“Look at our hamlet. Behind us, there are tall buildings, and in front of us a rising ocean,” Palayam says, as he gestures to how fisherfolk in Chennai’s Urur Olcott hamlet are boxed in. “Where will we go from here… where will our children go?”
Chennai’s shoreline is dotted with small-scale fishing hamlets facing an uncertain future due to rapid urbanisation and consequent climate change. Urur Olcott, which falls in the Chennai South constituency, is home to nearly 500 families. A hereditary profession, the small-scale fishery is a low-technology, low-capital and labour-intensive occupation carried out near shore as opposed to trawlers and mechanised boats in the deep sea.
“I hear water levels are rising because snow-capped mountains are melting. We would probably have to relocate soon. And if we do, we’d be lost. Aside from the fish trade, I don’t know what else to do,” says Palayam, 55. “Unlike during my father’s time, there’s so much pollution now. The rivers running through the city that drain into the sea are polluted, and the fish that come from the rivers are dead,” he adds.
Their daily catch has also decreased over the years. Since the tsunami in 2004 and more recently, Cyclone Okhi in 2017 and Cyclone Gaja in 2018, Palayam says fishermen can no longer predict the currents or tell what fish they will get. “Today, there are no rains and strong heat. While we used to be able to say when it would rain, no one can tell anymore,” he says while claiming that from a 100 varieties of fish in the near sea, there is now only a handful available near shore.
Dr Raghu Prakash R, the principal scientist at the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (ICAR CIFT) under the Ministry of Agriculture, says climate change is likely to have an impact on marine life. “Due to warming of oceans, there is a chance that fish will shift to cooler, deeper areas. The first impact will be on the small-scale fishermen,” he tells IndianExpress.com.
While there are reports to indicate that species are declining in coastal waters due to climate change, Prakash says there is no evidence of this. Natural calamities, however, he says have definitely had a physical impact on the marine ecosystem.
Regulation of small-scale fishing
With small-scale fishing being an artisanal profession, there is little data available on these communities. According to 2017 data published by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), nearly 90 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s total fishing output was contributed by large-scale fisheries.
Pooja Kumar, a researcher at the Coastal Resource Centre, says, “Government data on fish catch is primarily from the harbours, where trawlers/mechanised boats fish at a large-scale in the deep sea. Small-scale fisheries are difficult to monitor as they are beach-based occupations.”
Not only does the data show a big gap in terms of contribution of small-scale fisherfolk to the economy, but also leaves fisherfolk with a lack of government support. Many of the fishermen from Urur Olcott, for instance, are forced to travel to Kasimedu fishing harbour—nearly 10 kilometres away—to inquire and learn new fishing techniques from their counterparts.
Echoing this, Raghu says most technology that has reached the industry has been limited to mechanised fisheries.
Opposition to Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules
The Centre’s amended Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules, introduced last year to govern the country’s 7,500-kilometre shoreline, have not made it easier for small-scale fisherfolk as it proposes “enhanced activities in the coastal regions thereby promoting economic growth”.
“There is no documentation or mapping so far by the government that recognises small-scale fisheries. This creates a loophole that allows for development along the coast, as it is viewed as open and unused space instead of a place of livelihood for fisherfolk,” Kumar explains.
According to a report by the Centre for Policy Research, there were 1,965 public responses to the draft CRZ notification that was released by the Central government last year. Of this, 1,388 or 68 per cent “raised serious objections” and asked for it to be scrapped.
“There was no dialogue with fishermen before enacting this law. These are arbitrary conditions imposed on us,” Palayam says.
Despite representatives from the fishing community approaching the government to take a stance against the CRZ rules at the Centre, there was no objection raised from the AIADMK-led government in the state.
Incidentally, the Congress is the only party that has mentioned the CRZ notification in its manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections. Promising to protest coastal zones, it has said the Centre’s steps to dilute regulations will be reversed.
For small-scale fisherwomen, increasing economic activity on Chennai’s beaches hardly provides opportunities. “We can’t sell our fish on the beach as it requires registration… it will also mean having to pay taxes,” explains T Kala, a 43-year-old fisherwoman.
“It’s different from our time. Now, the most important thing for our children is education,” her friend Sarla adds.
Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, fisherfolk in Urur Olcott have one more grouse: garbage. Several allege the sitting MP of the constituency, Jayavardhan Jayakumar, has taken credit for solving the problem despite “not doing a single thing”.
The Chennai South constituency seat is held by Jayakumar, the son of Tamil Nadu Fisheries Minister and AIADMK MLA from Royapuram D Jayakumar. He became the youngest Member of Parliament at 26 after he was elected to the Lok Sabha from this seat in 2014, and has been renominated by the AIADMK to contest the April 18 polls.
Jayavardhan is pitted against DMK’s Tamizhachi Thangapandian, the daughter of former minister Thangapandian, Isakki Subbiah of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) led by TTV Dhinakaran, and Rangarajan of Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM).