Marine fishing in India has largely come to a standstill in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak.
In Kerala, the government has banned operation of mechanised boats. But small-scale beach landing crafts are allowed to ensure fishers' sustenance and food security needs of the society. This relaxation is subject to the strict provisions that they should maintain physical distancing at sea and fish landing centres.
Controlling the highly interactive fish landing centres in these times is a daunting task. Physical distancing hardly works in a market context where auctioning of the commodity is the norm. All public health warnings will be thrown to the fishy wind that blows across such fish marketing centres.
And yet, in some of the most densely populated fishing villages in Kerala, nay India, the lessons from trial and error and the collaborative efforts of local institutions, fishermen and women, officials of cooperatives, state administration and the police seem to have achieved the impossible. At least for the moment.
Of course, there is still a long way to go to perfect a fish selling system which is based on physical distancing, standardisation of weights and predictable prices. But numerous village-level initiatives in Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam districts are showing the way forward.
Poonthura is a large fishing village within the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation limits. It has a population of nearly 10,000 and a coastline length of 1.2 kilometres of which one whole kilometre is stonewalled due to constant sea erosion and unfit for beaching fishing boats.
Initially, the Church in this village - the most powerful socio-religious institution in any Christian fishing village - in keeping with the requirements of the lockdown, banned all fishing activities knowing that order would be difficult to maintain.
But fishing continued in smaller and far less densely populated villages along the same coast. Fishers using small boats brought in small amounts of fish. Fish sales were organised by the initiative of the fishers, youth in the village, the parish priests and the police who were called to ensure that chaos did not ensue if a whole lot of buyers turned up on the beach.
The fishers of Poonthura spent a few days obeying the Church diktat. But they became increasingly restless when they heard that neighbouring villagers' tales of fishing and big earnings.
One night, a few fishers in Poonthura broke the ban. They got a bumper catch of squid that fetched Rs. 2.5 lakh. Their joy, however, was short-lived. The Church committee intervened and forced them to remit their bonanza to its fund after deducting the operating costs for their illegal venture.
Following this, a few of the fisher members of the Matsyafed Cooperative in Poonthura held a meeting with the parish priest. They suggested ways for gradually reopening fishing, particularly in the light of the new government order permitting small-scale fishing, subject to the conditions of physical distancing and other public health considerations. The meeting concluded without arriving at a consensus.
This prompted the cooperative members to create a multi-stakeholder committee of 22 members representing all the different interests involved in the fishing and fish selling activities of the village.
The committee includes member and non-member fishers of the co-operative, private fish auctioneers, women fish vendors, youth and elders of the village, officials of the Matsyafed and the church committee.
This committee decided to reopen fishing and regulate selling from April 17.
The district collector hailed the decision, but he warned that fishing and selling would be stopped immediately if the activities violated physical distancing and public health norms.
In Poonthura, much of the village coastline is stonewalled and it cannot be used to land fish or sell in keeping with the stipulated norms. There is only one stretch of beach at the end of the village that could be used for organised fish selling. However, this area had no proper road access. It was a major limitation to ensure orderly flow of people and fish.
The committee got over this physical impediment by setting up two check-posts at the entry point. Vehicles coming to transport fish to the retail markets used one while fish buyers used the other. They were issued 15 tokens at a time that are valid for 45 minutes.
How it worked
At the sandy portion of the beach ahead, five numbered and enclosed spaces have been created with barricades. Sorted fish brought from the boats in boxes are displayed and weighed here. Each barricade has 15 chairs - spaced out by 1.5 metres - to seat the buyers.
The buyers will be allowed into the numbered barricades when the fish arrives, but only after police verify their entry tokens and face masks. The youth volunteers, Matsyafed officials and the police exhibit great efficiency and courtesy in their dealings.
The committee has prepared a price list for each fish species. This will be revised every two days and displayed prominently outside the stalls. Buyers will be issued payment receipts from the cooperative.
The initial three days were chaotic. High decibel shouting and disagreements between fishers and organisers rented the air. Questions were raised about prices and weighing. Buyers haggled over which fish variety should be sold first. The new order appears to have disappointed traditional auctioneers as they find themselves marginalised.
Fishing and fish buying involve a huge element of luck. A lottery element is innate to it. But ability, tact, quick judgement and prowess are the key ingredients of success. In one sense, bringing new order is creating chaos to the current system.
But this is a process of learning. New social innovations can happen only like this. There are always gainers and losers. There must be ways to compensate or co-opt the losers least they try to sabotage the system.
Auctioneers are the big losers in Poonthura and other large fishing villages. They are mostly influential persons in the church and society and pose a threat to the system. They provide the credit which keeps fishing going.
Fishers are the biggest gainers in this process. They benefit from negotiated fixed prices without fear of a slump when the fish catch is on the higher side.
The women and men – particularly the smaller vendors – stand to gain if they can organise themselves into small groups, pool their funds and purchase the premium species directly from the fishers, and sell it to the elite city consumers.
Whether this new COVID-19 orientation to fishing and fish marketing will establish a new order will depend on how long we will keep these strict lockdown regulations in place and on whether a large enough number of key stakeholders see gain from the new practices. The support of local socio-religious institutions, government agencies and civil society will be key to ensure that this will be more than a transient experiment in social engineering.
(The authors are social activists and keen observers of the fishing scene in Thiruvananthapuram.)