Despite fishing activities being exempted under lockdown, fisherfolk in Odisha say workforce, logistics, market situation major hurdles in wake of COVID-19

Highlighting why exemption of fisheries and related activities from lockdown restrictions may not help fishing communities and businesses much, experts have said that logistics, manpower and market situation in the wake of COVID-19 stand as major obstacles.

Basudev Mahapatra April 21, 2020 20:52:48 IST
Despite fishing activities being exempted under lockdown, fisherfolk in Odisha say workforce, logistics, market situation major hurdles in wake of COVID-19

Marine fisherfolk of Odisha foresee a miserable life ahead despite fishery activities being exempted from the purviews of the nationwide lockdown in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak, which has been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

"Fishermen of the coastal villages are living a miserable life. And, with no opportunities to earn, either from fishing or daily labour, marine fishing community in Odisha is bound to face more hardship in coming days," B Chittama, noted leader of Odisha’s marine fisherwomen, said.

Chittama, who leads the federation of about 150 groups of marine fisherwomen of Odisha called Samudram, lives in Arjipalli, a fishermen village on the Bay of Bengal coast, near Gopalpur of Odisha’s Ganjam district. "All our fishermen have been sitting idle since the janata curfew of 22 March, followed by the lockdown in the state from 23 March. Without any economic activity or income opportunity, most of us have no money to meet our daily needs like vegetables and groceries. Some have even incurred loans to survive."

Insufficient govt relief

As the government provided ration under public distribution system (PDS) three months in advance and disbursed Rs 1,000 each to all the beneficiaries for food and social security, the PDS card holders recieved rice and money to survive, for now. "What about those families who do not have a PDS card?" asked 56-year-old Buli Dei from Arakhkuda village located between Bay of Bengal and the Chilika lake.

"At least, 300 families from our village have been debarred from the list of beneficiaries under National Food Security Act. In absence of any support they are living under a lot of hardships. Thousands of such families live miserably in hundreds of fishing villages whose primary source of livelihood is marine fishing," said Buli.

Despite fishing activities being exempted under lockdown fisherfolk in Odisha say workforce logistics market situation major hurdles in wake of COVID19

Without jobs, fisherfolks depend on PDS ration for survival and several don't even have the PDS cards. Image/Basudev Mahapatra

Even though the Government of Odisha has announced special packages for welfare of wage labourers, construction workers, street venders etc. to benefit 1.64 crore people of the state's current population of over 4.7 crore, the fishermen of the state feature nowhere in the list.

“The fisher folks also survive on whatever they from daily fishing, It is quite similar to daily wage earners. Without fishing they have no other livelihood source. They should be considered for support against the loss of their livelihood,” urged Chittama highlighting the plights of fishermen during the lockdown across coastal villages of Odisha.

According to Prasanna Kumar Behera, president of Odisha Traditional Fish Workers’ Union, while the National Fish Workers Forum has appealed to the government of India to extend necessary support survival to fishermen, the issues have also been brought to the notice of Odisha government urging necessary action.

Exemption brings little difference

Although, the governments of India and Odisha have exempted fisheries and related operations from the lockdown, no one in the sector sees any difference due to that.

Fishermen couldnt go fishing during the peak season due to first phase of the lockdown. Now, the second phase of the lockdown has coincided with beginning of the monsoon ban on marine fishing, imposed every year for conservation of marine fish species during the breeding season. The no fishing days have extended placing the fishing communities at utmost vulnerability, Behera noted.

"However, this monsoon ban shouldn’t affect livelihood of traditional fishermen as motorised and non-motorised boats upto 8.5 metre length are allowed for fishing activities in the territorial waters, within 12 nautical miles, about 22 kilometres, off the Odisha coast," said Smruti Ranjan Pradhan, director of fisheries department. "The government has also allowed all associated activities like transportation, selling etc. during the second phase lockdown but by abiding to the basic safety and social distancing norms," he added.

Although, the ground realities are different than what is perceived by the government. Aside that they don't have enough masks and sanitisers, selling their catch to traders is a bigger problem from the fisherfolks, said Sumanta Kumar Biswal, president of Paradeep-based Odisha Marine Fish Producers’ Association (OMFPA).

Despite fishing activities being exempted under lockdown fisherfolk in Odisha say workforce logistics market situation major hurdles in wake of COVID19

B. Chittama, leader of fisherwomen federation, sees no hope in exemption of fisheries from lockdown restrictions. Image/Basudev Mahapatra

"We stopped fishing operations since 22 March fearing crowd at fishing base if operation continued. The initial catch that reached the base were sold at throwaway price as traders and buyers couldn’t come due to lockdown. So the trawler operators and fishermen had to face heavy loss," Biswal said.

