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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 32, New Delhi, July 24, 2021

Vulnerabilities and Insecurities of Fisheries Workers in times of Pandemic and Natural Disasters | Sarkar & Sekar

Friday 23 July 2021


by Kingshuk Sarkar & Helen R. Sekar*

Fishery workers constitute a very significant segment of the workforce in India. Natural calamities and pandemic induced lockdown dealt a severe blow to already precarious livelihood of fishery workers. Existing labour laws do not apply to fishery workers. This Article focuses on the difficulties faced by fishery workers because of natural calamities and COVID pandemic. It also highlights lack of legal protection for fishery workers.


Fisheries and Aquaculture in India are among the important economic activities with a vast potential for sustainably exploiting a wide variety of inland and marine fisheries. The livelihood of those depending directly or indirectly on fisheries are adversely impacted by the vagaries of weather and different types of disasters including hurricanes and tropical storms, debris flow to the water bodies, thunderstorms and lighting, water tornadoes, and tsunamis.

This article discusses the situation of fishers and fishing communities in India and their vulnerabilities and insecurities caused by the severe cyclonic storm and similar natural calamities in recent years. Disruption of economic activities in COVID pandemic induced lockdown and restriction on movement have further adversely affected the livelihood of fishery workers. It has become imperative to suggest measures for policy inputs and for evolving strategies to secure the livelihood of fishery workers.


Capture fisheries and aquaculture constitute an important economic activity contributing to economies at national and local level, to export earnings, and to food supplies and employment [1]. Fishery is the enterprise of raising or harvesting fish and other aquatic life. Commercial fisheries include wild fisheries and fish farms, both in fresh water (about 10% of all catch) and the oceans (about 90%).

The fishing community across the globe have a tradition of learning by doing, handed down from generation to generation. Despite decades of fishery development programme(s), small scale fishermen around the developing world still exist in absolute and relative poverty with their economic position remaining unchanged and are hardly the beneficiaries of development.

Fishing Economy in India

The Indian fisheries sector encompasses a diverse range of resources and ranges from the Himalayas to the coastal plains and the Indian Ocean. The sector employs millions of people and is a source of livelihood for them. The fisheries biodiversity also includes diverse physical and biological components. Fisheries are a very crucial source of food, livelihood, nutrition and income in India. The sector gives livelihoods to almost 16 million fishers and fish farmers at the primary level and about twice the number along the value chain. Fisheries have now become a commercial enterprise and its share in the GDP has increased from 0.40% in 1950-51 to 1.03% in 2017-18. India is one of the leading exporters of seafood in the world. It hence contributes to the foreign exchange also in a big way. Marine exports constitute about 5% of the total exports and about 19% of agricultural exports. The marine fisheries sector is dominated by the socio-economically backward artisanal and small-scale fishers whose lives are closely intertwined with the oceans and seas. However, 75 percent of the total marine fish production comes from the mechanized sector, 23 percent from the motorized sector and only 2 percent from the artisanal sector. Additionally, fish is a cheap and good source of animal protein and hence, a good option to reduce hunger and malnutrition [2].

Fishing in India

In the recent decades, the number of people involved in fishing and those who are depending on the industry has been growing faster than that in agriculture across the globe and mainly in the developing countries. The Indian sub-continent has productive waters both the marine water bodies and the inland water bodies. The Indian coastline can be delineated into 22 zones, based on the ecosystem structure and functions. The marine water bodies are mainly used for capture fisheries. The inland fishery resources of India comprise of the rivers and canals, reservoirs, tanks and ponds, estuaries, brackish water lakes, backwaters, floodplain lakes etc. and these inland water bodies are widely used for culture and capture fisheries. Major forms of fisheries in India contributes to food security and provides employment direct to those who are directly and indirectly dependent on the sector [3].

Socio-cultural Structures and Traditional Practices

Fishing, a caste-bound occupation in India, goes back to several centuries. The country has skilled fishermen and they carry out fishing on a full-time basis. Most of the people who are involved in fishing are not related to the mainstream agrarian and allied system of occupation. The fishers are not homogenous but belong to different fishing communities and caste groups.

Fishing Community Institutions

Most of the fishing communities have setup their own community institutions which are mostly organized along caste, kinship or religious lines. These Institutions play an important role in locating existing marine resources; ensuring equitable access to resources by way of regulating and allocating resource use; evolving modes of extracting resources; and providing some form of social insurance. In some cases, they pose special conditions on its application of ‘territorial rights’ in village waters. These community institutions administer common property resources and also organize collective fishing for common purposes. They are responsible for settling disputes and resolving conflicts among the fishermen including the conflicts over the right of control of fishing territories. The money for collective expenditure generally comes from individual fishermen who contribute certain percentage of each day’s catch, as collectively agreed upon [4].

