The barter system may have been a thing of the past in most Indian towns. But when the water contractor sells water to the fishermen in Gujarat's Porbandar – the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi – he often has to settle for fish in return. "There is no pipeline here", says Jitesh Kotiya, secretary of the fishermen association. "We have to procure water tankers and fill up the syntax drum we have. Fishermen then use it accordingly."
A fisherman spends days, at times weeks, at sea, adds Kotiya. "We have to store enough water so they can carry sufficient amount while on the boat," he says. "There are over 3,000 boats anchored here during the off-season. Most of them are at the sea this time of the year. Imagine the requirement of water. The government has made no provisions whatsoever. We are forced to purchase it, while our income is dwindling. That is why we often repay the water contractor with fish due to lack of cash."
The income of the fisherfolk has plunged over the past decade or so. Due to industrial development on the coast, the chemical recharge is released into the sea without adequate treatment, causing severe water pollution along the coast, says Jivan Jungi, former president of the Porbandar Machhimar Boat Association.
"It has disrupted the marine life along the coast," he says, "forcing fishermen to go deeper into the sea. Gujarat has the country's longest coastline of 1,660 kilometres and industries have come up in every coastal district, causing similar problems to fishermen across Gujarat," Jungi adds.
With fishermen forced to go deep into the sea, the duration of their trips has increased, intensifying the fuel cost, as well as ration and labour. Kanti Panjari, 55, who has two boats, says the fishing trips that would take four days 15 years back, consume 15-20 days now. "One trip costs three lakh rupees, including diesel, labour, ice, ration and so on," he says.
"We do two-three trips in two months. But due to lack of fish and more expenses, it does not recover the cost anymore. Two of my boats recently came back. One had stock of 1.25 lakhs while the other had two lakhs worth."
Venturing into the deep sea to find fish also means flirting with the maritime border with Pakistan. Both the countries have arrested hundreds of fishermen belonging to the other country to settle scores in a troubled diplomatic relationship. While poor fishermen are merely trying to earn a living by catching fish, they are forced to venture out close to the international border at Jakhau in Kutch because of water pollution near the coastal area.
Dhanaji Lodhari, 35, was caught by Pakistan’s maritime security agency in December last year. He was released 10 months later in October this year, but there are several fishermen who never come back. "I was not tortured or abused, but throughout the period, I thought of my wife and two kids," he says.
"Being the sole breadwinner of the house, I wondered how my family is surviving without me. Ten months may seem like a short while, but when you are in, you do not know how long you are going to be in," Dhanaji says.
Dhanaji's wife, Parvati, says she could not eat properly the week after she learnt of his arrest. "We survived on the Rs 4,500 a month the state gives to those whose family member has been arrested by Pakistan," she says.
"But that wasn't enough to pay rent, electricity bills, and kids' school fees. I had to leave the house and live with my mother. My elder son studied in a private school, who had to be put in a government school," adds Parvati.
After he came back just two months ago, Dhanaji was immediately back in the sea. "I have no other skill," he says.
Fishing is an eight-month profession, prohibited during monsoons. The water pollution has particularly taken a toll on small fishermen, who cannot go beyond a certain point with their not-so-robust boats.
Hareshbhai Lodhari, 54, who has been fishing since he was 15, says he used to catch 45-50 different types of fish near the coast of Porbandar. "Today, hardly three-four kinds of fish are found," he says.
"With the kind of small boats we have, our trips last two-three days. It costs Rs 6,000 per trip. There was a time when the trip would cost half of that and we would come back with double the amount of fish. The trend has reversed now," says Lodhari.
The small boats cannot sustain the currents of the deep sea, which is why they have to operate what they call "local". But there are hardly any fish left in 'local'. "Due to chemicals, fish have stopped breeding here," adds Jungi.
As a result, several small fishermen have reduced their fishing trips and are concentrating on finding labour work instead. "It is at least an assured source of income," says Lodhari. "What is the point of entering the sea, burning kerosene and coming back empty-handed? I have two kids studying in government schools. Once they are done with their 10th standard, that will be it. I do not have money to educate them further."
The state government, they say, has done little to elevate them from the quagmire they find themselves in. Kotiya says the government provides 40 litres of subsidised kerosene a month, while one three-day trip consumes close to 100 litres.
"Babubhai Bokhariya is our MLA, who is also the fisheries minister," he says. "He has not fulfilled a single promise. There is not even a facility of fire brigade here. During monsoons, there are 3,000 boats stacked at the port, parked alongside each other. Even if one catches fire, the entire community will be burned to ashes."
Updated Date: Dec 13, 2017 13:11:45 IST