September 2, 2021 2:32:56 am
ISMILE KOTAL and other workers frantically cut pieces of fiberglass to paste on the plywood-sheet walls rising above the deck of an under-construction fishing trawler at Mahadev Enterprise, one of the 72 boat building yards in the coastal Mangrol town in Gujarat’s Junagadh district. The sultry weather doesn’t bother them as they are racing against time to complete the last six boats of the season.
Save Mahadev and a dozen odd yards, the rest of the boat yards are deserted, the half-built boats encroached by tall weeds, telling the tale of an industry that is seeing its worst slump due to the Covid-19 pandemic and frequent cyclones.
Manufacturers say, 250-300 boats were built per year in Mangrol till 2015-16, but it was 50 last year.
In the nearby Sahyog Boat Building Yard, teams of workers specialised in creating fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP) structures, installing engines, colour-coating, etc., work on three under-construction fishing boats. Hussain Pathan, one of the partner-owners of the yard, is busy inspecting them and updating Joaquim Rodrigues, one of his clients from Goa, on phone.
Boats made here are in great demand in the coastal states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Goa.
Dhabi Agencies on Bandar Road, belonging to Hussain Kadu (59), was abandoned for a year as the boat builder and his four sons shifted focus to coconut cultivation. “Last monsoon, we got orders for three boats before the Covid lockdown began. Since then there are no orders. Therefore, we spent the last one year on our 13-bigha orchard,” Kadu, who joined his father in the boat-building business in 1989, says. “We have not seen such slump in business in decades,” he adds.
Gujarat is among the leading marine fish producers of the country. Gujarat Fisheries Minister Jawahar Chavda had told The Indian Express during Cyclone Tauktae that there were around 20,000 active fishing boats, a majority of them conventional wooden vessels.
As per the Gujarat government data, the state accounted for 6.12 per cent (8.42 mt) of the fish production in India in 2018-19 . The state, exported seafood worth Rs 5,202 crore, accounting for 11.17 per cent of the total exports of seafood from India that year. The budget allocation for fisheries department also rose from Rs 366 crore in 2019-20 to Rs 376 crore in 2020-21.
However, the Gujarat Fisheries Central Cooperative Association (GFCCA) started building FRP boats in Mangrol in 1980s and within three decades, Mangrol became the largest hub of FRP boat building industry in the country. By 2015-16, yards here stopped building wooden boats and fishermen from Gujarat as well as Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu prefer FRP boats built in Mangrol, industry leaders say. The raw material for building FRP boats are manufactured in Gujarat whereas for constructing a wooden boat, sal wood has to be imported from Malaysia.
Small FRP boats, which require minimal maintenance in their initial 10 years, allayed the apprehensions of trawler owners and gained popularity over the last decade.
Around 250 to 300 such boats were produced per annum in the years preceding 2015-16, says Harun Padaya, president of Mangrol Fiberglass Association, a chamber of the industry. From there on, it has been a downward slide to just 50 boats last year.
“The production started declining with diminishing returns for fishermen due to cyclones and dwindling catch. Covid-19 pandemic and the soaring diesel prices were the last straws. Hardly 50 boats were built last year and the number is unlikely to go up this year,” Padaya says, adding, the boat-building industry employs around 6,000 people.
Kiran Chumadiya, partner of Mahadev Enterprise, agrees. “Fishermen place orders for new boats in the beginning of the monsoon so that they become available by the time the fishing season starts. Mahadev used to build around 30 boats per annum till a few years ago. This year, we don’t have further orders once we complete these six,” Kiran, says, adding one of the six boats being built was his own.
Pathan, whose firm specialises in designs preferred by fishermen of Maharashtra and the southern states, says, “Usually, we build seven boats every year. But beyond the three we are constructing now, we don’t have any order at present,” he says.
Building a wooden boat takes up to four months while an FRP boat can be rolled out in two months. But the work on some boats has been affected due to the slump.
One such half-built boat lies on Mahadev’s yard. “We had leased space to Noah Fiber, an FRP boat building firm, on our yard a year-and-half ago for building a boat. However, the fisherman reported inability to pay anything beyond the initial Rs 4 lakh to Noah Fibre. The firm invested around Rs 8 lakh of its own. But that was hardly 15 per cent of the total money required to build the boat,” says Dinesh Koriya, another partner of Mahadev Enterprise.
Fisheries Minister Jawahar Chavda could not be reached but officials said that the Covid-19 pandemic and disruption in the Chinese market has hit the state’s fishing industry at large. “The state government is issuing new licences only for smaller boats. This can be a constraint for boat building industry. The pandemic and falling exports volumes have also hit the fishermen. They don’t have money to get new FRP boats… Consequently, there’s a slump in boat building industry,” an officer of the fisheries department said on condition of anonymity, adding the government does not provide any assistance to fishermen for new boats.
Prices of Malaysian sal wood and wood of gum Arabic tree sourced from central Gujarat for wooden boats have almost doubled over the past five years, builders say, tilting the scales in favour of FRP boats. “A fisherman has to spend Rs1.5 lakh per year on maintaining his wooden boat whereas for FRP, the maintenance is nought during initial years and around Rs 50,000 after a few years. Even tandels (captains) and their crew prefer FRP boats over wooden ones as the former offer better safety at sea. But due to successive poor seasons and disruption caused by Covid-19 have left the fishermen with little capacity to invest in new boats,” says Dhanji Oza alias Babubhai, president of Mangrol Boat Owners Association.
Tulsi Gohel and Mukesh Panjri, presidents of boat associations of Veraval and Porbandar, the two largest fishing harbours of Gujarat, say, 90 per cent of fishermen prefer to have an FRP boat built after scrapping their wooden trawlers. “Costs of maintaining a wooden boat are high but a steel boat costs Rs 1.5 crore, while an 80-foot FRP boat costs around Rs 80 lakh… therefore, we are going for them,” Rodrigues, a fisherman from Mormugao whose family owns six trawlers, including two FRPs, says.
“They don’t build FRP boats in Maharashtra or Karnataka so we come to Mangrol,” he adds. The boat being built by Pathan is the third FRP boat in his family’s fleet.
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