Seafood processors, hotels and restaurants, who procure a substantial chunk of marine fish catch, are all closed during lockdown. Ice factories are also not operating to supply sufficient amount of ice for storage. Fisherwomen, who usually go to villages to sell the fish, are not allowed to enter any village because of the COVID-19 fear. So, distress sell has become the norm at all fishing bases. For example, on 19 April, Pomfret category fishes were sold at Rs 20 per kg, said Mangaraj Panda of United Artists’ Association, a Ganjam-based non-profit, which also is an advisor to the Samudram federation.

Export market uncertainties affected most of the seafood processing facilities. Countries stopped seafood export and import in the wake of COVID-19. “Our farmers didn’t raise prawn stocking which they should have done in the end of February or beginning of March because of lack of export opportunities. This has affected millions of people associated with the seafood industry,” said Ramesh Mahapatra, Chairman of Magnum Sea Foods, a Bhubaneswar-based seafood exporter.

Highlighting why exemption of fisheries and related activities from lockdown restrictions may not help fishing communities and businesses much, Mahapatra said that logistics, manpower and market situation in the wake of COVID-19 stand as major obstacles. "Even though government allowed processing plants to operate, getting labourers and the workers back at the plant have not been possible. While availing essential logistics and manpower is an issue, export market is also down. Cumulatively they all hamper the fishing industry and are going to affect the fishing communities badly,” he emphasised.

Longer fishing hiatus

Fisher villages around Olive Ridley marine turtle nesting sites face a longer fishing hiatus every year.

They usually have to restrict their fishing activities since the month of November when mating season for the turtles begins. Restrictions continue for seven months till the month of May when the turtle hatchlings emerge out of the nests in the coastal sands and go into the sea to start their life as a marine species.

Despite fishing activities being exempted under lockdown fisherfolk in Odisha say workforce logistics market situation major hurdles in wake of COVID19

Fish nets and boats lay idle at Podampeta village near Rushikulya River mouth. Image/Basudev Mahapatra

Under this ban for protection of the marine turtles during their breeding activities, trawlers and mechanised larger fishing boats are restricted to fish within 20 kilometers off the coasts that act as hosts to annual mass nesting activities by lakhs of Olive Ridley sea turtles. Beaches around Rushikulya, Devi and Dhamra River Mouths are Odisha’s known hosts of turtle mass nesting activities. So, hundreds of villages around these nesting sites restrict their fishing activities from November every year. Before the ban for turtle safety ends, the two-month long monsoon ban for conservation of fish population enters from 15 April.

"Ultimately, fishing activity in villages around turtle mass nesting sites halts for a period of almost 8 months in a year. This, probably, is the longest annual hiatus in marine fishing," said Panda. Rest of the year, from 15 June till the end of October (being the monsoon season), a number of low pressure days, extreme rainy days and cyclonic storms often result in a series of no fishing days for these fisher folks. This makes fishing an unviable economic activity forcing community youth to migrate to distant places or other states in search of work.

Long-term impact on fishing business 

OMFPA president Biswal foresees many long term impacts of the lockdown on fishing communities and businesses. Welcoming the two month ban on marine fishing for conservation of fish species for sustainable fishery, his primary concern was on annual maintenance of boats and trawlers. “Usually, we consume these two months for our annual maintenance works and get ready for fishing by the end of the ban. But, this time due to the lockdown, we neither get the required manpower nor necessary equipment and spare parts are available to do all those works in time,” he said.

Despite fishing activities being exempted under lockdown fisherfolk in Odisha say workforce logistics market situation major hurdles in wake of COVID19

Distress sell being the norm, a good catch doesn't mean good money. Image/Basudev Mahapatra

“This may delay fishing activities even after the lockdown is over, because we can’t venture into the sea without the annual maintenance works,” Biswal said expressing his worries.

At the community level, economic backbone of the fisher folks has already broken due to the lockdown disrupting fishing activities during the peak season. “They don’t have money to repair their boats and nets to quick start fishing after the monsoon ban which would push them to further financial hardships in the coming days,” Narayan Haldar, a fisherman from Kharinasi in Kendrapada district apprehended.

According to A Kaleya, 45, of Ganjam’s Nolia Nuagaon, such a state of financial misery is bound to threaten food and nutrition security in the fishermen community. It may lead to more distress migration of youth and families in the coastal villages.

Solutions sought

Highlighting the gravity of the situation, Biswal urged that the government should make, both technical manpower and spare parts for maintenance of trawlers and mechanised boats, available before the end of the monsoon ban.

“We understand that government has declared lockdown for the benefit of people, to stop the lethal COVID-19 from spreading. However, it needs to ensure that no body dies hungry in a state of lockdown,” Arjun Behera, 60, of Arakhkuda village said. Leaders of the community sought the government to come to the rescue of fisher folks and create opportunities at the earliest to ensure their survival and recovery from the current state of life.

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