Fishing for trouble, or troubling the fishworkers?

A Draft National Fisheries Policy has been made public even as the fishworkers continue to struggle in the pandemic


The first ever Draft National Fisheries Policy 2020 is not in favour of fishing communities, nor will it help for protecting the oceans and coast, say fishworkers who will be directly impacted, but have not even been consulted. Most of them cannot even access the policy online, and even if they manage to, they cannot read it as the draft is available only in English and Hindi, not the first languages for lakhs who live and work on India’s coastline. 

The National Fishworkers Forum has decoded the massive document and analysed the draft threadbare in a nationwide virtual consultation held last week. Around 81 community representatives, policy experts, and union leaders connected from all the coastal  states, and from Delhi. The policy analysis papers were presented by community leaders V. Vivekandan, Pradip Chatterjee and Jesuratinam Christy,  Narendra Patil and T Peter, of the NFFF.

The exhaustive analysis unearthed a number of gaps in the draft policy which was meant to have a people centric and participatory approach. At the outset the NFF pointed out that the Ministry of Fisheries has published a policy draft on the National Fisheries Development Boards website, without seeking comments from the stakeholders. “The policy has been uploaded in the midst of the pandemic when the trade unions were busy helping out to bring back the migrant fishworkers back to their native places. It is even more appalling that the policy has not been uploaded on the Ministry of the Fisheries website.” stated the NFF which has also submitted a memorandum to the Ministry asking that the deadline (originally June 15 then extended for a while)  for comments be extended further, and the policy be translated into the regional languages as well. “There is no translation in the regional languages at all, how will fishworkers read the draft,” asked T Peter.

According to V Vivekandan of FishMarc, there are various contradictions in the policy which appear in the productive integration of fisheries and economic sectors, such as agriculture, coastal development, tourism and blue economy. 

The top concerns flagged by the unions are:

Policy Claims: There is centre-state and inter-state cooperation with special emphasis on traditional and Small Scale Fisheries.

NFF says: This is not the case when the policy is analysed. This policy establishes the National Marine Fisheries Authority. It is not clear how will states continue to have powers under this setup. According to the Policy, this Authority will implement fisheries management plans over both territorial waters as well as Exclusive Economic Zone (EZZ), which extends further beyond the coastal waters.

Policy Claims: Analysed  the entire fisheries sector, and capture fisheries is substantial.

NFF says: There is an under exploited resource of 30%. The draft does not mention  Maximum Sustainable Yield [MSY] calculation that its calculations are based on.

Policy Claims: Artisanal fishermen contribute only 2% of total fish catch.

NFF says: Terms like Traditional fishers, Small Scale Fishers (SSF), mechanised, motorised and artisanal are kept ambiguous, and are overlapping in the draft policy.  This is a ploy to dismantle the SSF which are marine fisheries dependent, by assuming that they are not “doing well”. This way they can be moved, rather displaced, to seek other livelihoods. The policy makes tall claims of raising the potential of mariculture production from four million to eight million tonne. 

Marine Culture Vs, Marine Capture

The policy puts an emphasis on making fisheries move to mariculture. They say that marine capture fisheries are economically risky. The draft does not offer any clarity on how the fisheries management works in a Centre-state equation of cooperative federalism. With local fishing communities sidelined, it can even lead to “privatisation of the ocean” as it were. Big private companies will ‘own’ oceanic areas where only their large boats will be allowed. A scary scenario for the smaller fisher communities. 

The rationale of this draft says the NFF is to “double income, double exports, blue growth initiative,” but not for the community, the mention of commitments to sustainable development goals is vague at best. 

At the virtual consultation, Jesuretinam of the  NFF highlighted that  women fishworkers were almost “invisible” in the policy, barely mentioned five times in the entire policy draft. “There are many women who engage in capture fisheries in both marine, backwaters, estuaries and inland, but there is no mention of them. To make things worse, the government also does not have comprehensive data on women who are in the fisheries sector,” she said.  

The policy aims at the rationale of schemes which has been envisioned in the Pradan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana which is largely shrimp culture and mariculture, says NFF. These are components of fisheries management. There is a thrust on culture fisheries and does not engage Small Scale fisheries. 

“They have neglected the traditional knowledge of fishworkers in this policy and there is nothing on their rights. Development without rights will lead to eviction of fishworkers from their livelihood,” said Pradip Chatterjee from the National Platform of Small scale fishworkers (Inland).

The NFF states that “the main drive of this policy is earnings, rather than that food security.” The omission of capture fisheries in the inland sector is another cause of worry. With rivers and wetlands so polluted,  that inland fishworkers can barely make ends meet, this is a big reason why they become migrant fishworkers and go work in other states. The draft policy does not secure their tenure rights either. Fish farmers, especially migrants, work under verbal agreements and understanding.  There is no support from the government in case of a dispute. The draft also does not mention fish vendors, especially in the domestic market  and distribution. 

“Fish farmers are being treated as a single homogenous group,” stated the NFF,  “the definition of artisanal or small scale fish worker is also not clear.”

The National Fishworkers Forum has decided to hold discussions with fishing communities across the coastal states, and has urged the Ministry of Fisheries to delay the draft policy till all stakeholders are consulted. Before everything else, the NFF has demanded that the draft  be immediately translated into regional languages so the fishing community can read and respond to the biggest policy document that can alter their lives for years to come.

National Fisheries Policy 2020 can be read here:


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