Drowning in debt: Mumbai’s fisherfolk struggle to survive extreme weather and dwindling catch

Mumbai's fish economy is changing. The city's prized fisherfolk are losing the battle against extreme weather, state negligence and debt.

When 36-year-old Rupesh Patil started fishing 20 years ago, taking over the reins of the business from his father, he used to catch a boat full of fresh Surmai (seer fish) or Javla (shrimp) regularly. “But the income in this business is not like before,” he says. Patil is a fisher from Worli Koliwada in Mumbai, where other fisherfolk like him who fish at the nearby Cleaveland Bunder have been complaining of a falling catch for the past few years. 

Adding to their woes are the rising fuel prices and the destruction that was left behind by Cyclone Tauktae in May 2021. Fisherfolk families are now either burning through their savings or are trapped in a constant debt cycle. 

Fishing boats and nets damaged by cyclones

“Almost all fishermen who work on the banks suffered some damage to their boats due to the cyclone. Such a cyclone perhaps occurs once in 100 years. Even our nets were destroyed,” says Sanjay Baikar, president of the Vanchit Machchimar Haji Ali Sahakari Sanghathan. Cyclone Tauktae damaged at least 1,215 fishing boats and 21,836 fishing nets in Maharashtra, as per a report by the Central government constituted Inter-Ministerial Central Teams. 

In the aftermath of the destruction, the Maharashtra government announced Rs 25,000 as compensation for fully damaged boats and Rs 10,000 for partially damaged ones. 

However, the amount was insufficient as a boat can cost lakhs of rupees. “How do you expect someone to restart their business in this amount? I do not know a lot of people who have even received their share of the compensation,” says Devendra Tandel, president of the All India Machhimar Kruti Samiti.

Sanjay Wategaonkar, who was the Assistant Commissioner of Fisheries (Mumbai city) till January this year, says around Rs 14 lakh were distributed as compensation when he was in charge. “The latest figure is around Rs 36 lakh and the process is still on,” he says. 

Compensation for cyclone damages not easy to avail

A 51-year-old fisher from Colaba’s Koliwada, Dilip Koli attempted to avail compensation but was later told by the fisheries department that he was ineligible. 

“One of my boats got completely ruined in the cyclone, officials even documented it and the money was sanctioned but the fisheries department kept it held up. They told me that when the cyclone happened, the paperwork on my boat was not completed and it did not have insurance or a permit,” he says.

On the plight of those like Koli, Wategaonkar says there are conditions to be met to receive compensation. “It is mandatory to possess an updated licence and insurance. If one does not meet the required eligibility criteria, they do not get the money,” he says.

He added that he had requested higher authorities to relax the eligibility criteria, but that has not happened yet. Another fisherman living in Worli Koliwada, Samir Chandu (34) has two fibre boats but only one is used by him and his brother, they have named it Geetanjali. About 28 feet long and 9 feet wide, Geetanjali suffered damages worth Rs 10,000 in the cyclone. 

He says he spent on the repairs from his pocket and had no idea that the government offered compensation for the partially damaged boats. “We have insurance but that only covers the entirely damaged boat and not repair costs,” Chandu says.

a fishing boat on the sea
Samir Chandu’s boat that was partially damaged. Pic: Eshan Kalyanikar

Unseasonal cyclones disrupt plans

In India, there is an annual ban on fishing for two months. The country’s eastern coastal states impose a fishing ban from April 15th to June 14th, and the western coastal states like Maharashtra impose a ban from June 1st to July 31st. 

One rationale behind the annual ban is to protect fisherfolk from loss of life and damage to their boats, says Tandel. As June begins, fisherfolk in Mumbai pick up their boats using cranes and get them to safety. 

However, last year’s cyclone hit the coastal city before the annual ban kicked in. This meant the boats were still anchored in water and exposed to the wild winds at the time. “We were intimated by the authorities before the cyclone came but none of us thought it would be so bad,” Baiker says. 

Read more: Impact of climate change in Mumbai to increase, according to new report

Investments fail, with dwindling fish catch

Some like Patil saw an opportunity in the post-cyclone destruction and bought a damaged boat, which is 30 feet long and 7 feet wide, much bigger than the 23 feet long and 7 feet wide boat he already owned. 

“The small boat doesn’t allow good business, I bought the second-hand boat for 1 lakh 60 thousand. Along with the repairs, I spent 5 to 6 lakh on it,” Patil says. 

He had managed to pull in the money for the boat after keeping his family’s jewellery as collateral, hoping to catch fish in abundance using his new boat once the annual ban ended. 

“September, October and November is the season of Kolambi (prawns). But only one day in September was my net full of tiny Kolambi. There was nothing in the winters either,” he says. 

