The traditional fishing community of Mumbai, known as the Kolis, faced a double whammy in the past 17 months, with the pandemic coupled with extreme climate events impacting the livelihood of this community. There are around 500,000 Kolis living in the fishing villages along the Mumbai coast. Government statistics show that 76,345 households in the state are directly dependent on fishing, while almost a million people indirectly benefit from it. The government has contended that a relief package of INR 650 million (provided by the state exchequer) would benefit 54,573 households. While there are steps taken to financially compensate the fishermen for any weather event-based losses, there is a need to bring in a more comprehensive approach to tackle the problems of this indigenous community and its needs.
The climate ordeal for this vulnerable group began in the second half of 2019, when Cyclone Kyarr and then Cyclone Maha hit the coasts in October and November respectively. It was the beginning of the fishing period, but the fisherfolk could not venture out to sea. This was followed by the winter months when the catch is usually lesser than normal.
The climate ordeal for this vulnerable group began in the second half of 2019, when Cyclone Kyarr and then Cyclone Maha hit the coasts in October and November respectively.
This was followed by the pandemic from March 2020 which brought in a lockdown and the closing of markets as a pre-requisite to social-distancing norms. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events along with large-scale fishing has resulted in a steep decline in overall fish catch. The middlemen or the distributors also faced trouble due to an increase in transportation costs because of the steep drop in demand and supply. The increase in the prices of kerosene, petrol, and diesel impacted both the fishermen and distributors, severely affecting the market cycle. With diminished savings, the second wave has also seen a growth in the number of loans at high interest rates. This disrupted the supply chains by causing a reduction in demand and a fall in prices of seafood. During the course of the pandemic, the west coast of India, once again witnessed two more extreme weather events namely Cyclone Nisarga in June 2020 and Cyclone Tauktae in May 2021.
The first wave of the pandemic was also followed by the government-instituted annual fishing ban which bars fishing during the months of June and July. The duration of the ban was reduced by the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry, and Dairying as a response to the loss of livelihood of the fishing community. The government of Maharashtra also announced a package ranging from INR 10,000 to INR 40,000—based on the type of fishing boat—for each fishing household as a one-time compensation for the loss of livelihoods.
The pandemic has also had significant effects on the existing social fabric within the community. The Koli women are facing dual problems due to gender discrimination and loss of livelihood amidst the pandemic. According to experts from universities such as Ambedkar University, IIT Bombay, and Shivaji University, the pandemic has also impacted the mental health of women. Prior to the pandemic, the Koli women had informal support groups that would support them financially and emotionally. The demands set by the Fishworkers’ Forum has been criticised as they solely focus on the fishermen who go out to the sea and ignores the struggles of fisherwomen who work on land.
The first wave of the pandemic was also followed by the government-instituted annual fishing ban which bars fishing during the months of June and July. The duration of the ban was reduced by the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry, and Dairying as a response to the loss of livelihood of the fishing community.
There has been help extended from coastal states like Kerala to their fisherfolk by providing free dry ration to the fisherfolks while the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh provide economic support as a form of compensation for the annual ban on fishing. The government of Maharashtra too has extended a scheme ‘Bachat and Sahuliyat Scheme’ to provide compensation for the fishing ban period. Under this scheme, if a fisher deposits INR 1500, he/she receives additional INR 1500 from both the central and the state government. However, it is seen that lack of awareness, savings along with the transfer of money from multiple sources has resulted in few beneficiaries of the scheme. Maharashtra had also issued a Kisan credit card to specific groups of people employed in inland fisheries, aquaculture, and marine fisheries. Through this scheme, loans can be availed, with the scheme witnessing success in terms of 4 lakh beneficiaries in the year 2020.
Efforts from within the community and by NGOs, have helped the Koli community stay afloat during the pandemic. Due to the unavailability of distributors and markets, fishing cooperative societies have started delivering the fish directly to the people. These societies have also changed the nature of the business by focusing on supply-based sale rather than demand-based sale, which means they market what they catch.
There is a rise of fish sale related start-ups that are helping members of the fishing community to reach larger markets and adopt sustainable practices during the course of the pandemic. Numer8, a digital startup for example, provides the fisherfolk with weather data and helps them estimate catch locations, making it easy for sustaining their fishing.
While the relief provided to the Koli community is largely related to financial help, the state government and Mumbai city corporation should seize this opportunity to ensure that there is an inclusive recovery planned for the fisherfolk, which takes care of their livelihood needs.
Efforts from within the community and by NGOs, have helped the Koli community stay afloat during the pandemic. Due to the unavailability of distributors and markets, fishing cooperative societies have started delivering the fish directly to the people.
The state government must begin by including members of the fishing community in the drafting of the strategy to tackle the effects of climate change. Due to the rise of India’s coastal water temperatures, fish numbers have taken a serious hit. The disaster management cell of MCGM could also provide support by assisting the state government in preparing a response strategy in light of natural disasters such as cyclones, heavy rainfall or irregular tides. Such responses would not only minimise damages but will also provide safeguards to the members of the community through financial compensation.
The government could launch livelihood diversification programmes as has been done in some other parts of the country, which would decrease dependency on one sole sector for earning income. These programmes could further incentivise women to form self-help groups (SHGs) and take up alternate livelihood options that provide multiple benefits. The southern districts of Maharashtra have seen some SHGs launch their own programmes which revolve around environmental conservation and eco-tourism. The government may also further support start-ups similar to those mentioned above, which aim to support fishing communities and their activities.
A combined effort by all the relevant stakeholders and inclusion of the members of the community in the planning process would empower the community to face any challenges such as those brought about by climate change or epidemics.
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Aryan Bajpai was an intern with the Urban Policy Programme at ORF Mumbai.Read More +