Fish-catch Sharing System

Fish-catch Sharing System keeps changing periodically and from state to state. There is a prevalent system of share of the fish catch between the fisherman, boat and net. As a general rule, equal shares are given for the catchers, nets, and boats. The boat owner gets a share for the boat and the net owner also gets a share for his net besides their shares as catchers. If all the fishermen in the group equally share nets, only the boat owner gets one additional share.

In the state-managed systems, fish catching traditionally has been on the basis of rights to communities of fishermen settled near the water body and in some cases, rights are conferred even on individual fishers. The formation of cooperatives can also be seen in the state-managed systems which either conduct annual auction to contractors or give their own fixed rates to fishermen. The fisheries department monitors the fish harvesting to control overexploitation [5]

Impact of the Cyclones and other Disasters in Coastal Areas on Fishing Communities and Fisheries Livelihoods

Living and working close to water bodies or the sea shore, fishing communities have relatively high levels of exposure to natural hazards such as tropical storms, extreme weather and storm surges, as well as drought and flooding, that lead to disaster situations. Very often the natural disasters impact them on a scale that is beyond their normal capacity to cope with. Their normal functioning gets disrupted when there are casualties, damage to property, and inaccessibility to marine resources. The households in the fishing villages are generally dependent on fisheries for subsistence and livelihoods. Loss of and/or damage to fishing infrastructure, boats and engines, fishing gears and post-fishing equipment severely affects their means of livelihood. In recent decades some of the most dramatic natural hazards have been geological in origin. The impacts of massive earthquakes and the catastrophic tsunami generated by those quakes have been linked to hydrology. In both of these cases, fishing communities in coastal areas were among the groups most affected.

Storms are a threat to fishermen’s safety, productivity, assets and jobs and to the health of people who rely on fisheries for their livelihood. Changing storminess have serious consequences for vulnerable coastal communities. In the wake of impending cyclonic storm, fishermen in the coastal region are usually put on high alert to secure their assets like boats and fishing nets along the shore and not to venture into the sea. Due to ban on marine fishing during the time of the storm their livelihood is affected. However, due to economic compulsions in order to fend for the basic day to day needs of their families, flouting the norms some fishermen venture into the sea on traditional crafts, during the impending storms.

A rapid assessment by the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT) in the wake of the devastating floods that ravaged Kerala in the year 2018 has pegged the loss in the livelihood of fishermen at over 100 crores. Fishermen reported the loss of labour days, wages and reduction in fish catch during the floods [6].

Economic Condition and Indebtedness

The average income of the fishermen households is significantly lower than that of non-fishermen households. There is a ban on fishing during the period April-May and October-November and can be termed these months as lean period. The traditional fishermen struggle to meet the needs of their family during the lean seasons. Compelled by such circumstances they seek money from informal Credit Agents/Commission Agents to meet their urgent needs. Agents advance all the money required on condition that the catch is sold to them. The fishermen practically lose his liberty to sell his fish to anyone else. These Commission Agents are usually the fishermen with sound socio-economic and background. These Commission Agents play a major role in the economic life of an overwhelming proportion of the traditional fishermen. The Commission Agents do not charge any interest on the money advanced to the fishermen or on items supplied on credit but elicit much more than the interest rate on the credit advanced in a number of ways. The indebted fishermen are compelled to sell all their catch to the commission agents only and that to at a price usually much below the market price prevailing in the local market [7].

Impact of Covid pandemic

The cramped living conditions on board the boats constitute a Covid-19 hazard. There is no way of practicing social distancing on the boats. Even if they get down, they will have to live in the temporary shelters erected on the coast (by fisherfolk), which are already occupied by other workers.

During pandemic-induced lockdown last year, industry sources say, around 1 lakh migrant workers were stranded in fishing boats and at harbours in Maharashtra alone. According to the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF), a national federation of state-level unions representing small and traditional fish workers, there was at least two deaths on board such boats from the Veraval harbour in Gujarat, one of them allegedly died because of starving. [8]

Confined to their boats, which are designed as places of work and not residence, the workers were stranded in over-crowded and cramped harbours. There had been an absence in the state’s extension of services which led to tremendous hardships and ultimately the deaths of the workers. There were reports of inadequate food supplies, poor hygiene and sanitation facilities, and the non-payment of wages on board the boats.

India’s mechanised marine fishing fleet, which provides for 80% of the country’s annual fish landings, is crewed and operated overwhelmingly by migrant workers. Working in different waged relations, from catch-shares to daily-wages, these workers undertake a circular migration, which is predominantly from Central and East India to harbours on the West coast. Since there is no official census on the number of workers in this sector, it is hard to estimate just how many workers are stranded under the lockdown.

