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Fishermen of Bengal

Updated: May 29, 2022

West Bengal has been one of the richest state of India to cater lion share of the fish market since day of independence. Recently due to some political miscensure exercise, the export business has gone downtrodden. Data was reported at 1,770.310 Ton in 2019. This records an increase from the previous number of 1,742.090 Ton for 2018.

Fish Production: West Bengal data is updated yearly, averaging 1,447.260 Ton from Mar 1999 to 2019, with 21 observations.

In the past 10 years, fishermen from the lower castes in West Bengal have been ousted from the fishing bodies, say several experts. Under the 34-year -rule of the Left Front, the state was known to among the topmost in inland fishing. However, with the ousting of traditional fishing communities in Bengal, states like Maharashtra seem to be taking a lead in fish production.

When the sun sets resplendent, the fishermen takes rest at the bank of the river and weave the net together.

Every year at this time, fishermen get ready to set sail once the annual deep-sea fishing ban ends mid-June. The harbour at Digha in West Bengal’s East Midnapore district is typically chock-a-block with expectant trawlers and motorised boats, nets are spread out on the ground and needles fly as everything has to be in working condition before the annual launch. Labourers stack the underground decks of trawlers with ice, drums of drinking water and food.

But this is 2020 : nothing is moving to plan. First the lockdown battered the fisherfolk of Bengal and then Cyclone Amphan brought them to their knees. Next, on May 25, came the revised deep-sea fishing ban order from the Centre. While the implications extend to all fisherfolk, they perhaps weigh heaviest on the small-scale fishermen.

When the net is prepared, they keep it hanged for drying along the bank of river.

At the mouth of the chain that is the fishing industry lies the fishing sector. It is made up of three types of players — large-scale, middle-scale and small-scale fishermen. Type 1 comprises fishermen who use mechanised trawlers. These vessels can travel up to 370 kilometres into the waters. They stay at sea for a week to 10 days and then return. Of their catch, 75 per cent is exported. Type 2 uses motorised fishing boats. They too can do deep-sea fishing like Type 1 but cannot stay in the waters for so long and generally come back the same day or the next. These fishermen cater mostly to the Indian domestic market; only a fraction of their catch makes its way into the Bengal market. Type 3 is made up of small-scale fishermen.

Sometimes the wives of fishermen attend the fishing session.

There are different categories of small-scale fishermen. While some have motorised boats, others use the dinghy or small boat. They fish in the shallow seas, in the inland waters, estuaries, lakes and reservoirs. Some of them do not use a boat and catch fish with fishing nets. All these fishermen cater to the local market. Most of the fish that lands up at auction centres in Canning, Namkhana, Contai are supplied by them. These small-scale fishermen supply 80 per cent of the fish that is available in markets across Bengal.

Because often the women have to go for fishing in the river all alone.

Bengal’s small-scale fisheries have an annual turnover of Rs 500 crore. The peak season for small-scale fishermen is between October and February and for large and medium-scale players it is between June and April. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the nationwide lockdown on March 23, all fishing activity came to a standstill. The trawlers that were still at sea had to hurry back with their catch but the smaller players were left holding nothing.

Before learning how to go out for fishing , boys of the village keep practicing to gaze at the movements of fish in small ponds.

Fish travels from the fisherman to the arat, or wholesale market. But all of April and May, Bengal’s wholesale fish markets — Sealdah’s Baithakkhana Bazar and Koley Market, the Howrah wholesale fish market, the Digha Mohana storehouse and the Canning arat — remained shut. “We could not have the auctions as fish traders and wholesalers come in huge numbers from local markets and adjoining districts such as Howrah, Calcutta, Hooghly, Haldia as well as north Bengal; it is against social distancing norms,” says Batakrishna Patra, who owns an arat in Digha. “There was no fishing activity except for those who fish manually during high tide,” says Gobinda Das, another arat-dar from Canning. In such a scenario, cold storages were thrown open.

In normal years too, the arats shut in summer. Patra says in April, May and June, local business is completely dependent on fish pulled out of cold storage. But with all fishing activity suspended due to lockdown this year, there will be only half the regular volume of fish in cold storage. “In the long run, the supply of fish will be hit and prices will be sky-high,” says Pradip Chatterjee, who is convener of the National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers (NPSSFW).

The elder one waits at the boat till the dusk sets.

In West Bengal, over 27 lakh 67 thousand fishermen are now staring at livelihood threat as cooperative laws are being loosened, in violation of the West Bengal Fisheries Act, 1984, say experts. Fishermen allege that this is an attempt to open up the sector to the “inexperienced” persons affiliated to the ruling political party. There seems to be an attempt to open the sector to the corporates as well, they feel.

After the sun sets in, they calculate the daily wages before coming back home.

Over and above the hurdles put forth by Covid-19, small fishermen are now having to grapple with the widespread spoils and ravages of Amphan. Abdar Mallick, a fisherman from Sagar Island in South 24-Parganas, says, “The cyclone has destroyed our homes and property. Our fishing nets have been damaged. Our boats have broken into two. We are not in a position to go out fishing.”

The children was looking at the magnificient sunset scene. The broken boat depicts his lost hope.

According to the marine fisheries census conducted in 2010 by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute and the department of animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries, there are 188 marine fishing village panchayats in Bengal along four coastal districts. There are 76,981 “fishermen households” in the state. Among these, 53,532 are families of traditional fishermen who are also small-scale fishermen. The maximum number of households are in South 24-Parganas, followed by East Midnapore.

Even after the disaster, the fishermen built up the boat again for sailing.

Says Shyamal, “We do not have the exact number of fishermen affected by Amphan. But 90 per cent of them have lost their homes. The traditional fishermen live in houses with roofs made of tin, asbestos or clay tiles. They have nothing left now.” The state government has promised a cash dole of Rs 10,000 to every small-scale fisherman in order to procure new boats and nets. It must be noted that the smallest fishing dinghy costs Rs 80,000 and a small gill-net comes for Rs 25,000.

The child was wating at the same broken boat for his father to come back after dusk.

So, as I started my blog - there has been a pure miscensure exercise in handling this fishery industry from the end of Government. As long as they suffer from a crisis of state help and central intervention- further generation will not indulge themselves in this challenging profession. Rather they would want to be at the top and extract the labour from the lower socioeconomic strata. While there will be very few left to put some labour in this fishing excursion.

The fisherman plunges themselves in the river while fishing.

So I tried to capture all my pictures to depict how this class of people are thawed in the colors and beauty of nature. I intentionally outcast the poverty and harsh reality of their life as those have been published in several news already.

The Hope

  • Reference : The Telegraph India, West Bengal University of fisheries and animals, Newsclik India, Marine small scale of fisheries in West Bengal (book)

  • Author & photographer : Sayanava Saha Biswas.

  • Please do not use the photographs and the article without permission.

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