The fisherfolk look forward to the days after Holi, from the end of March to the end of May, as that is when they can catch a lot of shrimp.  

Selling off the family gold

“This year there was no catch. It was only by the five to six days towards the end of May that we caught a lot of javla.” The annual ban has begun and there is no more fishing now till August. How much did Rupesh Patil make in the last fishing season? He has Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 left with him, after deducting other costs. 

“I held myself back from venturing into the sea often in the last season. The fuel is more expensive than ever, if I am not catching much then I am just spending more. I would rather stay home.” 

Patil has two old parents, a wife and a 5-year-old son to take care of. With all expenses mostly on his head, he can’t be dependent on fishing anymore. Sometimes he works on someone else’s boat and gets petty cash in return, other times he is on the lookout for work as a short-term private driver. 

“More than making a living from fishing, my life has become all about paying Rs 20,000 monthly instalment for the loan that I took on the boat,” he says. He pays off as much as possible from his pocket and borrows the remaining amount from his friends and relatives, the debt cycle continues for him.

Like Patil, Chandu also has Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 left in his hand after the last fishing season. He lives in a joint family of ten and takes temporary security or packing jobs at a mall to get by.

What comes to the rescue of many fisherfolks like Patil and Chandu is traditional family jewellery. “They say fishers tend to show off a lot of jewellery but this is exactly why we invest in gold. When an adverse situation arrives, we sell off gold or keep it as collateral,” Chandu says. 

However, all the gold in Chandu’s family is vanishing little by little before his eyes. “In the last few years, all we have done is sell off our traditional gold. If our income is so low, what are we going to save? All the money I make goes into the maintenance of the boat,” he says. 

He has a 2-year-old daughter and believes his parents’ generation was the last to catch fish in abundance, so much so that they could build enough savings. “I regret dropping out of college and joining this business. At least I could have had a stable job by now and saved some money for my daughter.”

Why is there such a low catch?

The rationale behind the annual ban is also to allow various species of fish to breed so that there is a bigger catch after that, Tandel says. 

Until 2012, the annual ban started on June 1st and ended on August 15th, putting a halt on fishing activity for a total of 75-days instead of the present 60-day ban. 

“Some fish breed during these 60 days but that is not the same for all species. Many fishermen are demanding the extension of the annual ban period to three months so that more varieties of fish could breed,” Tandel says. 

He vouched for a four-month annual ban, two months starting from January and two months starting from June. Contrary to the claims of dwindling catch, a recent report by the Central government’s fisheries department shows an upward trend in the number of fish caught from the sea. 

The catch was 28.11 lakh tonnes in the year 2000, it went up to 32.5 lakh tonnes in 2010, and in 2020 it was 37.27 lakh tonnes. However, Tandel urges a more nuanced analysis of the data. 

He says this data reflects the period post the nationwide lockdowns, where there was no fishing activity and more time for the fish to breed.  

“Another factor is that they are not counting the size or type of fish,” he says. The bigger the size of a fish, the higher its value. “When the fish comes on the shore, we want it to be grown in age. But all we get are small fish which have low market value,” he says.  

Tandel insists that instead of looking at the annual figure, analysis of monthly data would give a clearer picture. “All fish that come on the dock are included in the data. So even the fish caught illegally during the annual ban period are also a part of this data,” he says.  

Coastal projects add to the woes of fisherfolk

Fisherfolk and environmentalists strongly believe that infrastructural projects along the sea line, like the Maha Vikas Agahadi’s flagship coastal road project, also lead to a drop in fish catches. With the formation of the Eknath Shinde-led BJP government in the state, BMC officials told the media that the project will continue to progress with ease as it was never a subject of a “political controversy”. 

Clear impact of climate change

Then there are extreme weather patterns, like the heat waves and the cyclones the country experienced in recent times, that impacts the livelihood of fishing communities.

A recent study conducted by a senior scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) Roxy Koll shows a 52 per cent rise in cyclones over the Arabian Sea in the last two decades along with a 1.2 degrees Celsius to 1.4 degrees Celsius rise in the sea surface temperature.

One impact of rising sea temperature is on phytoplankton — known as plants of the sea that serve as food for a wide range of aquatic life. Another study by Koll shows that the Arabian Sea has seen an alarming decrease in phytoplankton due to rising sea temperature.

While talking to this reporter, Koll also warned of more extremely severe cyclones like Tauktae in the future. He explained that cyclones and monsoons derive their energy, the heat and moisture supply, from the warm tropical waters of the Indian Ocean. “Now, the Indian Ocean is the fastest-warming tropical ocean basin. As the Indian Ocean warms, it supplies more heat and moisture for weather systems to intensify. Cyclones form and intensify rapidly. Monsoons result in heavy rains and floods,” Koll says.

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