New Delhi: When cyclone Fani - one of the strongest storms to batter the Indian subcontinent - made landfall on the coast of Odisha this month, in the rubble of destruction that it left behind was the livelihood of an entire fishing community.
According to initial government estimates, about 6,389 traditional marine fishing boats, 7,240 nets, 2,524 fish ponds of area 587 hectare, three fishing harbours, six fish landing centres and five fish farms have been damaged in the storm. However, according to Debashish Shyamal, Secretary of National Fishworkers’ Forum (NFF), a trade union of fishermen, the ground assessments about the impact of loss are usually far from accurate.
Speaking about those affected, Sudarshan Chhotoray, director of the Focus Odisha foundation said that there are about 50 fishing settlements in Odisha that comprise of about 1,50,000 traditional fishermen who have no alternate source of livelihood.
What’s more is that the lives of fishermen in districts like Ganjam, Puri, Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapara are routinely ravaged by cyclones, Chhotoray pointed out, as he drew a reference to storms like Titli and Phailin that hit the Odisha coast in the past.
Generally, a fishing net costs about Rs 40,000 and the price of a fishing boat ranges between Rs 60,000 and 1, 50,000. According to News18 sources, the government has announced that “50% of Rs 80,000 will be provided for a new FRP [Fibre Reinforced Plastic] boat and 50% of Rs 20,000 for net will be provided.” The exact calculation behind the figures of 80,000 and 20,000 remains unclear.
The other aspect which remains unclear is whether such compensation would be provided only in case of destroyed boats or for damaged boats as well. In addition to this, Shyamal said, was the fact that the fishing communities were not compensated in accordance with the extent of damage and destruction they suffered during cyclones before this.
Suffering repetitive blows to their livelihoods, the fishermen in the region are migrating to neighbouring states in search of work. However, this too, is not empty of challenges for them as not all states are effectively able to provide employment opportunities.
Govind Panda, Secretary of the Odisha-based United Artists’ Association (UAA) that heads Samudram, a state-level federation of women fish workers’ organisations, said that the troubles of the fishing community were further aggravated because Fani hit Odisha during the monsoon season.
The Odisha government imposes a ban on mechanised fishing from April to June considering that it is the breeding season for fish and anything apart from manual fishing might severely impact breeding patterns. So, the scope to earn a living wage by means of fishing is curtailed. Additionally, lives of fisherwomen who are involved in processing and allied fishing activities are also impacted.
Since a similar ban also exists across the coastline from West Bengal to Tamil Nadu, the community cannot hope to make a decent living from fishing activities in these states either. And so, traditional fishermen are migrating out of Odisha in search of work other than fishing, like construction work in states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
In addition to natural disasters, the dominance of mechanised fishing and companies that own the required techniques and resources have greatly contributed to the marginalisation of small fishermen all over India. “These companies have engaged in overfishing”, Shyamal said, noting that this has depleted fish populations and “this is why fishermen migrate to other places.” Both Shyamal and Panda were of the opinion that an effective implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in the state could help alleviate the troubles of the fishing community in the region.
However, the problem is much bigger.
The fishermen who are most vulnerable to the after effects of cyclones in Odisha are small fishermen. And this, Shyamal explained, is true across India’s coastline, where “those who go out to sea on foot with a net on their shoulders are the most affected.” “Nothing is being done to resolve the problem in the long term considering such climate conditions will only get worse in the next few years,” Shyamal added.
Developing climate resilience strategies for vulnerable areas like coastal cities could help alleviate such problems. Detailing the need for such mitigation strategies, Tarun Gopalakrishnan, Deputy Programme Manager, Climate Change, and Centre for Science and Environment explained that generally, ‘climate resilience’ is discussed in terms of improving the quality of infrastructure like housing and public infrastructure. “And these are largely driven by policies made by the central government,” he added, “But what is required is the encouragement of planning within these communities.”
This would entail giving vulnerable communities a mandate to make their own coastal resilience plans and also provide them with sufficient finances, Gopalakrishnan explained, adding that such “plans should include detailed mapping of the vulnerabilities in these communities because the impacts of climate change are not uniform.”
“Migration is inevitable. But what it could look like is extremely uncertain because countries around the world have not yet engaged with questions surrounding climate change-related migrations. So, we need to prepare a strategy for such mass movements,” he said.