Originally Published 2013-12-31 12:42:49 Published on Dec 31, 2013
In seeking 'Scheduled Castes' identity, fishers across India, including those in southern Tamil Nadu coast, need to acknowledge the double-edged weapon that court orders have been in conferring 'tribal rights' on land-based SC communities.
Saving fish, fishing and fisheries
" Tamil Nadu fishers, upset and angry at the large-scale arrest of their brethren in Sri Lankan waters, have recently begun calling for including them in the list of India's 'tribal population'. In the company of brothers-at-arms from other parts of the country, Tamil Nadu fishers, protesting at Delhi's Jantar Mantar, recently cited the likes of Kaka Kalelkar Commission, Lokur Committee and the better-known Mandal Commission for demanding 'Scheduled Tribes' status and attendant benefits for the fishing communities spread across the nation's long coast.

In the spirit of the recommendations of such (other) committees and commissions, and the greater spirit, more recently enunciated by the Supreme Court in a series of cases, the 'Scheduled Tribes' population in the country has overnight become increasingly aware of the 'traditional rights' that they (should) have enjoyed over their forest lands and against the over-exploitation of those resources, including for the mining of minerals. The Constitution, as may be recalled, has ensured that 'tribal property' cannot be assigned or transferred to 'non-STs' or non-locals, as the case may be, to check against exploitation of the man and his means to livelihood. But judicial pronouncements, and, in a way, even increased and at times revived Naxalite activities in the tribal-belt have played a 'Boy Scout' role, so to say.

In the past, the exercise of such 'traditional rights' and 'specific rights' had been confined to periodic civil society-driven media expose of the tribal population in deep forests and the hinterland being exploited by illegal liquor traders, usurpers and rapists. Seldom had those rights been expanded to cover almost all 'forest property', both above and below the land surface, as 'tribal property', and conferring unspecified and unassigned 'ownership' and 'possession' on the local tribes.

The mood of the higher judiciary on tribal rights in recent years has two broad components. One is to protect the 'tribal owners' ownership and possession of the forest lands, from incursions and intrusion by 'outsiders'. Second and more important are the judicial pronouncements against 'over-exploitation' of the forest wealth, again by 'outsiders', including the State, State institutions and State-licensed private 'entrepreneur-exploiter'.

Read together, the spirit of the judicial pronouncements imply that at the hands of the local tribal population, there is little or no chance of 'over-exploitation' of the forest wealth that are otherwise in peril of being lost to humanity for ever. Translated, all these are aimed at ensuring relative longevity of natural resources that are available to mankind for development for a longer period than is otherwise expected and exploited.

'Non-traditional' communities in fishing

Extended to cover the 'fisher population', particularly along the Indian coastline, 'Scheduled Tribe' identity can work in more ways than one. Immediately, it would recognise the 'traditional rights' of the identified fishing communities declared 'Scheduled Tribes' under the law and Constitution, over 'fishing territories' and all protection, legal and constitutional that are available to other, non-fishing ST communities on the land.

Flowing from this will be governmental efforts at the Centre and in the States to enforce such 'traditional rights' to the exclusion of intruders, interlopers and impersonators, if they could be called so. Given the high cost of trawler and deep-sea fishing across the Indian coastline since the late Sixties, when the Centre identified it as a forex-earner with no big-ticket investments, 'traditional fishing communities' have suffered.

In most cases, including parts of southern Tamil Nadu, where it is a sensitive bilateral political issue with neighbouring Sri Lanka, there have also been large-scale complaints of non-fisher communities entering fishing in a big way, with larger investments on trawlers. Almost from the beginning, trawler-owners from neighbouring Kerala were at work, with the result, even today, fish-catch from southern Tamil Nadu are more often than not sold to 'cold storages' and fish exporters operating from that State. Whether Kerala trawler-owners or their later-day non-fisher Tamil Nadu counterparts, they seemed to have aimed at over-exploitation of the available fish resources, to make huge profits over the short term. There have also been observations that such over-exploitation in the early years of trawler-fishing was the (sole) cause for fish stocks on Indian side of the international maritime boundary line (IMBL) in the Palk Strait running dry.

This, more than the later-year indulgence by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) at the height of the 'ethnic war' in the country, was the main reason for Indian trawlers crossing the IMBL. This has also been the reason for the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil fishers in that country opposing 'trespassing' and 'poaching' by Tamil Nadu fishers, from time to time.

Replenishing shoals and stocks

In a way, 'fishing' is closer to 'farming' in conceptualising food supply chain, but identifiable with 'mining' in terms of over-exploitation. Unlike mining and more like farming, there are scientific methods to replenishing fish stocks, inland and on the marine fronts. Unlike forestry, replenishing exhausted stocks does not take years and decades. Like in mining, there however has to be an enforceable law and authorities tasked with implementing the same on the ground.

Replenishing shoals and stocks of fish is at the focus of fisheries' development and sustainable livelihood for fishers. However, the civil society and judicial awareness on over-exploitation of land resources has not got extended to marine resources, starting with seafood. At best, they have been confined to non-traditional and mostly 'urbane' issues such as 'Coastal Regulation Zone' (CRZ) and the like.

It is in this context, for instance, the 2010 agreement between fishers' representatives from India and Sri Lanka assume significance - and relevance. For obvious reasons that are mostly legal, it does not acknowledge the 'traditional rights' of Indian fishers in Sri Lankan waters. Yet, it does facilitate fishing by Indian fishers in Sri Lankan waters. Better still, it seeks to regulate fishing in those waters, and curb the continuing over-exploitation, which is well documented and acknowledged, too.

In seeking 'Scheduled Castes' identity, fishers across India, including those in southern Tamil Nadu coast, need to acknowledge the double-edged weapon that court orders have been in conferring 'tribal rights' on land-based SC communities. In the latter instance, no case has been made out against the fishers, in or by 'Green Tribunals' and 'Green Benches' of the courts that the beneficiary communities indulge in over-exploitation.

The argument cannot be extended to cover the fishing community. There, however, the argument still may hold good, that most 'exploiter-fishers', if they could be called so, do not belong to 'traditional fishing communities'. By extension, it could also imply that 'traditional fishers', left to themselves with their less aggressive methods of fishing, would protect their livelihood and also the lives of fish that they live on and live off!

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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