Burdened by debt and loss of livelihood, fisherfolk in Maharashtra's Palghar struggle to stay afloat
Satpati – one of the largest fishing villages in Maharashtra. It is located on the west coast about 80 kilometers north of Mumbai in the tribal district of Palghar. The fishers in Satpati, who belong to the Koli community, fish in Maharashtra’s waters.
Editor's note: This article is the fourth in a multi-part series which examines how the COVID-19 lockdown has impacted one of the most backward districts in Maharashtra and the most disadvantaged section of the society living on the outskirts of Mumbai. Click to read: part I , part II and part III
Ever since fishing resumed in the first week of August, Pankaj Patil has been receiving incessant phone calls. None of them bearing good news. “Every day, fisherfolk are meeting with accidents, their boats are breaking down in the middle of the sea,” he says. “The other day, a fisherman lost balance and drowned. The weather has been rough. But fisherfolk are risking their lives because they are desperate to get back on their feet.”
Patil runs a fishing cooperative society in Satpati, one of the largest fishing villages in Maharashtra. It is located on the west coast about 80 kilometers north of Mumbai in the tribal district of Palghar. The fishers in Satpati, who belong to the Koli community, fish in Maharashtra’s waters. There are also Adivasi khalaasis in talukas closer to Gujarat border — like Talasari and Dahanu. They fish in Gujarat waters. Together they make up for a significant fishing community with thousands of livelihoods dependent on it in the district of Palghar, which has a population of 3 million.
The community is trying to get back on its feet after the losses they incurred during the lockdown — enforced on 24 March to contain the spread of coronavirus. But the seas have not been welcoming. In the first week of August, hundreds of boats from Palghar were hit due to rough weather triggered by incessant downpour. At least 341 were stranded, and had to return midway through their journey. Some even suffered serious accidents.
Jitu Chaudhary, 31, a fisherman from Satpati, says his boat dashed against a rock near the shore because he couldn’t control it in the ominous weather. “Luckily, I survived,” he says. “But the boat did not. I could not salvage a single plank of wood. I don’t know if I can ever recover from the loss.”
Jitu took a loan of Rs 15 lakh to fix the boat – about 7 feet tall, 50 feet long and 15 feet wide. “I don’t know what to do,” he says. “How am I going to repay the debt? I had to go in the sea once fishing resumed in August because for two months after the lockdown we couldn’t do anything.”
Several activists believe it is unwise to restart fishing in the first week of August after the 61-day annual ban, which starts on 1 June. “The weather begins to settle down after 15 August,” he says. “These days, because of climate change, the weather isn’t stable even after 15 August. The profession has become more precarious. We risk losing lives, and the accidents pile up debt.”
Activists working with the fishing community, like Patil, have been calling for the extension of the annual ban period for a while. Until 2012, it was a 75-day period, which started on 1 June and lasted until 15 August. “The purpose of the annual fishing ban is also to preserve the fish species during monsoons,” says Patil. “It is a breeding period for various species of fish along the coastline. Netting the small fish is not the smartest thing to do.”
According to Patil, catching the small fish means the fisherfolk reduce their chances of netting a bigger one in the future. “A bucket of small fish can be sold at Rs 2,500, while a big pomfret fetches us a few times more,” says Jitu.
Therefore, reducing the ban period defeats the purpose, and is counter-productive in the long run, the fisherfolk concede. “There won’t be anything to fish near the coastline, which would push fisherfolk deeper into the seas,” says Patil. “Those who do not have bigger boats would not be able to do that.”
Ever since the lockdown, the fisherfolk in Palghar have been dealt with one blow after another. The initial period restricted them from selling their catch. Once the restrictions relaxed a bit by the end of May, some of those who had resumed fishing had to return because of Cyclone Nisarga which hit the coastline of north Maharashtra and south Gujarat in June.
About 455 boats had to turn around mid-journey to make it safely back to the coast. And now, even with the annual ban over, the weather is not congenial for fishing as the district has been experiencing consistent and torrential downpour, deepening the crisis further.
Fishing, Jitu says, had become an unviable profession even before the lockdown. “You may think the fishers are doing great because pomfret is selling for Rs 500 a kilo. But that is not how it works," Jitu explains. "The overhead costs have increased dramatically. The fuel costs have gone up. We barely manage to secure meals for our families after the overhead costs and salaries of our khalaasis.”
Given the situation, number of fisherfolk quitting the profession has been on the rise, says Patil. “You will find them working as watchmen or drivers in Tier-II or III cities,” he says. “Every fisher is in heavy debt. They have been mortgaging their gold to stay afloat.”
The plight of these fishers has made the lives of some of the Adivasi khalaasis living in Talasari look relatively stable. They work for a businessperson who owns the boat. They earn a modest salary but the payment is stable regardless of how many fish they net.
Nitesh Bhurkul, 25, a khalaasi from the Warli tribe from Paraspada in Talasari, located 75 kilometers from Satpati, is all set to resume work. “I will go to the Veraval port in Gujarat and get on the boat,” he says. “The boat is owned by the seth. He pays me Rs 8,500 a month.”
Once Bhurkul starts the season, he says, they make at least 25-day trips in the deep sea. “We carry enough rice, enough water that lasts until we return,” he says. “We hand over our catch to our boss. They sell it at the fishing harbour and make profits.”
Every year, Bhurkul migrates out of the village around the same time and returns eight months later. This year, though, the lockdown forced him to change plans. “We were at sea when the lockdown was enforced,” he says. “We returned to the port to go back home but our Aadhaar cards had Maharashtra address.”
Authorities in Gujarat did not allow hundreds of such khalaasis to alight on their side of the border citing coronavirus-induced lockdown. “We lived on the boat that was pulled over at the port for a month,” says Bhurkul. “We were 135 of us in one boat. It was horrible. We were worried if we would have enough food so we used more water in our rice and made it watery.”
A month later, the khalaasis, after an intervention from the state government of Maharashtra, finally returned home to their families. But Bhurkul can’t afford to be scarred by the experience. About three months after being stuck on the boat, he is all set to return to the sea.
“My parents have a two-acre farmland but they barely survive on the rice we cultivate. My salary helps us sustain a livelihood,” he says.
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