Proposed Fisheries Bill has fishermen all at sea
Representative photo: Twitter

Proposed Fisheries Bill has fishermen all at sea

The Marine Fisheries Bill 2021, scheduled to be tabled in the ongoing session of Parliament, has invited the wrath of fishermen’s organisations across the country. The contents of the Bill as well as the process of preparing it have come under criticism for being non-participatory and secretive, according to National Fish worker’s Forum, a federation of state-level trade unions.

The ambiguity in definition clauses, the complexity in the process of licensing and registration, weakening of the states’ powers and the loss of revenue to states along with likely harassment of fishers for stringent penal provisions may put the fisher folk in peril.

“It is clear that the Bill is not intended to ensure protection for the interest of the community. The objective is to adhere to the policies of the World Trade Organization,” says Siddharth Chakaravarty, an activist associated with the National Fish Workers Forum.

Also read: As government readies to pass fishermen bill, disquiet in some quarters

Licensing & registration

Sections 3 to 8 of the the proposed Bill refer to licensing for fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zone (the sea beyond 12 nautical miles – 22 km – is defined as the exclusive economic zone). According to Maharashtra Machimar Kruti Samithi, the provisions in these sections do not make it clear whether the fishers have to take dual licence – one from the state and the other from the Centre.

“It is not desirable to impose such provisions upon the ordinary fishermen. They should not be forced to take two licences,” says Kiran Koli, the convenor of MMKS, an organisation affiliated to the National Fish workers Forum, in a conversation with The Federal.

“The entire section on licensing, licence fees and charges makes the registration and licensing system extremely difficult, leading to confusion. We strongly demand a joint sitting with various fish worker organisations, including state government fisheries departments to decide an acceptable and just process,” says Narendra Patil, the chairperson of National Fish Workers Forum.

According to the forum, these provisions violate the basic right to fishing, a means of livelihood for traditional fishing communities. “This cannot be drafted in such an unclear and confused manner, as there are more than a million livelihoods dependent on it,” Narendra Patil told The Federal.

State govt revenue loss

Section 8 of the Bill establishes the Marine Fisheries Development Fund. Subsection 3 gives a complete control over all the revenues collected through licences, registrations and penalties to the central government. These provisions carry the risk of state government fisheries departments (marine) being starved of all revenue streams, and hence being fully dependent on the Marine Fisheries Development Fund controlled by the Centre.

“This goes against the federal principles. Fishing is a state subject. A combined reading of all the provisions would make it appear that there is an attempt to open the sea to big corporates. Eventually, the ordinary fish workers would end up as the workers of the big private players who own huge trawlers,” Jesu Rathinam, convenor of Coastal Action Network, Tamil Nadu, told The Federal.

Also read: More trouble brews in Lakshadweep, Kavaratti islanders get eviction notices

‘Criminalising’ the fishermen

Sections 9 to 13 of the Bill refer to “monitoring, control and surveillance measures, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing”. The National Fish Workers Forum demanded that the penalty provisions have to be withdrawn. The fishermen could be penalized for not keeping logbooks and the navigation and vessel monitoring equipment.

“Such provisions provide immense scope for the law enforcement authorities to penalize fishermen. Maintaining logbooks are also tedious and untenable in the seas,” says Siddharth Chakravarty. A large number of traditional fishers, including on motorized boats, fish without the need of GPS devices and rely on basic knowledge of the seas.

The Bill also proposes to broaden the powers of the Coast Guard. Section 21 of the Bill authorizes the Central government to appoint an officer under the Coast Guard Act of 1978. Section 22 empowers the designated officer to conduct search in any fishing vessel in the Exclusive Economic Zone. “This section provides unbridled powers to the authorized officers. Searching and frisking cannot happen without a warrant, and is against natural justice. It is also unclear about the need to search for fish in a fishing vessel. All the costs are also to be borne by the fishers, even with alleged offences not being proven. This increases the risk of harassment at sea”.

According to NFF, The Coast Guard of India Act, 1976 dos not confer specific powers on the Coast Guard in the realm of marine fisheries, except in rescue and relief operations. The Coast Guard is meant to protect Indian fishers as well from the attacks of foreign vessels, as well as safeguarding the Indian maritime waters from foreign fishing vessels.

“We have the experience of Kerala fishers being shot by Italian marines, Tamil Nadu fishers too are routinely shot by Sri Lankan navy,” says Narendra Patil, chairperson of National Fish workers Forum. “There have also been instances of Chinese and other fishing vessels poaching in our waters. The duty of the Coast Guard is to protect the sea and the fishermen, not to punish them”

States express displeasure

Many state governments have filed objections to the proposed Bill. “The Bill has several provisions overreaching the powers of the state. The licensing and registration for the vessels to fish in the exclusive economic zone should rest with a state government alone. The proposed Bill basically goes against the interest of the fishermen community,” says Saji Cheriyan, the Kerala Minister for Fisheries. “Opening our sea to foreign vessels is also unacceptable. A lot of ambiguity does exist in the Bill and we need more clarity,” Saji Cheriyan said.

Following are some of the major contentions and demands raised by the Kerala government in the draft objection note filed before the Ministry:

* The licensing and registration of the vessels fishing up to 200 nautical miles should come under the authority of the state government.

* The right to deep sea fishing has to be limited to the traditional fisher folk. The authority for the same has to be given to the cooperative societies of fishermen.

* The provision empowering the Coastal Guard to arrest the fishermen without warrant in case of the violation of rules should be removed.

* The definition of the fishing vessel needs to be revised and streamlined. The non-motorized boats also have to be included in the definition of the vessel.

* The complete authority for planning and implementing policies and actions within the territorial sea of the state (up to 12 nautical miles from the shore) should be given to the state government. Any provision violating this authority is a breach of the federal principles.

* There is no reference to participatory management in the proposed Bill. The fish workers should be given adequate representation in decision-making bodies.

* The Bill provisions insist on multiple licensing which creates hurdles for ordinary fishermen. The vessels fishing within the state’s territorial sea (within 12 nautical miles) have to take licence under the state rules. The vessels fishing in exclusive economic zone (between 12 and 200 nautical miles) require an additional licence under Marine Fisheries Act. The vessels fishing in the high seas (beyond 200 nautical miles) have to procure one more licence, according to the Bill.

“A unified licensing system has to be introduced instead of making the process complex and difficult” Saji Cheriyan, the Kerala Minister for Fisheries, told The Federal.

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