Vincent, a fisherman from Vizhinjam in Kerala, says the lockdown restrictions have caused some damage to the fishing industry but adds that there are positive aspects to it.
He is happy that bidding is not allowed now and there are no middlemen between them and the buyers.
Bidders, who have a ready supply of cash, work in harbours and buy fish in bulk from fishermen for low rates. In some harbours, they don't permit fish sellers to buy the fish directly from the fishermen.
"There are many local bidders here who don't do any work and get money. They buy fish from us in large quantities for cheap rates and sell the stock at higher rates. Now we get good value for the fish we catch," Vincent says.
"During these lockdown days, people directly come here to buy fish The fish sellers also get fish from us directly, some collect fish to deliver at houses in the city. Even though the price is a little high, people are ready to buy," he adds.
Bidders are in a more powerful position than the fishermen and this has always been an issue for the community.
"In many parts of Kerala, they are called tharakans. These middlemen pay an amount in advance to the fishermen and the latter become debtors to them. Poor fishermen are bound to give the fish to these people at the rates that they dictate. What happens is that the fishermen get a very low income and the people who finally buy the fish pay a much higher price. These middlemen are also responsible for adulterating fish with chemicals to preserve it for a longer period, " T Peter, National Fishermen Forum General Secretary, says.
In Valiyathura, a comparatively small fish landing centre in Thiruvananthapuram, there are no middlemen and fish retailers directly buy the fish by bidding for it themselves.
"Here we bid for the fish directly from the boat owners. We don't have bidders who take a cut. Earlier, they were around and would take a major portion of our income. But luckily, it was stopped," Mariya, a fish seller from Valiyathura, says.
Peter says that bidding is a major issue in all the large harbours in Kerala. Smaller fish landing spots like Valiyathura, however, are exempted from middlemen.
"No traditional fisherman is ever free from poverty. We are always in need of money. That is when these tharakans offer us a huge amount in advance and tempt us. We may need the amount to pay our daughter's college fees or for her wedding expenses or to renovate our house. Once we have taken the money, we have to give them double the quantity of fish for that amount. If we sell the quantity of fish we give them directly through fish sellers, we get a good income. In a way, our helplessness was being misused by these people," Benny, a fisherman from Kochi, tells TNM.
Peter calls it a revolutionary step by the government to ban bidding as part of social distancing in harbours. The price of the fish is now being decided by a harbour society.
"We have been demanding this for the last many years. Matsyafed (Kerala State Co-operative Federation for Fisheries Development) by the Kerala government was formed to avoid middlemen and ensure good income for fishermen. But even that was not so successful as these middlemen dominate us. They are backed by political outfits," Peter adds.
He says that cooperative societies should function in the harbours to ensure good rates for the fishermen, and customers should get fresh fish at reasonable rates.
"There are more than 220 fishing villages in Kerala and more than 110 inland fishing villages. Each village should have cooperative societies. Let all political party members from the community be a part of it. It should be between fishermen and their customers. We don't need middlemen," he says, noting that many fishing villages have successfully implemented this arrangement.
He also says that in other states like Maharashtra, the cooperative societies play a major role in the development of the fishing community.
As per the new government rule, all traditional fishing except fishing using gill nets (kambavala) and seine boats (thattamadi) are allowed. Kambavala and Thattamadi, where more than 50 fishermen form groups for fishing, were banned in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus. In any case, not many fishermen follow these practices. There are more than 20,000 traditional fishing boats in Kerala and there are only 4,500 kambavala fishermen in the state.
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