(i) Identify and register actual inland fishermen and exclude others registered as fishermen from official records;

(ii) Formulate and implement a comprehensive inland fisheries policy;

(iii) Strictly enforce the existing rules and regulations regarding the use of nets and other fishing gear, and the prohibition of destructive devices;

(iv) Prevent further encroachment on existing fishable land bodies;

(v) While designing any further development projects in the Kuttanad region give due importance to the inland fishing sector and implement only those projects that are environment-friendly. Reassess the usefulness of Thanneermukkam Bund and Thottappally Spillway in the light of the serious environmental problems caused by them;

(vi) Take appropriate steps to mitigate water pollution discharge of household and industrial waste. Persuade rice farmers to use only the optimum quantities of pesticides and chemical fertilisers; and restrict dredging activities in the Vembanad Lake;

(vii) Restrict (or even prevent if necessary) inland fishing operations during the breeding season of inland fish and prawn. Moreover, limit the normal duration of fishing to four or five hours per day.

(viii) Periodically deposit highly productive fish seeds in the Vembanad Lake and in waterways, padasekharams and rivers systems in the Kuttanad region. Take stringent measures to prevent the premature capture of fish.

(ix) Encourage fish cultivation in padasekharams either as a mixed crop along with rice or as an alternative crop. Action plans may be formulated at the village or panchayat levels. Financial and technical assistance must be provided to potential fish farmers.

(x) In order to preserve the different inland fish species and to protect them from extinction, a portion of the Vembanad Lake must be declared as a ‘protected’ area or ‘fish sanctuary’ and fishing within this area should be strictly prohibited; and

(xi) Rejuvenate the ‘Fish Disease Monitoring Cell’ set up under the State Fisheries Department in 1991 to deal with problems related to inland fish diseases.

In order to ease the specific problems involved in inland fishing, the following suggestions may be considered.

(i) Provide long-term loans on personal surety with subsidies to the needy fishermen to purchase capital equipment such as fishing crafts, nets and other fishing gear. Ensure that the loans are not diverted for other purposes.

(ii) Give adequate compensation to fishermen whose fishing crafts and gear are lost or damaged during fishing. Simplify procedures for availing the benefits.

(iii) Give ‘kerosene permits’ to all fishermen.

(iv) Conduct awareness programmes and organise periodic study classes and seminars to impart proper training to fishermen. These activities may be taken up by the Sanghom. Reduce or eliminate the role of the intermediaries in fish marketing.

In the past few years, prices of all varieties of inland fish in the Kuttanad region have increased considerably. However, inland fishermen of the region have not benefited much from the price hike because of the simultaneous increase in their cost of living and the steady decline in the quantity of the daily catch. It is necessary to take effective steps to maintain and improve their productivity by discouraging further entry of full time fisherfolk into this sector.

In conclusion, we reiterate that the immense development potential, in both culture and capture inland fisheries, of the Kuttanad region remains undertapped and that the living conditions of fishermen households remain poor and almost unchanging in recent years. Concerted action by government agencies, local bodies, trade unions, and voluntary organisation with the active support, co-operation and participation of the fishermen is required to solve the dilemmas and taking the region and its people towards growth and development.

* Dr R. V. Jose is Professor and Head of the Department of Economics of CMS College Kottayam.