How Covid impacted the fisherfolk of Kerala?

Shravan MK & Sivanth Adithya N

Representation image | Mathrubhumi photo

The coastline of Kerala is currently undergoing a colossal face//lift. Hopefully, this renovation will beckon more tourists and visitors. The recent revitalization of beaches includes greener pastures, coastal highway, tiled walkways, and the walls of the beach beautified by breath-taking paintings that tell the tales of the city. While plans to enhance the potential for coastline tourism proceed apace on one side, the other side shows the stark reality of the livelihood of the fishermen on a standstill. The pandemic exacerbated the already pathetic condition of the marginalised communities. The people engaged in fishing are mostly from the Dheevara, Muslim, and Latin Catholic communities, who are grouped under Other Backward Communities (OBCs), which account for around 10.44 lakh population of Kerala.

The onset of Covid-19 and the sharp decline in marine fish production (4.75 lakh tonnes) since 2019 has had an extremely emasculating effect on them. The people who were formerly praised as “superheroes" during the floods swiftly ended up being scorned as the "super spreaders" of Covid-19. It must be remembered that social distancing, sanitizers, and other means of personal protection are a luxury for these backward communities.

Pandemic And Its Cultural Impact

Apart from the socio-economic distress, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the cultural life of these communities. These people share a special relationship with the sea and its environment which they consider to be sacred (Their habit of referring to the 'sea' as "Kadalamma", which means "Mother Sea", shows the maternal attachment of the people with the sea).

The lives of people of the Dheevara community are generally enwrapped by the clouds of superstition and religious dogma. They usually worship "Bhagavati" or "Kali" and attribute bad lucks in their occupation as punishment from the Goddess. Also they perform various rituals to please the Goddess to protect them during their sea sails and to help them when the fish population is on the decline.

But under the present circumstances, their rites and rituals remain restrained within the four corners of their homes. Pandemic-related occupational insecurity have forced the youth to seek employment in other sectors.

The Scars of Socio-Economic Crisis

Although Kerala has high socio-economic indicators, the growth of living standards and access to basic amenities of the fishermen is still very slow. The quantity and quality of ichthyological wealth is a crucial determining factor of the income of the marine folks. As the income from the sources is seasonal, the scope of savings for any precautionary motive is virtually nil.

Further, the disruptive effects of Covid-19 have had very harmful effects upon the fisheries and aquaculture industry. It affected both supply and demand chains in the fisheries sector. Every link of the supply chain — fishing, input, processing, transportation, circulation, wholesale, and retail is vulnerable to COVID-19 related restrictions. In this chain connecting buyers and sellers, even the disruption of one link will send a series of chain reactions which will emasculate the entire system. The rise in diesel hike increased the operational cost and further slowdown the supply of inputs like ice, fishing gear, and other equipment. Thus pandemic-related uncertainties may pressure people to slow down spending which will result in the reduction of demand, the decline of price, and the dwindling of the amount of investment available for future production.

The Covid crisis has also affected the personal health and safety of fishermen. As they live in congested and densely populated areas, the health risk and lack of proper drinking water for these individuals are also major concerns. For the primary healthcare facilities, there are only 39 dispensaries across the state. Also, the isolation increased stress and social pressure have further aggravated them.

Efforts to minimize the impact of Covid -19 on fishermen communities should be taken immediately | File Photo (Mathrubhumi)

The recent trawling and social distancing measures have also contributed to worsening the condition of fishermen — specifically small-scale fishermen due to their limited participation in the decision-making processes because of their limited organizational capacity. In the wake of Cyclone Tauktae, there were 6 days strict ban on all occupations related to the sea, and the government provided them with social security worth Rs 1200 as compensation. Natural calamities like this are just the extension of hazards that was already happening in the coastal region for a long time. Nutrition and calorie deficits in households of fisherfolks intensified due to the food risk which ends them up completely hanging on rationing and the special food kits of the government.

The brunt of economic fallout disproportionally affects women, 80% of allied workers in fisheries are women in Kerala. They often do not have the same access as men to education, finance, technology, etc... which severely limits their influence on decision-making on matters that have a crucial impact on their lives. Also, the number of women in for the pension for the “wife of deceased fisherfolk” is increasing. The bleak reality of their children’s lives stands in sharp contrast with the buoyantly bedecked walls of the beach. Meanwhile, the laxity of the union government towards this marginalised community is reflected in the union budget. The Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sambada Yojana (PMMSY) scheme which aims to encourage business investments in the fishing sector doesn’t directly address the needs of the current situation.

Possible Countermeasures

Active efforts at all levels to minimize the impact of Covid -19 on the fisherman communities should be immediately taken. Lack of demand among fisherfolks can only be compensated through social security schemes. Strengthening women empowerment initiatives like Society for Assistance to Fisherwomen (SAF) should be promoted to suit the needs of women and should be implemented in ways that would make women more financially independent. As the 13th five-year plan and the United Nations' sustainable development goals lay special emphasis on boosting the ‘’blue economy”, the socio-economic well-being of the fisherfolk community is the primary area of concern to which we should focus our attention. Investment in the "blue recovery" plans to promote growth and resilience among the fishermen community and to attain "blue sustainability" should be given paramount importance. The distribution of special concessions, allowances, and nutritional security will result in productive labour. Therefore, any sort of developmentary vision towards coastline tourism should go hand in hand with addressing the problems and concerns of the indigenous communities who constitute an indispensable part of it.

(Shravan is pursuing Masters in Economics at JNU, New Delhi and Sivanth is a final year Philosophy (Hons) student from Hindu College, Delhi University)

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