Is Environment A Labour Issue?

by | Jun 22, 2021

Early last month, I watched Seaspiracy, Kip Anderson’s second project to shed light upon a new dimension of the human-made environmental crisis. It’s a documentary film that takes the viewer into the literal and metaphorical depths of the crisis unfolding at the seas, chalking it up to one factor – commercial fishing. The various experts and stakeholders being interviewed are repeatedly asked one question – is there anything such as sustainable fishing? For the most part, the experts disagree.

Dare I say that as I watched this documentary, laden with depictions of gruesome violence, these moments of denial that sustainable fishing is possible were somehow equally unsettling. To my mind, it wasn’t just possible, but also something that exists. For that matter, it existed no farther than in the very state that I was born in – Kerala.

Before Seaspiracy, I had watched scores of Malayalam movies. From the 60s classic Chemmeen (translation: Prawn) onwards, the lives and livelihoods of fishing communities have been constant tropes in Malayalam films, although perhaps with generous romanticisation and stereotyping. The image of fishing etched into my mind, consequent to growing up watching many of these, wasn’t at all one of groups of men heading out to the sea on large, mechanised trawlers. Rather, it was of hand cast nets and country boats that could accommodate no more than 10-15 men at a time.

But the films aside, is there a single Malayali out there who hasn’t seen at least one photograph of a silhouetted fisherman casting a fishing net into water, or that of Chinese fishing nets, set against the backdrop of Fort Kochi’s spectacular orange hued sky? Those were always the first images to spring up to my mind each time I heard the word ‘fishing.’

Seaspiracy had me wondering – were the images in my head outdated? Had mechanised trawlers indeed replaced the canoes and country boats?

Statistics from 2016 indicate that Kerala has over 36,000 registered fishing vessels. Of these, the vast majority, nearly 30,000, are country crafts fitted with outboard/inboard motors. Of the remaining, approximately 4000 are registered as mechanised vessels and just over 2500 as non-motorised country crafts. Although they only make up about 11% of the total registered vessels in the state, data indicates that despite being relatively lesser in number, mechanised vessels consistently trump other kinds of vessels when it comes to fish landings (the amount of fish harvested from the sea and brought to land).

In 2016, Kerala’s total marine fish production amounted to a little over 5 lakh tonnes. Contributions from the mechanised sector made up a whopping 63% of these landings. In comparison, despite accounting for over 83% of the fishing vessels in the state, the share of motorised crafts only amounted to 36%. Non-motorised country crafts on the other hand, rather close to mechanised vessels in numbers (nearly half), accounted for a meagre 1% of the total fish landings.

This variance in fish landing, a trend noted in fisheries across the country, is largely attributable to the type of fishing gear used by each kind of vessel. Mechanised vessels typically use modern gear like bottom trawls (bag shaped nets with a wide opening that are dragged along, or close to, the sea floor) or large mesh seines (vertically hanging net that’s first laid in a ring like shape using floats and weights, with the bottom then pulled together gradually to trap the fish).

Both seines and bottom trawl nets are widely regarded as unsustainable – often associated with large amounts of by-catch (unintentional capture of non-target species like dolphins, sharks or turtles), and damage to the ocean floor. Though over the years motorised and non-motorised vessels have also evolved their fishing techniques to use modern gear such as seines, the relative size of the nets accounts for much of the variance in fish landings.

But this shift from traditional and more sustainable gears to modern unsustainable ones was by no means naturally occurring. Rather, it was a product of a series of state led interventions which, to the detriment of traditional fishermen, went horribly wrong.


The modernisation of fisheries in Kerala had started in the 1950s, with the start of what’s called the Indo-Norwegian project which followed a tripartite agreement between the UN, India and Norway. The initial, ostensible aim of the project was to introduce small mechanised boats in the region and to establish the infrastructure required to improve local marine fish production rates. Soon however, with an increasing demand for prawn in international markets, the focus shifted to capitalising on this demand through the large scale harvesting of prawn using trawlers.

By the 70s, trawl boats had started encroaching on the territory of local, traditional fisherfolk. And with that, a project originally started with the intent of improving the livelihood of traditional, caste based and artisanal fisherfolk, had endangered it instead. Resentment grew amongst traditional fishing communities.

The overexploitation of local fishery resources by a small fleet of mechanised trawlers had meant that those still continuing to use traditional fishing techniques, constituting the vast majority of the region’s fishing community, now had much lower fish landings than before. The state’s response? Introducing traditional fisherfolk to outboard motors and modern fishing gear like ring seines in a bid to increase their landings. Though some sections of the community took to the modernisation, this move was fraught with its own share of oversights.

The high amount of fuel required to operate a vessel with an outboard motor was economically unsustainable. And bafflingly enough, the higher amount of fish landing itself became a problem with the market price being brought down. A third issue was the environmental impact of using outboard motors that ran on kerosene. Chemical contaminants released from outboard motors significantly affected water quality to a point when fish had started smelling of kerosene.

