Fishing in troubled waters

THE pressure mounted by the traditional marine fishing community has once again prodded the government into responding, albeit in a Machiavellian manner. The Union minister for food processing industries, Tarun K Gogoi's announcement that the government is going to review the deep sea fishing policy is at best an argument made in the absence of any clear thinking on how to harvest Indian marine resources without damaging the ecosystem.

Gogoi's claim that the government has not allowed, and will not let, the big foreign companies into the Indian exclusive economic zone (EEZ) means nothing because he has also said that some foreign companies have been, and will perhaps, continue to be allowed into this sector in joint venture with Indian companies.

It is unclear as to what the government plans to do to ensure that millions of traditional fisherfolk and their dependants are not forced to walk the plank. The government has also not uttered a word, beyond homilies, about how it plans to ensure that fishing in the Indian EEZ is kept at sustainable levels and that short-term rapacious interests do not destabilise the marine environment. That these are not merely hypothetical concerns is evident from the disastrous examples in several Southeast Asian countries.

Gogoi has argued that the government cannot ban the private companies from the EEZ because of economic and employment imperatives. This is a bit difficult to swallow because, by the same logic, it is necessary to listen to the warnings being sounded by the traditional fisherfolk and environmental experts, most of whom agree that stormclouds are parked and itching to burst over Indian marine fishing. Employment can be nobody's case for allowing big, sophisticated and highly mechanised vessels into the Indian EEZ, because the number of people employed by them is only a fraction compared to those who make a living from the trawlers and the boats.

On the other hand, if the government is really keen to maximise economic benefits in a sustainable manner, it must leave fishing to the people, who have not only done it for generations but are also sensitive to the environment: further, unlike the outside commercial ventures, they cannot relocate once they have exhausted the local potential. However, for economic reasons, it may be worthwhile to allow private companies with their sophisticated technology and marketing resources into high cost and high technology operations like processing, refrigeration and marketing.

If the government can create mechanisms where the necessary scientific knowledge can be made available to the traditional fisherfolk, and if they can be given fair returns on their catch by the marketing and processing companies, there is no reason why the Indian EEZ cannot contribute substantially and sustainably to the Indian economy.