Fishermen in Gujarat are facing a major threat to their livelihood and danger to their lives as the catch along the coastline is drying up due to years of pollution by industries situated along the state’s coast.
Gujarat’s 1,660-km coastline, the longest in the country, is home to 549 villages with a population of more than 30 million. Fishing is the primary source of income for the majority of the population while the rest depend on it indirectly.
The coastline was once rich with over 300 species of fish, thanks to the diversity of habitat with salt marshes, mangroves and seagrass. But, over the years, it has witnessed an onslaught of industrial corridors with about 60 per cent of Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) projects along the coastline. These include petrochemicals units, refineries, thermal power plants, cement and rayon factories and ship-breaking industries.
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After years of depletion and industrial pollution, the coastline now has a meagre catch on offer, forcing the fishermen of Gujarat to fare into the deep sea for their livelihood. They are now in constant peril of being caught by Pakistani maritime authority to be jailed in that country for months, or years at times.
It may be noted that Pakistani fishermen face the same problem of depleting fishes, and are often arrested by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF), especially around Gujarat’s Kutch district. While the India-Pakistan land border is fenced and heavily patrolled, it is difficult for the fishermen to judge where the permitted waters end.
Ramesh Bhagwanji Chauhan, a 45-year-old based in Porbandar district of Gujarat, has been a fisherman for more than 13 years. He has been arrested twice for crossing the International Maritime Border Line (IMBL) and fishing in Pakistani waters, once in 2016 and then again in 2017.
“I returned home in early 2017 after spending 12 months in a Pakistani jail. Being the sole earner of the family, I had to resume work immediately after my return. I was arrested again soon in the deep waters of Pakistan in March 2017,” Chauhan told The Federal.
Usually, a fisherman earns ₹8,000-12,000 a month in about two or three trips out to sea that last eight to 15 days each, depending on the availability of fish.
“Fishermen don’t have a say in how far the boat or the trawler ventures into the sea. That decision is taken by the tandel (captain) of the trawler. When we don’t get fish, the tandel is forced to go into Pakistan’s seas and sometimes even venture into Iran’s waters. The boat owner wants us to bring back fish worth at least ₹3 lakh. The expense per trip is around ₹2.5 lakh that the boat owners bear,” shared Chauhan.
“The boat owners don’t exactly demand it, but we are forced to go into the deep sea when we don’t get enough catch. Ten years back, we wouldn’t have had to venture so far,” he added.
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Dhanji Lodhari, another fisherman from Porbandar, was arrested by Pakistan maritime authorities in December 2016. Like all fishermen wives, Dhanji’s wife Parvati was also informed of his arrest by the boat owner. With the sole earner of the family gone, Parvati was staring at acute financial trouble. She took up the job of cleaning fish at the Porbandar port, a job that women of the fishermen community usually take up for ₹50 a day. However, she had to quit after her younger son fell sick.
“I was shocked at the news and did not know what to tell my kids. I confided in my elder son who was 10 years old then and had dropped out of school to work along with me,” she told The Federal.
“It took four months to go through the process of claiming the compensation of ₹150 a day that the government gives to the family of fishermen who get arrested. I shifted my younger kids from private school to government school. But I still had bills to pay; the house rent was ₹1,000 a month and electricity used to be about ₹ 800 a month. It wasn’t easy to spend 10 months without any earning,” 32-year-old Parvati recounted.
But that was not all. “While my husband was away in Pakistan jail, my younger son fell sick and I had no way but to borrow money from various people for his treatment,” she said.
“But we are daughters of fishermen and are married to fishermen. So we are used to the hardships of managing a family while men are away at the sea,” said Parvati, whose husband returned from Pakistan after a year-and-a-half, only to leave for the sea within a week.
Industrial waste over the years
About a decade ago, after the formation of the GIDC in Ankleshwar in South Gujarat’s Bharuch district, there was a sudden influx of chemical industries in the state. Chemical factories along Vapi and Ankleshwar in South Gujarat, petrochemicals along Vadodara, rayon and power plants in Saurashtra region and power plants and ports in Kutch came up over the years, leaving the coastline highly polluted.
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More industries have come up along the coastline of Porbandar district in the last four or five years. Noticeably, the dumping of industrial waste and untreated effluent continues into the sea despite regulations. Even the Porbandar municipality releases city waste into the sea.
“The Gujarat government does not check and control the effluent treatment plants and make sure they conform to the norms required for effluent release,” Rohit Prajapati, an environmentalist based in Vadodara, told The Federal.
“It is easier and cheaper for the industries to manage the situation by paying employees of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) and Central Pollution Board than run an effluent treatment plant regularly,” he added.
Large number of industries
In Saurashtra, between Bhavnagar and Porbandar, there are cement, rayon and ship-breaking industries. Indian Rayon and Industries Ltd in Veraval, Gir Somnath district, which is now owned by the Aditya Birla group, and Gujarat Heavy Chemical Ltd in Sutrapada, Junagadh district, are among the oldest industries in the area. Soda ash manufacturing units of the Tatas, cement factories of Adani and the Aditya Birla group and ship-breaking industries are based in Alang, Bhavnagar district.
“Indian Rayon and Industries has a 5-km-long pipeline that disposes untreated effluent into the sea in Veraval tehsil. The waste from Gujarat Heavy Chemical has affected coasts of neighbouring tehsils as well. Sutrapada, which is the worst affected, is home to about 10,000 small fishermen who are badly hit owing to sedimentation along the coast in the tehsil due to regular disposal of waste,” Bhagwan Solanki, an activist based in Gir Somnath district, told The Federal.
As of now, there is no sign of solution to this problem, leaving the fishermen in Gujarat in a state of anxiety.