Kerala’s catch hits FTA barrier

India’s free trade agreement with Thailand has already hit the fisherfolk of Kerala hard. As the catch dwindles, fishermen here are left to fend for themselves

KA Shaji / Kochi

After the adverse impacts of import policies of the Union Government effected the suicides among farmers, it’s the turn of fishermen. The country’s coasts are all set to witness similar suicides with the free trade agreement (FTA) with Thailand coming into force.
Though the FTA, which permits tariff-less fish import, has been in force since September 2006, the coastal regions have started experiencing its full effect only since January 1, 2007. The FTA permits intermediaries in the field to import 86 commodities and products, including commercial and non-commercial value fish species, without paying any import duty, including sardines, mackerels, anchovies and crabs. The import influx have affected fishermen, especially along Kerala’s coast, since the fishworkers here depend largely on oil sardine and mackerel. The cheap availability of other popular varieties like cuttlefish, squid, shrimp, halibut, sole, sea bass and pomfret also dampened the hopes of the sector to ride to recovery.
“Duty-free import has drastically affected the price of local catch. Fishermen would have the same fate as those of the farmers of Vidarbha if the government continues to permit import of fish, whether raw or processed,” warns Lal Koyiparambil, president of the Kerala Independent Fishworkers Federation.According to him, the only FTA beneficiaries would be the big seafood industry players. The availability of cheap fish from Thailand would not only take away the right of local fishermen in fixing the price of their catch, but also affect the scope of export. According to Joseph Xavier Kalappurakkal, secretary of Kerala State Boat Owners’ Association, most seafood manufacturers are now negotiating with Thai firms to buy cheap fish. “Who would prefer the local products if mechanisms for cheap import are in place,” he asks.The impact is visible in major fish landing centres like Neendakara, Vizhinjam, Puthiyappa, Vypin, Beypore and Mappila Bay. Even local distributors are quoting the lowest prices in fish auctions.With a near total absence of sea food processing units in the auction process, prices of most export-oriented fish varities are dwindling. Sardines and mackerels are the worst affected varieties. “It’s a crisis with many dimensions. With no income to support our families, we have no choice other than committing suicide,” says T. Dasan, president of Arayasamajam (Collective of Fishermen) in Puthiyappa near Kozhikode.To justify the government decision, the Marine Products Export Development Authority had conducted seminars along the coast. “Though the seminars revolved around conditions in the FTA, most of our queries regarding the very survival remained unanswered,” pointed out Kalappurakkal. “The WTO Doha round reclassified fish and fish products as ‘Non Agricultural Market Access’ products. Now, it looks like the end of the road,” says Koyiparambil.Compared to other states, the FTA’s direct impact would be severe in Kerala as one-fourth of the one million active fishermen spread across nine states are here. Six lakh people eke out their living in fish vending and processing and they have started realising the FTA’s adverse implications. Kerala, which has 28,000 country rafts, 27,000 mechanised crafts and 5,000 trawlers, contributes Rs 12,000 crore per year as foreign exchange through marine export. Most leaders of the fishing community are blaming the Union government for their plight. According to them, there is no unified Union ministry that could look into their problems.“Four ministries — agriculture for fishing, commerce for fish export, food processing for fish processing and finance ministry for funding — handle the fisheries sector. Multiple control ends in lack of coordination,” says Koyiparambil.
(Published in Tehelka)

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