Another casualty of this series of onslaughts have been the women who make their living off selling fish. The livelihood of over 1.6 crore fishermen and fish workers have been hampered by the Covid-19 lockdown in the country, but the impact has been worst for women, who form half the fishing community and have to manage their household alongside selling fish, a task largely performed by fisher women.

Lack of protective legislation for fishery workers

Fishery workers are not protected under any existing labour laws. In case of termination of service or non-payment of wages, they are not in a position to seek legal recourse. Fishery workers are not protected under any minimum wage legislations. Wages might fall to a very low level in absence of minimum wage. Fishery workers don’t have any access to any social security instruments. There are serious incidents of abuse in some fisheries and fishing vessels, which amount to forced labour and human trafficking. Even though there are 1.6 crore fishers in India, existing labour laws don’t apply to them. Gaps in legislation and enforcement are exploited by unscrupulous intermediaries and fishing vessel operators. Illegal fishing and the increasing use of workers from various states mean that more migrant workers are finding their way to the fishing industry. Poor training, inadequate access to complaints mechanisms and a lack of enforcement of safety and labour standards make these fishers particularly vulnerable to forced labour and human trafficking.

ILO’s convention No. C188 pertaining to Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188) talks about general conditions of work at fisheries. This Convention was adopted in 2007 to set standards to protect workers in the fishing sector. It will come into effect when it is ratified by a minimum of 10 ILO member states (including eight coastal nations). The Convention aims to ensure that fishers: Have improved occupational safety and health and medical care at sea, and that sick or injured fishers receive care. India is yet to ratify this convention.

Draft National Fisheries Policy, 2020

The Central Government has come up with a Draft National Fisheries Policy 2020 [9]. Presently this policy is being discussed in policy circles. The policy seems to be export-oriented, production-driven and based on capital investments. This might lead to small fishers being denied to their rights of access to commons. It could also be potentially harmful to the environment in the long run. The policy does not talk about women, classes and castes associated with the fisheries sector in India. Most of the fishers are from the marginalized communities and they are also not a homogenous group. This has not been adequately addressed in the draft policy.

A string of recent reports indicate that forced labour and human trafficking in the fisheries sector are a severe problem. These reports suggest that fishers, many of them migrant workers, are vulnerable to severe forms of human rights abuse on board fishing vessels [10]. Migrant workers in particular are vulnerable to being deceived and coerced by brokers and recruitment agencies and forced to work on board vessels under the threat of force or by means of debt bondage. Fishers are forced to work for long hours at very low pay, and the work is intense, hazardous and difficult. Capture fisheries have one of the highest occupational fatality rates in the world. Lack of training, inadequate language skills, and lack of enforcement of safety and labour standards make these fishers particularly vulnerable to forced labour and human trafficking.

The ILO response

In response to the growing concern of forced labour and human trafficking in the fishing sector, ILO is developing a 5 year, holistic, multifaceted and integrated programme "Global Action Programme against forced labour and trafficking of fishers at sea" (GAPfish) [11].

The programme aims to become a cross-cutting global initiative that will have regional and national impacts to promote and protect fishers’ human and labour rights. It has policy prescriptions that include development of sustainable solutions to prevent human and labour rights abuses of fishers in recruitment and transit states;


Fishery workers frequently suffer because of natural calamities. Fishing contributes significantly to national economy. Fishing is a labour intensive activity. Fishery workers belong to marginalized sections of the society. A significant number of fishery workers are women and migrant. They mostly lost livelihood during the pandemic induced lockdown. Climatic change necessitates frequent cyclones and severe storms. As a result, fishery workers loose both life as well as livelihood. However, fishery workers do not have access to labour laws. They lack social security instruments. India is yet to sign Convention C188 which talks about the rights of fishery workers. A draft policy on fishery 2020 is available in public domain. It basically talks about the making improvements in fishery production and export. The issue of plight of fishery workers was not addressed adequately in the draft policy. It is high time fishery workers’ access to labour laws and social security instruments is addressed at the earliest. In this regard ILO policy guidelines are very useful and the same be applied in India.

Opinions expressed here are that of the authors and not of the organizations that they belong too. Usual disclaimers apply.

(Authors: Dr. Kingshuk Sarkar is an independent researcher and former faculty at V. V. Giri National Labour Institute, Noida. He has a PhD in Economics from JNU, New Delhi. | Dr. Helen R Sekar, is Senior Fellow at the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, Noida. She has PhD in Public Administration from Madras University.)

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