Fishmongers in West Bengal have fallen silent after the Centre’s announcement on demonetisation, with markets remaining largely empty even though the price of fish has plummeted.
Many major wholesale fish markets have already closed, while others are on the verge of closure. Fishermen in the state are falling further into debt, while the state fisheries minister has described the situation as a “disaster for the poor”.
After the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, fishermen soon realised the extent to which their lives had been thrown off-gear.
Take for instance those involved in shutki (dried fish) trade. Considered a delicacy, fishermen traditionally harvest the dried fish in November and get paid around Rs 50,000 per harvest in Bengal.
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“But right now, traders are telling fishermen that they have no money and can’t pay. So basically, fishermen have an option of selling their harvest without getting paid, or alternatively letting it go waste. It is an obvious choice, and they’re hoping that they will be recompensated,” said Debashish Sanyal, secretary of South Bengal Fishermen Society.
He added: “The problem is compounded for them because the same fishermen have other costs to bear for which they need this money.
They need to pay for fuel for their trawlers, and the labourers they have employed to work on the shutki harvest for the past two months. In order to pay these costs, many are sinking further into debt.”
On the other end of the supply chain, traders at wholesale fish markets have been impacted, not just by lack of demand but also an increasing supply of fish, with many transporters not being able to operate due to the prevailing liquidity crunch.
Take for instance the Howrah fish market — one of the largest in the country, with a turnover of Rs 10 crore per day.
According to an official at the market: “We are on the verge of closure. This is even though demand and supply are at their peak. Without high currency notes, the entire trade has stopped,” he said, adding that the market supplies almost 10,000 retailers in and around Kolkata.
The market remained abandoned over the last week. Fishmongers who would otherwise raucously advertise their wares sit quietly. The bustling bylanes of the market remain deserted, while prices continue to plummet. A mid-sized Hilsa, which had ranged at at least Rs 450 per kg, is now being sold at Rs 125 per kg, while prices of Bombay duck which usually hovers at around Rs 30 per kg at wholesale markets has come down to only Rs 5 per kg. Still there are no customers.
“We can’t go on like this. It is soon going to become a matter of life and death for us. We are poor people, always just one financial disaster away from sinking into poverty. This is the worst disaster that has happened to us, and the government tells us that things will stay like this for another month. We won’t survive,” said Dippen Chakraborty, a trader.
The situation is potentially crippling for the extremely sensitive economy in the South-24 Parganas area which includes the Sunderbans, Namkhana and Diamond Harbour. Fisheries constitutes almost the entirety of the local economy in the area, where according to the West Bengal Planning Department’s records, almost 40% of the population is below the poverty line.
“In areas such as Kulpi, which are very densely populated, the ATMs and the banks are not able to cope with the number of people who are queuing up. Cooperatives set up to aid fishermen in situations like this are equally cash strapped and are giving Rs 500 per week,” said Shiben Mandal, a resident of Kulpi.
Meanwhile the state government admitted that the entire situation was a “disaster” for fishermen. State Fisheries Minister Chandranath Sinha told The Indian Express: “The situation is a disaster and it could have been avoided. Poor fishermen are the ones most affected. We had through our efforts increased the production of fish, but this is a setback which has been created by our own government. This is the reason why Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is protesting the issue. The Centre took this decision without thinking about the issue, and as a result, fishermen have been thrown out to sea.”