Deep sea fishermen receive no banking support as lenders don’t want to fish for trouble

Kanyakumari: Deep-sea fishing, an inherently risky business, is so much more so here. Fisher-folk have a litany of concerns. The boats capable of fishing in deeper waters cost upwards of Rs 60 lakh each and government subsidies that are meant to help them get started don’t mean much when the banks are not ready to help.

Stabi L from Chinnathurai used to own a boat before cyclone Ockhi hit. The devastating loss of his only boat is only compounded by the memory of the struggle to raise the capital for it in the first place. “The banks say they can’t give us loans unless we have a collateral of equivalent value. But this is what they do for everyone. There is no special consideration to encourage us,” he says. “All the land I have is in the rural interiors and not worth much. Ultimately we are forced to raise funds from private moneylenders.”

Marine fish production in Tamil Nadu (TN) across its 13 coastal districts in fiscal 2016-2017 totalled 4.72 lakh tonnes. Of this, barely 88,257 tonnes worth Rs 4,342 crore were exported. A lot has been written about the under-exploitation of India’s fisheries potential, (including the snark, “the only country where fish die of old age”), whose Extended Economic Zone that extends up to 200 nautical miles has largely remained unfished.

A fishing boat preparing to set sail off the coast of Tamil Nadu. 101Reporters.

A fishing boat preparing to set sail off the coast of Tamil Nadu. 101Reporters.

In addition to the economic benefits, deep-sea fishing has also been touted as the solution to the woes of Rameswaram’s fisherfolk and decades-long trouble with the Sri Lankan Navy and the recent ban on trawlers by Sri Lanka. Unlike in Rameswaram, most of Kanyakumari district’s fisher-folk are already of the deep-sea variety. They paid the price for it last December when over 177 men from this district died during Cyclone Ockhi.

The only state government assistance currently available to the fisherfolk from this region is the ‘Amma scheme’ where a Rs 60 lakh ‘Tuna-Long-Liner’ boat is subsidised upto 50 percent by the TN government. Under this scheme, 96 boats have been built according to a source at the state fisheries department in Kanyakumari. But coming up with the remaining Rs 30 lakh is not easy, say a group of fisher-folk assembled at the Chinnathurai fishermen union office in Kanyakumari district. While the government apparently wants more fisherfolk to take up deep-sea fishing, even government banks don’t seem to have received the memo.

A central government scheme that’s being rolled out in Ramnathpuram district has more favourable terms. “For a boat costing Rs 80 lakh, the Centre’s contribution will be 50 percent and the state government will pitch in with a 20 percent share. Of the remaining 30 percent, 20 percent will comprise institutional finance and 10 percent will be the beneficiary's contribution,” according to a report. It is expected that, after the devastating losses sustained by fishing communities in Kanyakumari after last year’s cyclone, this scheme will be extended to this district as well, where over 20 boats were reportedly destroyed on account of Cyclone Okchi.

The risks involved in venturing out to the sea, coupled with the lack of guaranteed returns (no pun intended), make this community tricky to lend to. “It’s not a regular income,” says Yesudhasan T, a deep-sea fisherman from Chinnathurai. “Sometimes we get profits of Rs 50,000 a month, sometimes Rs 1-2 lakh; and sometimes we even come back empty handed. Even before we set off, we have to invest about Rs 7-8 lakh for each voyage in fuel, ice, food and supplies for the men to last several days, labour etc. And a voyage is profitable only if our catch fetches us enough to cover the initial costs and then some.”

Formal financial institutions have no role to play in financing the voyage. Boat owners rely on the local network of agents who advance them the fuel or supplies they need against the expected catch. Another problem is that boat owners are unable to insure their vessels. For such high-value boats, insurance is either hard to come by or is prohibitively expensive. (Cases of missing fishermen are aplenty here, even before Ockhi, which is why a key demand of the fishing community is a small but permanent-rescue unit equipped with speedboats and helicopters).

Yesudhasan used to own two boats, one of which was lost at sea and the other was badly damaged during the cyclone. While both vessels were registered with the TN government, neither had any insurance. Yesudhasan had to spend Rs 10 lakh of his own money to make his surviving boat sea-worthy again. He is still waiting to hear if he’ll be compensated for his losses. Left to the whims of the government in a crisis like this isn’t a pleasant prospect, but the men say they don’t have any other choice.

“On registering the boats with the government, we get one year’s insurance for free,” says Stabi, “But none of us get it renewed because it costs too much.” With the claims process leaving a bitter taste in the mouth, insurance is not a priority, not even an afterthought. “There are always delays in getting any money from the insurance and it’s also very tough,” explains a former fisherman. “The first thing they do is suspect us of trying to commit insurance fraud. Beyond filing a first-information report (FIR), how else can I prove that my boat is lost? So, we have learned to accept these losses as part of the job.”

But the prevailing belief among the fishing community is that class and caste barriers are what prevent their access to finance and banking solutions. “Speaking from personal experience, as a fisherman I have suffered humiliation in a lot of places,” a parish priest from one of the coastal villages here said. “I am a fisherman, I grew up with the sea. When the sea swells, the water reaches the doorstep of our house. Our work is a struggle, right from the start when we take the boat into the water when we struggle with the waves. It is only the very brave and strong who can venture into the sea.”

(Ayswarya Murthy is a Chennai-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)


Updated Date: Jun 25, 2018 20:05 PM

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