Livelihood restoration after tsunami and the market economy

An interview with V Vivekanandan, South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies(SIFFS)








(Interviewed by Priya C Nair and Shruti Kulkarni in Thiruvananthapuram, 27 April 2006)


    The Marine fishing sector, historically in India has been market dependent and linked to the market. The globalization that we are talking about is actually a post 1991 phenomenon. But actually in the fisheries sector the globalization started much earlier. Even in the early 20th century, 1940s and so on there were a lot of changes that took place in the fisheries sector as a result of the external global market related changes.

 For instance the arrival of new products like nylon rolls and nylon lines. Coming of the Norwegian Mustard hooks, made the hook and line fishing very productive. So small fishermen going on a kattamaram could catch a lot of fish. Similarly the kattamaram, which is just few logs tied together, the wood for it was some local timber available here, and that absorbed a lot of water so required drying regularly almost everyday. So the fishermen had to invest in 3, 4 set. The coming of the Albyzia timber from Sri Lanka in the 40s and 50s made a drastic change. Fishermen, especially along the west coast of India started using this new timber for kattamarams, which absorbed less water and were more durable. So even a small fisherman increased his productivity and income as a result of availability of new inputs from abroad.

     Like this the changes in 60s and 70s… coming of the trawlers in India, trawling for catching fish is a result of global changes- the post war reconstruction of Europe, the increase in the economic standard, changes in lifestyle made shrimp a high value species. And we have a lot of shrimps in Tropics so trawling started. So this is a sector, which is linked to the global market and in turn influenced by the global trends from a very long time. So it is very important to understand this trend as far as fisheries is concerned.


However the kind of global trends that we are talking about, the need for fishermen’s organization and collectives, cooperative action is increasingly becoming important. There is a great need for small producers, whatever be the produce, to organize themselves on cooperative lines to get economies of scale and to survive in the global market. The economies of scale maybe related to marketing the produce or it maybe related to purchasing of inputs. For both you need economies of scale and we have a very good experience here in SIFFS network.

The SIFFS societies have been able to access globally produced inputs like outboard motors at reasonable price only because of coming together and having economies of scale. And we also know very well the kind of exploitation by middleman, merchants and moneylenders. All of this can be reduced or avoided if fishermen come together and organize their own economic activities. So there is a great deal of utility in promoting cooperatives and cooperative action among the fishermen and the fishing communities.

     Unfortunately the state cooperative, the state sponsored cooperative programmes in marine fisheries have been a dismal failure. Neither of these cooperatives is actually controlled by the fishermen nor do they have any business activity, which is the whole purpose of a cooperative. They don’t do any business. They are only meant for the state to provide certain subsidized inputs, certain welfare schemes, maybe insurance for the fishing communities. So they are only quasi government entities. So genuine cooperatives need to be formed if we want the fishing communities to have the advantages of the economies of scale and survive in the global market. This is one set of issues.

Alternative Employment

      As far as the issue of alternative employment is concerned, it is an important need. Basically as far as the fish resources are concerned they are limited. So we need activities or programmes to manage, regulate and control the fishing activity otherwise the fish resources will be over exploited. We also need to diversify some of the fishing boats to search new fishing grounds, do different types of fishing. So that the pressure on the existing resources is reduced. And we need to promote alternative livelihoods and alternative employment.

    Talking of alternative employment I must say that it is easier said than done. There are many practical problems in promoting alternative employment. We have actually had job less growth, which means that it is not very easy to create employment only for the fishing community when at national level the jobs are not growing. It is a very tricky issue. Even then you can give training and provide opportunities for alternative employment. But the selection of the vocation has to be done very carefully. Fishing community is contrary to whatever we may think. They have a fairly high opportunity cost. You go to the sea, you may still get a good catch. You go sell fish; you can make a good profit. So they may not be ready to take up any kind of employment. And an employment that would require them to go far away from their village may not be acceptable to many. So we have to be very careful about the choice of the employment and the returns it provides etc. It is very crucial. The fishing community may not have the inclination to accept all jobs.

        Another important thing as far as the alternative employment is concerned is how can we improve the educational standard of the youth from the fishing community? Because, when we are talking of alternative employment we are talking of basically the next generation or today’s youth. Currently somebody who’s going to the sea may not be willing to shift livelihoods or vocations. So we are only targeting the next generation. There I think the best approach would be to improve the quality of education. Then the youth from the fishing community will get into the mainstream and compete for jobs and do well. So we need to start looking at that.

    The Government also needs to come up with a policy environment that encourages education among the fishing communities. Kerala has been a pioneer in this regard by bringing in special schemes and incentives for children from the fishing community to go for schools and colleges. They give scholarships and special incentives. Other states can also follow these measures.

The community leadership tends to demand things like reservation or scheduled caste, schedule tribe status and so on. Today after 50 years of independence I doubt if it’s feasible. So the best approach would be to have certain affirmative actions, specifically designed schemes to promote education and welfare among the fishing communities. And this should definitely go a long way in helping the fishing community. The Government can also come up with schemes, which encourage NGOs to get into education, alternative employment and give them the access to government resources to make it happen. This requires creative work. A typical government programme cannot create alternative employment. But on the other hand the resources and facilities available with the Government can be leveraged by the NGOs to create a possible kind of a programme for improving the status of education of the fishing community as well as generate alternate employment.

Self Help Groups
   The Self Help Groups, alternative employment and new livelihoods that are being promoted are good and these are the things that need to be done. But the danger is that we may end up doing things that are not sustainable. There may be no markets for the products. NGOs are notorious for their poor business and lack of market knowledge. So this is one of the problems I can foresee. Only those who are here for a long time, ready to learn and work hard and make it a success can succeed in this game. It will be very difficult for somebody who is here for a year or two, to create products overnight and market it. So this is a danger we have to carefully look at.

And as far as the opportunities in the local market that are there for the community, I would say that there are definitely products and services which are in demand in the local area which the local people can produce, instead of people from distant markets supplying it to them. The local people can do this service. It is possible.

     But by definition the local market is localised so in every area you have to do market research. Every area you need to learn about the market and come up with these things. So it is a difficult task. And one has to do things with a lot of care. Here I would raise the issue of, we cannot look at some of these things as something exclusively meant for the so-called tsunami affected communities and that too only the fishing communities. These communities have a right to rehabilitation, which puts them back at least on pre-tsunami level. Agreed! And to the extent possible, to put them on a new path of development. But there is artificiality in saying that all the work in this area will be done for the so-called tsunami victims. There are a lot of poor people in the vicinity. So some of these things will have to be looked at very carefully. Certain products and services, it may not be the aptitude to do that with the fishing community. It may be from a nearby farming community, it may be some other labouring community, which may be a much better fit for that vocation. So let us be open and look at it from a broader perspective. There are opportunities and one has to work on it from a much more open mind and with a greater creativity.