Via Roy V Nagendran

The fishing community responded to this crisis by switching to inboard engines that offered better fuel economy as well as near negligible potential for water pollution, and by forming fisheries management committees and trade unions that discouraged over-fishing. Over-fishing by mechanised trawlers however, has continued through the years, and has only grown worse.

In response to the rapidly depleting marine resources, the state government introduced a monsoon trawling ban in the late 80s, with the intent of protecting marine life during the spawning season. Short term trawling bans however, do little to offset the damage done through the year. The environmental efficacy of this move aside, it’s still one lauded by traditional fisherfolk, who reap relatively better yields during the trawling ban season than the rest of the year. The impact of large scale commercial fishing hasn’t just been on the income that traditional fisherfolk draw from the trade. A more insidious implication has been the gradual shift from traditional community based models of fishing.

Traditional fishing in Kerala is typically characterised by collective ownership of vessels and fishing gear. Fishermen here work together in a group. The share of the total harvest that each one receives is determined by their contribution to the total investment at the time of buying fishing gear or the vessel. In cases of individual ownership, the produce is divided equally amongst those part of the crew, with one share kept aside for the owner of the vessel (two if the owner is also part of the crew). Regardless of the ownership status, each fisherman is also entitled to some quantity for home consumption.

While the core activity of fishing remains male exclusive, women typically take over once the produce reaches land, engaging in activities like vending and processing. Traditional fishing communities then, are largely self-employed, with direct links to the market. Only a small proportion of fishermen from the community work as casual labourers.

The growing prevalence of large scale commercial fishing activities like trawling however, threatens to systematically displace these sustainable, community based models of employment through the gradual depletion of resources that traditional, caste based fishing communities depend on. The ever widening gap between those utilizing mechanised vessels and those continuing to rely on non-motorised canoes and country boats will, down the line, leave traditional fishermen with no choice but to turn towards alternative sources of employment.

Given the marginalised status of lower caste fishermen, the readily available source of employment would be to shift to being a labourer on the trawlers of affluent, large scale fishermen, or work in processing units set up to cater to the export market. This will not be the first time in history that marginalised communities are stripped of resources that they relied on for their livelihood, only to be pushed into exploitative informal labour.

About two thousand kilometres away from the coast of Kerala, the northern state of Rajasthan has been witness to a similar predicament. In Southern Rajasthan, factors like water shortage, poor soil quality, an unyielding terrain, and general desert like conditions are commonly cited as push factors that cause the local tribal community to migrate to cities to seek employment in the informal sector. But few know that these adverse geographic conditions and the consequent shift to dependence on migration are relatively recent phenomena.

In a paper tracing the history of the creation of an “exploitable labour force” in southern Rajasthan, Jain and Sharma (2018), articulate this process of the “alienation of marginalised communities from their means of production,” and their consequent economic and social vulnerability. Jain and Sharma note, “(The) drastic socio-ecological decline (of Rajasthan) is often presented as a de-politicized, geographical destiny of the region.” In reality however, this ecological decline is a product of state led anthropogenic activities.

The British, for instance, had demarcated forest land in the region as state property. What ensued was ruthless commercial extraction that rapidly depleted the resources of a region that once featured a thick forest cover, leaving behind a resource starved state. The post independence Indian state is equally culpable. The Rajasthan Forest Act of 1953 prohibited Adivasis from the use of forest resources, cutting off their access to what constituted a primary source of sustenance.

Unregulated mining during the same time period caused further, irreversible ecological damage. Cut off from their source of livelihood, Jain and Sharma point out, Adivasis turned to seeking employment in the mines and logging companies engaged in the active destruction of resources that their sustenance depended on, becoming unsuspecting parties to it.

What we see ensuing in Kerala, and possibly in coastal regions across the country, is perhaps the late stages of a similar scenario. While the state has at times resisted third party commercial fishing in the region, the long standing policy of driving a shift to modern, high produce yielding but unsustainable fishing practices amongst traditional fishing communities, in a bid to improve their income levels, is no better. Within such a model of development, today’s yield is simply one borrowed from the future.

What the context of Rajasthan and Kerala point to, is the close intersection between capitalist environmental exploitation and the genesis of human exploitation that’s designed to keep the wheels of the same system turning.

Today, as the labour employed on trawlers express disgruntlement over the imposition of a 52-day monsoon trawling ban in Kerala despite an ongoing lockdown, one realises just how layered and complex the intersection between labour and environmental issues really is. The pitting of one set of workers against another is just one amongst those complexities.

When the livelihood of a Bengali migrant worker employed on a trawler in Kochi is pitted against that of a traditional fisherman, what constitutes a just and fair solution?

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