Is the privatization of the fishing industry on the cards?

The apprehensions around the National Fisheries (Regulation and Management) Bill, 2019 explained


Fisherfolk from Kerala and Delhi marched to the Parliament and Jantar Mantar respectively, in opposition to the National Marine Fisheries (Regulation and Management) Bill, 2019. The Union government is set to pass the National Fisheries (Regulation and Management) Bill 2019 for regulation and management of fisheries and fishing related activities in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of India and Indian fishing vessels in the high seas, The Times of India reported.

The bill has garnered a lot of criticism with accusations against the government for trying to privatise the fishing industry and endanger the lives of thousands of traditional fisher folk who will be affected due to the central government’s licensing conditions and alleged favour to corporate entities.

The National Fisheries (Regulation and Management) Bill 2019 explained:

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements that India ratified in 1995, the sea and resources in the water and seabed are classified into three zones – the internal waters (IW), the territorial sea (TS) and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The Bill prohibits fishing by foreign fishing vessels, thus nationalizing the EEZ which extends outwards to 200 nautical miles from the baseline. Coastal nations have sovereign rights for exploration, exploiting, conserving and managing all the natural resources in EEZ.

Fisheries is a state subject and fishing in the IW and TS comes under concerned states. Activities from the TS up to the EEZ are in the Union list and no central government has ever framed laws covering the entire EEZ.

An Indian vessel that desires to fish in the EEZ, outside the TS, must obtain a permit. This permit will only be issued if the vessel is registered under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958. This has been protested especially by small scale operators as it is just an assumption that only large-scale vessels fish outside the TS.

Criticisms of the Bill

If the bill becomes a law, the freedom to fish outside the TS will cease, thus affecting the livelihood of the fishermen. Speaking to Sabrang India, Vivekanandan, the Secretary, Fisheries Management Resource Centre (FishMARC) said that the bill is being opposed by different groups for different reasons. He said that the bill is definitely need so as to regulate fishing, which is a competitive business and to protect resources that are on the verge of exploitation. Regulations are also necessary to ensure proper management of exports and carefully monitor them in terms of food safety so as to not lose out on business.

However, the bill has created apprehensions among fishermen for two major reasons. One, the influence and intervention of the central government authorities in making decisions is posing a threat to most fishermen as they have never interacted with such high-level authorities. Another problem is the decision of the government to levy charges on fishing, except for government entities or other private corporations who will be exempt from the same.

While the State Acts for fisheries haven’t criminalized offences, the bill threatens to impound charges on vessels violating the laws mentioned in the bill. There have been doubts regarding the same, but those haven’t been cleared. While some members of the fishing industry have welcomed the move of criminalisation against big vessels, the assent on the implementation is undecided mostly due to the secrecy surrounding it. Vivekanandan says that the members who have sent recommendations to the central government are still to hear what has been incorporated in the draft and what hasn’t. He maintains that more than any other problem, the main issue with the bill is the ‘fear of the unknown’ because it is unclear as to whose interests will be protected and by how much.

Newsclick has also reported the General Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Fishermen and Workers’ Association (TNFWA) as saying that the draft has not considered the traditional fisher folk who move out of the TS area for fishing. He also expressed his concern regarding the withdrawal of subsidies for fishing which they get for the motorization of boats, fuels and infrastructure to help with increasing costs. The revocation of subsidies will push the traditional fishermen out of the industry for sometimes they return with no catch and in turn will have to incur heavy costs on their own.

The fishing industry has hinted that fee exemption clause may benefit the corporates and that the unclear procedure for obtaining licenses will put the fishermen in an unfavourable situation.

Section 3 (9) of the bill states – “The Central Government may, by notification in this regard, exempt a Government entity, or corporation or any category or class of vessel(s) from the requirement of a permit under sub-section (1) of this section 3, and from the application of any other provision of this Act..”

V Vivekanandan too told Sabrang India, that it is necessary to bring out amendments in the bill to preserve the industry that has reached maximum industry. Though the bill looks to be a welcome step in the way of sustainable fishing and bringing order, it must be made clear that the livelihoods of the fishermen must not be put at stake.

The central government has been out to privatise everything – right from railways, to public education and to social welfare schemes. Till now, there have been strong protests against the same. With contradictory views coming in, will the fishing industry be able to unite against the alleged privatisation too?



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